Help Your Au Pair Learn When to “Pick Her Battles” with Kids

by cv harquail on December 6, 2014

How do you teach the art of knowing when to let things slide?

So much of good parenting and good caregiving is about being consistent.

on the slideKids thrive on routine. They need consistent explanations, consistent expectations, and consistent consequences so that they learn how to make good choices with their own behavior.

Yet, so much of good parenting and good caregiving comes from knowing when to make exceptions, to ‘let things go’ or to ‘pick your battles’.

Personally, I’m only occasionally aware that I’m ‘picking my battles’ or letting something go.

I wish I were more deliberate about (1) recognizing when a day or event is particularly challenging, (2) deciding to let something go, (3) *really* letting it go, (4) explaining to the kids (or not) that I’m choosing to let it go, and (5) feeling fine about it.

It gets even more complicated when I’m not the only adult in the house. There have been times (many times, actually) when I’ve chosen to let something slide (e.g., wet boots and coats left in the middle of the entryway because dinner was ready and we were starving) and my DH has come home, seen what I’ve permitted, misinterpreted what’s going on, and then insisted that the girls ‘get in here right now’ to ‘clean up their mess‘.

Even when I want to let something slide, I have to get the other adult to go along with me. And when that other adult isn’t the one who waited 20 extra minutes at the market, already shoveled the walk three times, and patiently listened to the sob story about the terrible, awful, worst math quiz ever, it’s harder for them to recognize that I’m letting it slide, and NOT ‘failing to follow the guidelines’.

You know what I mean.

Utah APMom is discovering a similar kind of challenge with her au pair:

Our family is just entering our second year of hosting an Au pair. Our second  Au Pair is really fitting in with our family and I think she is enjoying us as much as we are enjoying her.

Today I noticed something that I wasn’t sure how to communicate. Our 11 year old son got a short night’s sleep last night and was in a grumpy mood after school. Our 3 year old son seems to be starting a cold and was grumpy and contrarian all day. I had a late meeting and our typical routine was disrupted and the AP worked a different schedule.

In other words, it was your run of the mill hard day.

As an experienced mom who feels that relationship and connection are more important than rule-following when it comes to child-rearing, I could see that everyone needed a break and small things needed to “slide.”

The old adage “pick your battles” comes to mind. It felt like a night for no battles, so I didn’t make a big deal when the 3 year old was running around at dinner or the 11 year old was playing video games instead of helping set the table.

However, I could see the AP was stressed about it. I think she worries about consistency, something that I think is highly emphasized at the Au pair school and in trainings.

I’m all for consistency, but in this case could tell that everyone just needed a break and that focusing on connection rather than correction was key. (italics from cv, b/c I really believe this too)

How do other host families teach this subtle art that many parents acquire instinctively or through hard experience?

How do you teach the art of knowing when to let things slide?

Image by Kim Smith on Flickr



anonymous December 6, 2014 at 8:44 pm

I imagine I will be pilloried for this, but I’m actually of the opposite school of mind than the OP and CV on this point. I believe consistency and obligations are paramount, and I believe that the same rules or parameters are to be followed each day. I will acknowledge that a child is tired or frustrated and doesn’t want to put the boots away/sit at the table/set the table instead of playing video games/pick up toys etc., but I insist that they are done each and every time. I expect my AP to insist on this also. I don’t believe that life cuts us breaks just because we had a bad day, or are tired, are running late, or are frustrated about our math test. I believe that structure is paramount and that following the rules is calming, and letting things slide makes things stressful. I pick my rules and parameters and behavior expectations for my children carefully and with intentionality, with purpose and values in mind, so I don’t feel that picking battles is helpful, because if it is a rule or parameter in our house it is important to my DH and me and thus letting it slide is not an option.

WestMom December 7, 2014 at 12:01 pm

I am with you on this one. What OP describes are expected behaviors in our home, and those are not the things we simply ‘let slide’. Kids don’t get a free pass at being a civil part of the family. What we are flexible with, is missing the extra-curricular obligations, or I will take over a chore if a kid is too busy with homework or not feeling well.

Picking battles shouldn’t really be something expected from AP. I need AP to follow my directions and be consistent. If HM decides to bend the rules, the new directive should come from mom, not from AP. And HM should not be ‘changing the rules’ once AP has already given instructions to the children. I feel this somewhat undermines APs authority…

HRHM December 8, 2014 at 6:42 pm

I’m with anonymous on this one as well. Of all three of us (me, AP, DH) I am by far the biggest stickler (DH falls dead last and picks very few battles, LOL). Life isn’t fair. On my crappiest, tiredest, longest days, I still have to perform as close to 100% (at work and at home) as possible. It’s a lesson best learned early.

anonymous December 9, 2014 at 5:36 pm

I am a regular poster, but went anonymous for this post. Upon reflection, I wonder if some of this has to do with not only HP personality (which clearly it does) and if some has to do with HM/HD profession? If I remember correctly, HRHM, you are a surgeon? And in the military? I am an attorney, and I am sure my attitude is influenced by that as well — while not at the life and death level of a physician, in my profession, and at my job, I can’t let things slide, it is unethical and inexcusable. I can’t not follow procedure, not proofread, not ensure every single step is done, not perform 100% etc. just because I’m sick, or tired, unhappy.

This certainly plays out explicitly with our APs re my expectations for their work. I.e. you don’t stay in bed if you have a cold; you don’t get time off if you have cramps; you don’t skip chores because you are sad and mopey because of a Skype fight with your boyfriend back home, you don’t oversleep — you show up when your on-duty time starts ready to be “on”.

Similarly, I am not a “let things slide”/”let things go”/”pick your battles” parent – and I have a lot of balls in the air (6 kids, job, volunteer position that is many hours/week.) Although you might say I metaphorically pick my battles in the global scheme by deciding what my kids rules, parameters, behavior expectations are, but they aren’t just regarding big issues, they also relate to the mundane, every day rules.

Thus, in our house, one showers every night before bed — doesn’t matter if we get home late, or tired, or don’t feel like it. That is a house rule based on out personal hygiene expectations. Same thing re brushing teeth. Similarly, when the kids come home shoes/boots go in the cubbies, coats are hung up, backpacks unpacked immediately EVERY. SINGLE. TIME. Too bad if we are hungry, too bad if one would prefer to collapse on the couch, too bad if you are not feeling well (in this category I am putting routine illnesses, not that one must hang up one’s coat on the way to the ER!). Someone has to keep things picked up, and we have decided that each child will do so after themselves. Every child must make their bed every AM, laundry must go in hamper immediately after showering, every single time. You must always eat at the table, with silverware, you may not leave the table until the meal is over and you are excused, you must clean up your dishes after you leave the table, you must help wash all dinner dishes before leaving the kitchen. If your job is to take out the trash before dinner, then you do so. Every day.

In our house the kids do all the pet chores ( and we have lots! 2 dogs, 5 cats, 2 bunnies and several small, caged pets.) Pet chores must be done no matter what you have on your plate, what kind of day you had, or what mood you are in. Dogs must be fed/watered/walked; cats fed and litter boxes cleaned every single day; Little animals need food and water/cages cleaned, even if you have a test tomorrow or a project due, or you were up all night with a cough.

If your cellphone must be on the shelf by 9pm, then it must be on the shelf by 9pm — manage your life around this expectation. The internet goes off at 10pm every night for (older) kids, again, manage your life and schoolwork around these parameters — I don’t want to have to pick when to battle about it and when not to – I find it easier if the rule is the rule is the rule.

And re backtalk, I will never let that slide. I honestly feel like if I let it slide sometimes, how would I ever get back my street cred that when I say “you may not speak that way (to me/to dad/to AP)” if it really means “you may not speak that way when I decide I have enough energy to enforce it”

In case folks are wondering, my kids are 6, 8, 10, 12, 14, 15, so there are some house rules that apply to all, and others that are age based expectations, but all of the foregoing (except cellphones and internet rules, which don’t apply to the younger ones because they have no phone/very limited Internet (certain days/times) ;-) ) apply to all 6 of them.

AlwaysHopeful HM December 9, 2014 at 7:01 pm

It really is fascinating to me to see how different we each are from each other, even though we share some common experiences and views. I don’t think it’s profession-based. I think it’s just priorities-based. I’m also an attorney and would never let a client down or fail to fulfill my professional duty. But, from my perspective, I also know that when I don’t feel 100%, I’m not capable of giving 100%, even if I’m pushing through. So, I lean on the team around me, and allow them to do the same when needed, with the goal of getting the thing done, even if not done “by me.” I’m a big believer in self-care, which I think ultimately benefits everyone.

At home, I have to say that a lot of the things folks have non-negotiable rules about I just don’t care about. I don’t want to raise a boor, but i just can’t get excited about things I see as rules for rules’ sake. So, while my son knows the rules, and they are enforced, I have a hard time getting worked up if we are at home and he uses a spoon rather than a fork to eat his peas, or picks up his french fries with his fingers, or doesn’t put his napkin in his lap. For me, life is too short. I do have broad non-negotiables in areas such as safety and homework.

I will readily admit that having only one child may make a difference. If I had 6, I don’t think I could possibly manage without strict adherence to rules.

My current au pair is very rules-based, and that is a source of stress for him in dealing with my son. (Although somehow AP still can’t seem to get done the instructions I give him.) He tends to swing from either being an absolute stickler for my son following every rule, or giving up completely and just burying his head in the sand. While we’ve discussed how to let some things go and focus on what is important in the moment, it is hard for him to see how one rule could be more significant than another, because to him “a rule is a rule.” And it’s hard for me to spell out which rules can be let go, under what circumstances, and in what way, because for me, it’s based on an evaluation of the situation each time. Our previous au pairs seemed to better click with understanding which things to insist on, and which to let go in the moment.

One other thing– as I read through what I wrote, it sounds like utter chaos in our home! Really, it’s not. 9 times out of 10, my son just does what he’s told, and the 10th he does with reinforcement. The rules only slide when it makes sense in the moment, but in those cases, I don’t sweat it.

Should be working December 9, 2014 at 7:41 pm

Sometimes I’d love to have side-discussions about parenting regardless of AP issues. SO, phones go on a shelf at 9pm and internet goes off at 10pm? Which means I am not the only parent out there (contrary to my kids’ claims) that operates this way??

I do find with electronics use that exceptions and battle-picking are NOT WORTH IT. Any exception is a lever to pry open the WHOLE DISCUSSION about why we have these (“insane”, “cruel”) restrictions.

anonymous December 9, 2014 at 7:57 pm

You mean the “stupid” “unfair” “archaic” “inane” “ridiculous” “dictator” “harsh” “baseless” “stoneage” and my personal favorites, “Stalinesque” and “antidiluvian” rules..?!

Returning HM December 9, 2014 at 9:15 pm

Boy if you get called those things for phone on the shelf at 9 and internet off at 10, what must my 12 year old be saying that we have NO phones in the house AT ALL and no access to any internet during the week (limited access on Sunday mornings)??? :-)

Taking a Computer Lunch December 9, 2014 at 11:04 pm

Child #2 earned good grades and received a later bedtime. His profile on the computer did not, although as I type this, he is using a laptop to circumvent that (although when I walked away, he was listening about the Hapsburg Empire, which I’m sure very few teenagers think is fun – and he did have a concert this evening – so there is some give). He has figured out how to circumvent limitations on media time, too – although I push back much harder than DH. I’m the parent who touches his dresser and tells him to put his cell phone back on it or I’ll take it downstairs. DH has already given up, but I figure up if you give up on a child who’s 15, where do you stand when he’s 17? (But still, child #2 is much better behaved than I was at his age, so I shouldn’t complain!)

Anon for this comment December 15, 2014 at 9:13 am

I’ve been called “Hitler in knickers” due to my electronic rules, no phones at the table, and a “sin bin” for breaking any electronic related rule.. the offending game/console/phone etc goes into the sin bin 24 hrs (no matter what the offence – even for “forgetting” that the phone was in your pocket at the dinner table and a text goes off.. sin bin…

Taking a Computer Lunch December 6, 2014 at 9:01 pm

It may be amazing to some of you, but The Camel, with her 55 IQ (meaning that as a teenager she functions around 10-14 months) can insist and resist – just because she’s a “big baby” doesn’t mean she hasn’t been around the block. Recently, The Camel has been having trouble eating dinner. She’s a little overweight, so if the AP (or I) try to feed her and she resists, I insist that the meal be packed away for breakfast and that we call it quits. There or no sense in the AP feeling frustrated to the point of tears or trying to put every last bite in The Camel’s mouth only to have it end up in her food bib or on the floor. So even with a severely retarded child, picking a battle may be necessary.

Nevertheless, I tend to agree with anonymous. The tasks need to be done. I may differ in the how. With child #2, we have a “When will you do…?” Doing the task is not optional, but child #2 gets to control the when. It works amazingly well for his personality, and we encourage our AP’s to use it (although he’s a teenager and they don’t have much interaction with him – other than to chauffeur him).

Skny December 6, 2014 at 11:42 pm

I agree partially with above posters.
We have absolute rules such: no hitting/hurting, you throw food or play with food, your meal is done… And we have small variants… Those are not real rules, but things I model. So I will not allow my 2yo to throw or play with her food (I take plate away and finish meal), but I don’t call her on using her hands to eat (instead I model use of silverware and encourage her to use it.
I don’t allow hitting/pushing/kicking… Any type of physical aggression, but I do let them fight over things, yell, struggle (such both girls holding toy fighting for it). As long as they are safe, I try to let them figure out. If I see that one is going to get physical, I intervene, block and say something: “you want x, your sister has it and you are frustrated/mad… I won’t let you hit her. Can you think of other ways to resolve it?
Last 2 Au pairs would try to get involved and discipline them even though I was there looking at them, and they were off. They would yell at 2yo to use silverware or else, or take toy away, force them to rotate/share…. Or something else unrelated to those examples.
It bothered me because really? Au pair is off, I am there in charge, I have talked in past about… Do they really think I am that incapable that they need to go over me and take over?
Anyway… I would always have to wait and remember that unless someone’s safety is in jeopard they need not to worry about discipline during their time off…

Dutch AuPair December 7, 2014 at 5:07 am

Hey! I have been an au pair since october this year and have been Reading your blog like a bible! I love the atmosphere around here and the incredible interaction of the readers! As an au pair this blog has alread helped me so much even though its meant for host families really. I think this is a great topic to talk about.

From the view from an au pair what I can tell you is that personally I find it hard to pick my battles with the children sometimes if, for example, I am the one that has been with the kids all day and they seem to all need a break so I let some thigs slide but at the moment the mom comes home I dont want her to think I dont take my responsabilities or her rules seriously. I think communication in these cases are key.

Like comments above there may be some rules that are non-negotiable in Every family, and then there might be rules that are of less importance and can be let go sometimes. When you explain to your au pair which rules she has to stick to and which rules she can bend if she feels it will leed to everybody feeling better I think she will understand that you wont be upset when she does that (your au pair, like me, might just be scared that you think we lack consistency and dont want you to think we are ‘soft’).

Also I think something that might help in the situation is to explain to the au pair if there are any ‘tricks or tips’ for the individual children to calm them down when they are having a hard day or are frustrated. For example my 3 year old might be fussy sometimes and it will be affecting the atmosphere a lot in the house, but if I get her outside and run around with her for a little playing a game or on the trampoline she can get some energy out and will be calmer. I guess I mean giving your AP guidlines as to how to calm down your individual children might help to prevent the scenario in which battles need to be picked all together.

This is my first comment here I hope this helps a little!
– Dutch au pair

DarthaStewart December 7, 2014 at 11:24 am

I try to be consistent, but sometimes I dont’ pick battles, because I’m not up for them. It is just hard, and I think it is stressful for everyone involved.

Should be working December 7, 2014 at 1:01 pm

I pick battles, but try to explicitly model that as generosity. “You have so much homework and had 2 practices today. Let me take over table clearing today so you can get the work done and get to sleep.” When they were younger I picked battles when my sanity needed it, not theirs.

I wonder if the PPs who say they don’t pick battles are actually battle-pickers when it comes to different stakes. Like chores are absolute, but maybe something like backtalk gets more of a pass on some days rather than others. I can’t imagine parenting with absolute consistency in every single realm.

WarmStateMomma December 8, 2014 at 1:19 am

I love this idea!

Seattle Mom December 8, 2014 at 2:56 pm

I think this is how I parent too. My kids are a bit younger, so it’s not exactly the same. Also when they are resistant to putting things away (happens a lot with my 5 year old) I recognize that I have to break it down into very small activities- she gets overwhelmed when we just say “clean up all the toys in the living room.” And my 3 year old is generally better about cleaning up- it’s more in her nature- but she needs to be given more control over *how* to clean things up. She’s a little tyrant and wants to decide where things go. As long as they go somewhere appropriate, I roll with it.

I am by nature a flexible person and so I have no problem letting things go, but even I have certain things that are non-negotiable. I don’t sweat the small stuff, but everyone needs to know what the big stuff is. I find that sometimes my kids are pushing to find the big stuff, they seem to be checking to see how far they can go. That is when limits are really important- but it’s a subtle atmospheric shift in temperament that I don’t expect an au pair or other non-parent to recognize.

I understand that it is harder for au pairs to let things slide in general… they are trying to follow the family’s rules and it’s hard to understand when they can slide. I think that Skny’s example is more about understanding the family’s rules regarding fighting. I also let my kids fight as long as no one is going to get injured and no one is being too crazy. And I want my au pairs to let them fight too- to me that is not letting something slide, it’s a deliberate demarcation of where the rule is. A year ago I was wondering if this principle was going to pay off, and today I see that it has. At 3 and 5 years old, my kids negotiate and compromise with each other all the time without any adult intervention. They might start out yelling about something, there might even be some grabbing and pushing, but within seconds or minutes they resolve the issue and they are back to playing with each other. They only need intervention when one of them is in a very bad mood and wants to be alone (almost always the younger one) – at that point I’ll need to tell the other kid to leave the bad mood one alone, because she’ll never figure that out on her own. I do think that if I intervened in every fight they never would be this good at getting along. I remember hanging out with a friend whose kids yelled for help from their mom over every disagreement. Her kids are 2 years older than mine and I swore I would avoid that outcome at all costs. I’m proud of where we are, and I do try to get my au pairs to follow my lead on how we try not to intervene. My last au pair was really bad at letting them fight, but my current au pair is very good at it.

AlwaysHopeful HM December 7, 2014 at 4:36 pm

I agree with CV and the OP. I appreciate when folks give me a break sometimes, and I am a big battle-selectorfor my own sanity (as others have said), but more so as a path to success. Every interaction has the potential of containing a multitude of intertwined issues. I try to figure out what in that tangle of battles is my true goal, and i focus my energy on succeeding in that one. Let’s say for example, that my son has a special activity after school that cuts into the amount of time he’ll have to complete his homework. Add to that a late night the night before (creating crankiness), and/or his disappointment that he also will not have time to play outside with his friends before the activity. I would look at the overall circumstances, and focus my energies on making sure that he gets his homework done in a way that shows he gets the concepts involved, side that is what matters to me. So, I might ignore a little grumblig or backtalk, and may not insist on neatness this time. I treat the people I supervise and interact with at work the same way. I don’t agree that life doesn’t cut us breaks, because I do it, and others have done the same for me!

As for the OP, I think the key is to let the AP know your style– whether you’re a battle picker or believe in strict adherence to consistency– and give examples so he or she knows what it means. I don’t think either style is necessarily better than the other, but adherents to either will probably feel strongly about their preference, and will see it as intuitive. It sounds like it’s probably (yet another) thing to screen for in interviewing. These styles seem to be deeply ingrained, and I’m not sure an incoming AP will be able to switch from one style to another easily.

Seattle Mom December 8, 2014 at 3:04 pm

I agree with this so much. I feel like my colleagues at work understand when I’m tired from travel or so busy with one part of my responsibilities that I might need help keeping up with something else. Sometimes it’s not possible to let things slide, but when it is we all look out for each other. I feel like that is a big component of true leadership, knowing when to give people a break and when to insist on pushing through. It requires social intelligence. I want to treat my children that way because it improves outcomes- mainly our relationship but also whatever we’re trying to get done- also I want to model that behavior to them because it makes them better people. No one enjoys working or playing with someone who is so inflexible. My older daughter is recognized by all of her teachers as a leader among her peers- she’s not at all bossy, but she is reasonable and she’s not afraid to speak her mind. I’m super proud of her :). My younger daughter still hasn’t got it figured out- by nature she isn’t as flexible- but she is starting to show good empathy and she is coming around. She’s also lucky to have her big sister as a role model.

TexasHM December 8, 2014 at 1:26 am

I was on the fence on responding until today. Had a sick four year old this weekend and normally I make lunch and they eat it or they don’t eat. I asked the 4 year old if she wanted a sandwich (yes) but realized I had something else I needed to make so I just made it instead. When she came to the table she cried. Normally I wouldn’t tolerate that but I did bait and switch her and she was battling a cold bug so I didnt make her eat it but did put her in bed as she was obviously worn down. She skipped lunch and ended up falling asleep right before dinner and slept until 9pm and then woke up and asked for that sandwich. I made her one. I figure if you’re sick and willing to eat I will bend the rules and give it to you (within reason of course). I would consider that picking a battle.

AuPair Paris December 8, 2014 at 6:36 am

I think I pick my battles sometimes, and the host parents don’t tend to – at least not in the same areas… But I think that works out perfectly for both of us? I hope so anyway! I mean, I spend more time with the kids, and even if I’m letting things go on certain days (rearranging bath schedules to suit certain whims, or putting off a library trip until the next day), I can keep it to my scheduled time with them – I don’t let chores slip over to parent time.

On the other hand, the parents *don’t* have as much time with the kids – they can’t be so flexible with what needs to be done in that time, so they can’t pick their battles so much… But they do have rules that work out in their favour. For example the kids’ tv time is only when their parents are home. Certain snack food are just for with their parents etc… So I think it works out so that the kids have different reasons to be happy, no matter who’s on duty?

Au Pair in France December 8, 2014 at 11:26 am

I think that if you just let your au pair know that/ if you are willing to let things slide, or be rearranged she will be far more likely to use her initiative instead of following your rules rigidly all the time.

For example, I am supposed to make sure that HC gets his homework done as soon as we get back from school so that it is more or less finished when HP get home an hour later (they finish school quite late here). However, there are some days when he hasn’t had sport at school, and we didn’t go out at lunch time so he won’t sit still at all. I have now found that his parents are perfectly happy for us to go to the park for half an hour so that he’s calmed down before we start homework.

You just need to let us know, if it’s ok to relax the rules sometimes. It’s also hard for us to know if we should still be in charge of the kids when there’s a parent around too – just mention that you do/ don’t want your au pair to take charge of the kids when you’re around.

happyhostmom December 8, 2014 at 2:02 pm

I am a strong believer in picking battles. that doesn’t mean that most of the time there should be structure and some rules. However, I believe in parenting with focusing on Principals first then rules. I don’t want to be the super strict mother just for the sake of being strict. I agree with PP regarding if a child is sick or really tired. My kids are 2 1/2 and 5: 1/2 and sometimes they do need a break. Age makes a huge different. Or for example the other night, my daughter asked for a five minute extension for bed time because she was making a get well sick card for a friend. She asked nicely and it was for a good reason. I was okay with it, and wasn’t about to say no just for saying now. If she asked for half an hour or did this every night, the answer would be no. In my opinion structure and rules are necessary but I don’t want my house to be run like a dictator ship (not saying anyone else is doing it), but that’s how I would feel about myself if I never gave my kids a break.

SeuteDeern December 9, 2014 at 11:34 am

If you want your au pair to pick her battles – make sure she knows which battles she may pick. It’s much easier to change the rules when you are the parent because they are your rules and you know how closely you want that rule to be followed.

Most au pairs try to do their very best when a host parent is in the room (or the house). The host parents teach their au pairs their rules (or even spell them out in the handbook) and au pairs (especially when they haven’t been with the family for long) will try their best to do just as the parents requested when supervised while caring for the kids.
Don’t we all do things just as our boss wants us to do them? Even if we often have our own ways of doing them when he is not breathing down our necks? In many jobs you will do things in a certain way because your boss or the headoffice request they are done just like that. If you do them differently, you might still perform satisfactorily but not as requested. I have to admit that personally I am rather thankful that I don’t have to live under one roof with my boss.

Now, if a host family requests from their au pair that “the kids sit at the table when eating lunch and use a fork”… how is the au pair supposed to know that in just this instance the child is allowed to run around while eating lunch, because child had a bad day? A parent has the option to change rules on the go because they are their rules. How is the au pair supposed to know that at just that moment she is allowed to change the rules? “Common sense” won’t work in this case because you can’t expect your common sense to be identical to your au pair’s (or even your partner’s) “common sense”.

If you want your au pair to know when she is allowed to pick her battles you need to clearly communicate that. “The kids are supposed to sit at the table and use a fork when eating lunch BUT if you notice that x is overly tired on Thursdays when he comes back from baseball practice it’s fine if he eats fries with his fingers” or “The kids are supposed to do their homework right when they come home BUT if you notice that y has a huge amount of energy on Mondays when he didn’t have p.e. at school it is okay for him to go to the playground before starting with his home work.”

Also, back up your au pair in front of the children if she picks her battles and bends the rules! Even if you are unhappy with a decision your au pair made (letting x eating his fries in front of the tv instead of at the table because he was whining/overly tired/…) do not tell her in front of the kids. Wait until the kids are in bed or at school and then tell her “I wasn’t happy with how you handled Y because of Z.” An au pair that knows a host parent will not support her in her decisions will not know when to pick a battle and when not to do so because she will always fear she is in the wrong with whatever she decides.
And even if you think it would have been okay for your au pair to bend the rules when she didn’t… tell her! There is nothing wrong with approaching your au pair and tell her “I noticed you totally stuck to the family rules this morning and I just thought that in this case because of X it would have been okay if you had allowed Y.” She might still not do it but there is nothing wrong with telling her.

The au pair might have been raised with a 100% all the time approach and not be used to being lenient. Or they might know that if they bend the rule now they will need to fix what has not yet been damaged over the next days or weeks and it is just not worth it. Often it will be the au pair who will sit at the lunch table with the child tomorrow and fight (again) for sitting down while eating or using a fork or chewing with their mouth closed, not the parent who let it slide the previous day.

Some au pairs can do it. Some au pairs are such a good match to their host family in that aspect of child care that they just know which battles to pick and when to let things slide. Some host families are so supportive of their au pairs that they won’t mind an au pair picking a battle (or bending a rule) the parent would not have picked if they are otherwise happy with the au pair.

Seattle Mom December 9, 2014 at 3:19 pm

I think this is why my handbook is so long. There’s a lot of stuff about what to do when a kid has an off day. I try to lay out the non negotiables in the handbook- no food outside the kitchen under any circumstances, if younger child is refusing nap you have to try for at least an hour before giving up on her nap (it has never taken longer than 30 minutes to get her to nap, but I’ve had au pairs give up after she got up and said she wasn’t tired), etc.

Do people really have rules about eating with forks? I always thought that was the kind of thing that kids just picked up on by having it modeled and being given a fork. And being told “hey your hands are going to get dirty, that is best to eat with a fork.” And if they still insist on eating with their hands they will eventually figure out that the fork is better. I think this is one of those cases where having a hard rule creates an unnecessary power struggle. We have a rule about no food outside the kitchen because the kids really don’t care if they get crumbs in the couch and sticky stuff on the floor, but we do. So it requires a rule. But fingers can be wiped after eating with hands… as long as the food is kept at the table.

I’m not trying to harsh on anyone, but it sort of amazes me how people have the energy to keep up with all these rules. I think life is easier if you figure out which ones are unnecessary and let them go, all the time. It doesn’t mean you don’t teach good manners, but there is a difference between teaching and legislating.

Host Mom in the City December 9, 2014 at 3:34 pm

To respond to your particular question on the fork issue, yes, we do require that our kids eat with forks when appropriate to the food, at all times. We’ve had a few kids over for dinner at our house that are seven or eight years old and still eat things with their fingers. It is really quite disgusting to watch an eight-year-old pick up pasta or something with her fingers, shove it into her mouth, lick her hands clean and then run off to play in your house. Yes, they can wash their hands, but I don’t want to sit there and watch someone lick her hands clean at the table. Fork use is non-negotiable to me, from as early an age as they can manage.

I don’t think we have too many rules, but things about etiquette and politeness are really important to me so that they are just normal behaviors when the kids get older. We sit at the table until everyone is done, everyone uses appropriate utensils, everyone brings their dish to the dishwasher, everyone helps clean up, no food outside the kitchen and dining room, etc. Those don’t seem like difficult rules to enforce. I’m sure there are things I let go that others think are important, but table and food etiquette is really important to me.

Host Mom in the City December 9, 2014 at 3:44 pm

Ah, I just thought of one that is negotiable! This post has me thinking I should put a “rules to always enforce with the kids” and “rules you can let slide as appropriate” section into my training :) So we don’t eat anywhere but the kitchen and the dining room, except when you are really sick. Then you can crackers or something on the couch. I’m willing to vacuum cracker crumbs a few times a year on the off-chance that a sick child will actually consume something rather than forcing a very sick child to sit at the table or starve.

Should be working December 9, 2014 at 3:58 pm

Fork questions are hot topics at my house!! DH has a saying that “there’s no such thing as finger food”, and that goes for french fries as well. Kids love proving him wrong (corn on the cob, potato chips), but we are sticklers about silverware use! Still, if AP is alone and having a rough day, she can make an exception. I let kids eat neatly folded crepes with their hands when it’s just us.

Emerald City HM December 9, 2014 at 5:34 pm

I’m totally with Seattle Mom on the fork thing. Finger food is completely acceptable. :).

I do think our au pairs struggle a bit with what we let go and what we don’t. But I do think generally it’s easier for them to figure out by generally hanging out with us.

For example, our oldest just doesn’t like wearing clothing inside. Our current au pair really struggled with keeping clothes on her when she first arrived. That’s not even remotely a battle worth my time and effort. Our daughter knows the rules are that if we have guests she needs to have clothing on. Once our current au pair saw that we really don’t mind she started to let that one go. And now often more than not our daughter actually starts putting clothes on voluntarily (though it’s on the other end where she changes outfits multiple times per day) which is also another one I don’t stress about since I just hang it back up if it’s still clean.

Returning HM December 9, 2014 at 9:18 pm

Oh my gosh – I think our au pairs are friends!!!!!!

Emerald City HM December 10, 2014 at 2:10 am

Haha! Maybe. Though I kind of figured 3 year olds wanting to run around in just underwear was pretty standard. :).

Returning HM December 10, 2014 at 7:19 am

Oh- I thought you said no clothes. My AP has a good friend whose host child wears NO clothes in the house. None. Can’t imagine there are too many of these — especially whose parents are comfortable enough to share this (as AP’s friend’s family apparently is). Oh well. Almost a small world….

HRHM December 10, 2014 at 3:04 pm

That would be mine! My DD6 is just not into clothing (including underwear). I often have to ask even when she is dressed if she remembered to include underwear.

I couldn’t care less, but I don’t let her go outside or answer the door au naturale’. LOL

Emerald City HM December 10, 2014 at 6:49 pm

I would guess that if my daughter’s underwear didn’t have buzz lightyear on them, there is a good chance she would also want to go underwearless too.

AlwaysHopeful HM December 10, 2014 at 11:02 pm

Ah yes, the clothing dilemma! My 7 year old SEEMS to be growing out of the urge to be naked, but there’s always a chance, post bath, that he will go streaking down the hall. He’s at an age now where he finds the notion of a nonfamily member seeing him undressed “embarrassing” and our rule is that you can’t go downstairs without having pants on. So, he gets all the “freedom” he needs upstairs, and it seems to have diminished some of the allure…

WarmStateMomma December 10, 2014 at 1:22 pm

My handbook is pretty long for this reason as well. We have “rules” like offering balanced food choices at lunch or not letting my daughter watch TV, and then we have “Rules” like using the car seat. The “rules” may bend for a sick kid, holiday, etc., but the “Rules” are NEVER negotiable. Most importantly, I model the same behavior I want from my AP. (The hardest part is keeping my husband compliant in front of the AP so we don’t send mixed signals.)

I’m also an attorney and my job is like this, with “rules” and “Rules.” I can easily take the day off work to care for a sick kid or stay home sick myself – unless I have to be in court or some other event that involves several parties. I can’t miss deadlines and I usually can’t ask someone else to step in when something comes up. So this definitely colors my view of the AP’s job. A surgeon is obviously dealing with more important consequences than I am, but there are still bad consequences in my line of work for letting something slip.

We have started having trouble at dinnertime with our toddler refusing to eat dinner. Last night, the AP said she gave my daughter a cupcake while we were making dinner, so she probably wasn’t hungry. Having heard mention of cupcakes, my little one started crying for another cupcake. The AP suggested feeding her snacks instead. I refused and my daughter started crying loudly. The AP wanted to go play with her in the living room to cheer her up, but I refused and let everyone suffer through the toddler crying at the table for the (foolishly-mentioned) cupcake and snacks to drive home the point. It sounds harsh, but I don’t want to deal with this nonsense every night by coddling a child who used to eat dinner without any problems. Letting your kid renegotiate the rules at every turn is no fun for anyone.

UKAu Pair December 11, 2014 at 5:33 am

The issue I have with picking battles is that parents know their children. They know when to pick their battles and they know how their children will react.
If I’m an AP, I’m essentially an employee (when it comes to childcare- I know there’s much more to the AP program than that). If I’m being paid to look after your children and bring them up properly, then I feel like I can’t pick my battles because then I’m not working to the best of my ability.

Also, sometimes the parents let things slide if they’ve had a long day/the child is sick/it’s the weekend, because as parents the child respects them enough to know that it doesn’t make it a regular thing. But I am then left trying to pick up the pieces when the child runs around during tea/screams because they want ice cream etc, because ‘Mummy lets me do it’ or ‘Daddy said it’s okay if I have four biscuits for my snack even though they’ve specifically told you that I can only have three’. It puts me in a difficult position and it invalidates everything I’ve been doing if the parents consistently change the rules.

Mimi December 30, 2014 at 3:41 pm

“The issue I have with picking battles is that parents know their children. They know when to pick their battles and they know how their children will react.” This is absolutely the issue here and the way to deal with it is communication.

To the host kids you tell them that while the parents may allow them to do X, you were specifically told Y and they need to help you do what was asked of you. You can then tell them that you will talk to the parents and see if this is an area of negotiation. If it turns out not to be non-negotiable, then be firm with the kids and let the parents know if you get flak from the kids when saying no so the parents can have a chance to reinforce the issue for you. If it’s something that can slide here or there, file that away for future use when a bit of ‘child psychology’ is needed as a motivator.

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