Gift, Bonus or Tip: Call it what you want, but keep in mind….

by cv harquail on December 17, 2008

I’m intrigued by the comments in the previous post about a Christmas/ Holiday tip for your au pair… it seems that some readers are taken aback by the idea that one would tip ones au pair. As a trained social scientist, I see these reactions as "data" — but what is the data telling me? Let’s think about it….

Here’s a data sample:20060729230720__dsc7703 copy

from ‘Bill Gates": Wow. I had no idea people “tipped” their au pairs. To me, tips are for doormen and housecleaners, and our au pair is in a different category. I guess it’s just another way to label the gifting that goes on this time of year, though, so I won’t get stuck on the nomenclature.

Other terms used were "distasteful" and "a little befuddled".

Clearly, the idea of "tipping" an Au Pair doesn’t sit well with everyone.

Why is that?

Au pairs, as a form of childcare giver, are differentiated from nannies and babysitters by the fact that they live with our families. When you learn about au pairs, you’re told that they should be treated as ‘part of the family’ — this is part of the story/myth/romanticising/truth about having an au pair.

But what is also true is that an au pair is an employee of your family who is paid by you to do work for you.

While we don’t "tip" family members, we do "tip" people whom we pay for providing us with a service.

The idea of ‘tipping’ an au pair may feel distasteful or just not right because it makes salient to us the truth that an au pair is someone we pay. She may be special in our lives, a key part of what makes our house a home, a young woman whose life experience we can contribute to — but your au pair is also a young woman working hard for you to earn some money.

It’s tempting to treat an au pair as either/ or — she is either a family member or she is a paid employee.

But keep in mind: What makes the role of an au pair unique is that an au pair is BOTH like a family member AND a paid employee.

Hypothesis 1: If you as a host parent

(a) have a close personal relationship with your Au Pair, and/ or
(b) like your au pair very much as a person, and/or
(c) think of an au pair more as part of the family than as an employee who lives with you,

— then the word "tip" is less comfortable than the word "gift" for describing any ‘extra’ you might give her at this time of year.

pretty ditty flickr joy garland

I bet that many of us prefer to emphasize the ‘family’ part, and that’s why for many of us our ‘gifting’ at this time of year includes what I describe as both "cash and prizes’.
That’s not to say that giving your au pair just money means you don’t care about her as a person, or that giving her sweaters, bathrobes and software means you don’t appreciate all the hard work she does. Every family/host parent finds the right balance for each particular au pair and each particular au pair relationship.

The rest of the story

Not anticipating the discomfort that the word might trigger, I used the word ‘tip’ in the post for very instrumental (i.e., non-philosophical) reasons, including:

  • Every one of the 2,783 Holiday Tipping Guides that I’ve looked at has included "au pair" as a category of person whom one should tip at the holidays. Even if you aren’t thinking of an au pair as someone you tip, every regional newspapers’ Emily Post is. (Of course, she probably didn’t have an au pair…).
  • I chose the term "tip" because I anticipated that it would be a good keyword for directing traffic to the blog. Usually I’m not very SEO attentive, but…. since that post went up 4 days ago, 38 people came to Au Pair Mom after searching the terms "tip", "au pair" "cash" and "holiday".

So, what do you think? Is this a plausible explaination of the phenomenon, or is there more to think about?


Maya December 17, 2008 at 6:04 pm

I can totally understand why you used the word ‘tip’. Good for you for increasing traffic to this site.

However, I am one of those who is not comfortable with the word ‘tip’ and I don’t even fall into the category of people you listed above.

My previous au pair who we have re-matched after 5 months started out as what we thought was a good au pair. However, over time, besides her child duty related issues, she has completely distanced herself from us. I suspect that she just plain did not like us. Which is fine. She would disappear in her room as soon as her ‘time was clocked’ so to speak. She did not feel like the part of the family.

But, my issues with the word ‘tip’ is also with the ‘suggested’ guidelines for the amount of the said ‘tip’. Quite frankly, it is not in the budget for us to ‘tip’ my current new au pair, or any au pair for that matter, a week’s worth of salary. I just cannot afford that.

So, my new au pair who has been with us for 3 days now will get a GIFT for Christmas. It will be a small token gift and the rest will be cash, simply because I don’t know her well enough to get her something she might want or not have already. Plus, she did say that she might want to join the gym, so the cash I do give her may supplement her gym membership.

However, since I will be giving her a ‘gift’ and not a ‘tip’, I don’t feel like I have to fit it into any guidelines of the appropriate amount. I will give her a generous gift that is within our budget. I do hope that she likes it and appreciates it. But this is the best I can do.

cvh December 17, 2008 at 6:21 pm

WOW that was FAST! I think you were responding while I was adding tags!

So Maya, would it be accurate so say that your category is ‘new AP’, or is it ‘outside our budget’? Or both?

Yes, there are two important caveats when it comes to either ‘tips’ and/or ‘gifts’
(1) how long she has been with you and
(2) what you can afford.

You shouldn’t be expected by an au pair or by yourself to give her a big ‘extra’ of any kind after she has been with you only a week! You haven’t much of a relationship with her- as family or employee/er – to acknowledge. Giving her a smaller gift is just being kind, because you want to include her in your Christmas.

(Holding aside the length of time issue…) With regard to the actual amount, I can understand that giving the equivalent of one week’s pocket money may be beyond the budgets of many AP families, especially this year. This is why I suggest between $75 to 1 week’s pocket money. We each do what we can and what we think is best, given our situation.

Still, families who are budget constrained as well as families who are stingy may have to deal with the repercussions of their au pair discovering that all the other girls in her cluster got more than she did. When that happens, it can really &*#%.

But if you plan ahead, by being kind, warm, welcoming, and generous on other dimensions, this shouldn’t hurt your relationship at all.

I do hope she appreciates your gift and what your family has to offer her. May the best gift be a full year of a good relationship!

Maya December 17, 2008 at 6:41 pm

I think for me it comes down to the budget, not how long my au pair has been with us.

My new au pair is getting the same gift in monetary amount as my old au pair would have received, even though she has been with us for a just a week and will not even be with us on Christmas. As a side note, we do not celebrate Christmas.

What I do find interesting is that my current new au pair will get cash simply because I have only known her for a week. If my old au pair would still be with us, I would have given her cash too, because I really did not know anything about her. Her taste in closing was too expensive for me (can we say $200 shoes) and I did not know anything personal about her since she never shared __anything__.

Thinking of how other au pairs are treated in our cluster is what got me in trouble in the first place with my old au pair since she told me that none of her friends have handbooks and that she shouldn’t ether. If I did a handbook with her, she would have either still be with us or she would have applied for transition a long time ago. So, I will let the cards fall as they may.

I do hope that we will be able to develop a good relationship with my new au pair. She seems very nice, kids already are getting attached to her (yesterday they ganged up on her during the snowball fight :) ). They have been teaching her Chanukah songs and she has been teaching them songs in Spanish.

cvh December 17, 2008 at 6:53 pm

Hi again Maya-
I think handbooks are critical, so I think you did the right thing in introducing one. Having a handbook is something I plan to post on soon– maybe you’d want either to share your handbook or write a guest post on why you wanted to introduce one?

You’ll know she’s got really great potential if she can translate those Chanukuh songs into Spanish. What’s the Spanish (Sephardic?) word for latke? :-)

Marguerite December 17, 2008 at 7:56 pm

All of my host families have always been very,very generous to their aupairs when it came to holiday gifts.
I’ve had a Muslim, Buddhist and Jewish families who went to great lengths to make sure that their aupairs had nice Christmas celebrations.
Recently, one of my aupairs asked me what she could get her host family as a nice gift. Many aupairs do feel like part of the family and want to do something generous albeit on a limited budget. What are the nicest gifts/ gestures you have received from your aupairs ?

Dawn December 17, 2008 at 8:45 pm

Your hypothesis definitely works for me, cvh. Although I certainly recognize that our au pair is someone we pay for a service, we think of her as MORE a member of the family than an employee. (For example, if she were a “pure” employee, we wouldn’t take her on family vacations, include her in family events, entertain her friends, etc.) So calling our holiday generousity a “tip” just doesn’t seem to fit the relationship. Instead, we give her holiday “gifts” that are about equivalent to what we spend on our children. (Which does still fall within your suggested guidelines.)

Marguerite, the very best gift one of our au pairs ever gave us was to give us a framed “collage” of photos of our kids that she’d had taken by the host mom of one of her friends, who was a professional photographer. I have lots and lots of pictures of my kids, but the thing that was/is so special about those is that they are the only ones that I haven’t taken myself or made all the arrangements for (made the appointment, selected the clothes, got the kids to look and smile, etc.). In our case, these happened to be pictures from a “professional photo shoot,” but I think I would have been just as excited about them had the au pair taken them herself. It was just so wonderful to actually be SURPRISED with new pictures of my kids that I hadn’t taken myself or seen before!

Rayann December 17, 2008 at 10:54 pm

I’m not in any way offended by the use of the word “tip” as related to an au pair, it’s just not one that I would use because our au pair is a member of our family. In a way, I somewhat relate the money we give her every week more along the lines of the allowance we give our kids (nice allowance, huh?). :-) Everyone in our household takes part in all the necessary responsibilities. The kids do laundry, clean bathrooms and take out the trash among other chores – and we give them part of the household income as a result. Same applies to the au pair – she gets a share of our household income as a result of helping out with the household responsibilities. So as a result, tipping wouldn’t seem to apply as much as giving her a gift.

On the other hand, I know families that considering their au pair an employee and nothing more. In most of these situations, the au pair feels the same way and the relationship works nicely for both parties. Those families, I think, are more likely to “tip” their au pair.

I think whichever word you feel more comfortable with is going to depend on your relationship with your au pair, and I don’t think “tip” is necessarily a bad thing.

Ann December 23, 2008 at 1:45 pm

I’m on my third Christmas with an au pair (our second, first one stayed two years), both of whom have felt like part of the family. One reason is that we pre-matched with both (their native language is the same second language that I speak with my daughter), but another is that my daugher is an only child, which enhances the “big sister” feeling of the au pair.

If you can afford an extra week’s stipend as a cash gift at holiday time, I think that’s fine. For budget and expectation reasons, however, we have divided our “AP gift and unexpected assistance” dollars throughout the year. At Christmas I’ve given them a modest material, practical gift (long silk underwear or raincoat or fleece jacket) of similar value as what I’m spending for other relatives as well as a cultural/outing gift (christmas concert tickets with our family and ticket to our city’s new year’s celebration). I think it would be odd for her to receive much more than what she sees other relatives exchanging around the tree.

For birthday, similar approach with practical travel or clothing-related gift along with a big fancy party inviting AP friends etc. (Our first AP appreciated this, since in her home country adult birthdays don’t get the balloons and cake and candles approach).

But then I have offered unexpected financial assistance later in the year with travel-related expenses (costs of visas, passport photos, travel insurance, new passport format etc), health-related expenses (acupuncture for back pain when AP threw her back out), back-up childcare for extra vacation days, and shipping extra luggage home at end of two years (believe me, this was not insubstantial). At such points I think unexpected “gifts” of direct or indirect financial assistance are more appreciated by AP’s then when gifts are customary (Indra, birthdays). I also spend a lot of time especially when au pairs arrive reading local newspaper, Internet to find free or inexpensive cultural and social events, concerts and outings they can go on with their friends.

Annabelly November 4, 2009 at 7:50 pm

I’m an Au Pair for a Muslin Family and on my b-day was my 1 month with they, so I didn’t expect a gift. But I did expect “something” on Eid, but they didn’t, even when I bought something for the kids.

I should expect something for Christmas? I am Christian, and for December I will have 9 months with them.

Anon November 5, 2009 at 4:36 pm

Never expect anything and you won’t be disappointed, only pleasantly surprised.

EUROaupair August 27, 2010 at 3:35 pm

The money my parents give me every xmas could easily be considered a ‘tip.’ I’m not complaining..

Marina(ex-AP) May 7, 2011 at 3:12 pm

I arrived at my hostfamily’s house a month before my birthday. Before my arrival she had asked me whether I’d prefer tickets to a broadway show or tickets to see Norah Jones(who I had listed as one of my favourite artists at the time). I chose Norah Jones and my hostmum and I went together and had a wonderful evening.
I got the day off on my actual birthday and also received a $50 giftcard to the mall to replace some of my clothes that got ruined by my smallest ‘hostchild’ who was starting on solids.
4 months later, for Christmas, I received a MP3 player, a few small gifts, stocking and also a check of $150(the weekly stipend at the time). This wasn’t called tip, bonus or gift…somehow I find the word ‘tip’ slightly offensive.
I don’t remember what I received during my second year.

I gave the grandparents a (snapfish) calendar both years and I know they were hoping the Aupairs after me would continue my tradition.
I arranged to have a pencil drawing made from a picture of the girls, which I gave my hostparents for Christmas.

Comments on this entry are closed.