How can I get my Au Pair to CALM DOWN! Guest Post by CalifMom

by CalifMom on October 27, 2010

[Even though she’s out on the edge here, I had to tell you that this was written by CalifMom. Of course, you’ll recognize her voice, but I want to make sure she gets public credit because she’s so damn darn funny. That said, do NOT give this momma a hard time about her *&^$ and #@%t. She’s earned it. :-) cv ]

At profound personal risk of being told that ampersands, hashmarks and percentage signs are offensive, I’ll let you fill in your own blank.

We have one of those problems that happens way out on the edges of the bell curve of normal distribution. So for those of you working with lackadaisical or wimpy APs, I’m sorry but our AP takes her job very seriously. Too seriously. I mean, waaaay too seriously.

If201010272041.jpg I ask a kid to sit straight in their chair at dinner, she’ll pounce on them immediately, before the child has even had time to comply with my request, as if I need “back up” from Officer Ponch. Even the poor dog is subjected to her extreme demandingness: if I ask the dog to leave the kitchen, she starts repeating my command, louder. (Which, as dog owners know, only confuses the dog, who was obeying the Alpha as a good dog should, and then trains the dog to ignore the AP. In response, the AP barks louder, more frequently, and so it cycles.)

I have talked directly with the AP with these issues after the kids are in bed. I’ve been doing this in a friendly way, from the approach of “Okay, so here’s my take on what happened this morning. Let’s figure out what you could try next time, because I know you were really frustrated.” (Language skills are not an issue.)

I have actually pointed out, directly and in so many words, that the reason the children seem to be ignoring her is because, well, they *are* ignoring her. She talks so much and so often, always chiding and correcting what they’ve done or left undone or didn’t do perfectly that they actually don’t hear her. I told her that while it may not be what she would like me to say, this “not hearing” is a perfectly rational and predictable in response to her constant scolding. She cannot understand this at all and would be happy if I were to mandate perfect compliance and servitude. (I’ll get right on that.)

I have led conversations into discussions about how brains develop, that children are not small adults, and that the reason you need to repeat yourself is because, well, children need to be told things repeatedly. The alternative is to whack them when they don’t put their shoes away the first time, but as much as we all love Little House on the Prairie, I think we don’t really want to take them back behind the shed to get whupped, do we? I have appealed to her own experience as a child (not that long ago!) and pointed out that I bet her mom had to tell her to do things more than once. “Well, but I never…..” is her reply. She is unable to step outside herself much. And yet, she wanted to come very far away from her mother for an au pair year. Hellooooo????

She cannot stop herself from nagging and seeing problems at every turn. She may not want to stop, thinking of herself as Super Au Pair brought in to whip these kids into shape or something. She is subjecting my kids to her mother’s rules as well as our. And there are so very many rules she grew up with! Not surprisingly, her rules do not always align with ours, but it seems that she believes that when she is in charge she gets to set ALL the rules.

In a recent example, she insisted that a child not pick out objectionable bits from a food item, even though they were too strongly flavored. I was home, and in the other room but didn’t hear this happening. I had made the food, and I told the kid to pick out the objectionable bits. Life is too short for these sorts of power struggles. There are plenty of other power struggles that we do have to engage in, as adults, and ultimately win. Picking out offensive bits is not one of them, if the rest of the thing is being eaten. Big picture! How do I get her to see the big picture?

201010272042.jpgAnd now, predictably, the power struggles are getting worse. Fine, Child thinks, you’re going to make me eat the bits I don’t like, I’m going to yell in your face and take a swing at you when you try to break up an argument I’m having with my sibling, because you don’t understand me and don’t hear me! You interrupt me every time I try to say something because I’m little and I don’t talk as fast as you do, and I’m sure you’re going to correct whatever I say anyway.

My kids are not thriving emotionally in this environment. They’re at school most of the day, but walking on eggshells a lot when they’re home.

But even with all this, she can be fun (when she’s not nagging) and the kids want her to like them soooo much it hurts me to watch. She’s the type who will never be satisfied, no matter how good they are. She has a sense of humor and she is an otherwise good AP. She drives well. She fears DUI. She is conscientious (duh! — to a fault! see above) and pitches in. She’s just a terrible perfectionist, even while, as she puts it, she feels very lucky because her AP friends’ charges are so much worse than ours. (gee thanks!)

Here’s what I’ve done:

  • • modeling alternative approaches with the kids
  • • counseling her (after the kids are in bed) to pick battles carefully, etc (we talk every night)
  • • encouraging her to spend more time with friends so that her not insignificant energies will spent elsewhere
  • • and I’ve talked to our counselor (who advised us to have a stern talk with her about what I see as her basic personality traits. I’m not seeing how that stern talk works out well.)

And, less helpfully, I’m also:

  • • biting my tongue until it’s raw
  • • laughing out loud (but “at” not “with” her, so I have to zip out of the room in an unseemly, undoubtedly confusing way) and sometimes
  • • leaving the room in exasperation, wanting to smack her upside the head or
  • • pouring a second drink (seriously; this AP is just so high maintenance)
  • • not sharing a lot of this with my hub anymore because he’s tired of hearing about it
  • • getting into heated conversations when she has refused to hear what I’m saying and it’s clear that I’ve hit a very stubborn brick wall on a point that is very important to me

I’ve given her tips (try whispering instead of yelling, etc). I’ve tried teaching the theory, I’ve tried coaching on the tactics, I’ve shared mentor-y advice about Life and helping her think about what she’ll do next.

I find myself wanting reassurance on any given day that she’s actually being nice to them while I’m not there. She’s hot-and-cold and rather volatile, so when things are fun they’re really really fun, but she herself is not calm in the eye of a storm when she needs to be (as I saw first hand with the failed attempt to break up a sibling fight. I walked in, split the kids up, and started problem solving but I am loath to intercede when the AP is supposed to be handling it. I gave her a lot of time to be effective, but she just wasn’t. So I felt like I had no other option at the time, because really, the AP was escalating the fight.)

And I fear that she may be acting one way in front of me, and presenting one set of information in her reportage, but is quite different when she’s alone with them and there’s no authority figure around.


What am I missing?

How can you effectively counsel someone to “calm the @#$ down”?

Am I worrying over nothing, and should counsel myself to remember that kids are resilient?

Clam Down Kitty
from BeInspiredDesigns
Calming down from


PA AP mom October 27, 2010 at 9:59 pm

Oh boy! This is a difficult one.

Our first AP also liked to point out all the faults of our boys. She talked “at” them instead of “to” them. She also liked to point out that kids in Germany weren’t the same spoiled brats they are here in the USA.

Because of these things, and many others, our kids ended up not respecting her. They would hear what she was saying and let it go in one ear and out the other. She told them so often what they were doing wrong that they just stopped trying.

Had I known then what I know now, I would have rematched at about the 4th month. As it went, we suffered through the entire year and luckily moved onto a totally different style of au pair the following year.

If you think this is going to be an issue that can not be overcome, and I get the feeling that it might be, it may be best to cut your losses now and move on. There are plenty of wonderful APs out there.

Good luck.

Calif Mom October 28, 2010 at 10:55 am

And I’ve had experiences like this when I was a kid and our family had German exchange students, and is part of why I have tried to pick more positive-seeming APs.

Taking a Computer Lunch October 27, 2010 at 10:09 pm

Read, “How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and How to Listen so Kids Will Talk,” and if you like it, give it to her as a gift, saying “I found some great tips to deal with child X,” you should read this and think about it.

Tell her outright to pick her battles. That she needs to decide what is VERY important and to let everything else slide. Really. That your children will not become perfect images of her overnight, but they won’t mimic the behavior she wants if she yells at them for every little thing. Really.

If you tell child X that it’s okay to pick out the objectionable bits and then intend to leave the room while the AP supervises dinner, then you need to tell the AP that. It’s not fair to her – she can’t guess that this is acceptable behavior, because, quite frankly, no one wants to see anyone pick apart their food (but parents understand that in order to get the child X to eat something that everyone else likes, one must be flexible). Communication works both ways. Really.

You say that language is not an issue, which surprises me. In my experience the APs who do the best at talking “at” the children instead of “with” the children are those who lack the vocabulary to hold a conversation with school-age children. You might encourage the AP to ask your children what they like (is there a movie they enjoyed seeing recently? a book? a new rock song?) Tell her that American children want to be the center of the universe, and that she’ll have more success getting yours to do what she wants them to do if she listens to them talk about what they like, and then acts on it. Really.

Some APs come knowing everything, because their own childhood was riddled with rules, and they have to learn to be flexible. Just because she’s mastered the language doesn’t mean she’s mastered the culture. Really.

While you model behavior you want her to emulate, you also need to discuss your strategy outright. Just chalk it up (to her) to cultural differences. She might get it. (But then again, tonight I told my husband to accept the fact that our AP always puts the glasses away upside down because she knows better than we do – not because she hasn’t noticed that we put them away upright. If we told her that we prefer it, of course she would do it, but some things are more important than how the glasses get put away. Just like, some things are more important than others in how one raises children). Really ;-)

Calif Mom October 28, 2010 at 11:29 am

She’s a native English speaker from a former British colony. So while she didn’t grow up with PB & Js, she’s a middle class, college-educated girl.

I’ve told her that this is a going to be a growth year for her as she learns to be flexible, and that there are different ways to do things. There’s definitely a lot of judgmentalism! I am a very analytical person, and have been very clear explaining the strategies.

Maybe she and I can do a book club sort of thing with How to Talk…it’s already on her shelf.

MommyMia October 28, 2010 at 4:47 pm

Sorry, but our AP has a similar personality and we’ve tried for a long time to model the behavior, explaining to her why we do things (we prefer to put the good kitchen knives in the block upside down so the blades aren’t dulled; put the silverware in the DW handles down so they get cleaner, etc.) but it hasn’t worked! Really. That’s why I “pick my battles” and either let it go, or obsessively-compulsively turn them over if I have time sometimes!

Calif Mom October 28, 2010 at 5:24 pm

TaCL and MommyMia,

Tell her outright to pick her battles–she has heard me say this countless times (or not; I certainly say it regularly, but not sure if she hears it. Or if she hears it, she cannot act on the knowledge). She just cannot seem to let things go–this morning, she locked horns with a kid over picking out an outfit for the day. Again, a conversation between the two of them was spiralling out of control, and she only dug her heels in harder. By practicing active listening, I was able to figure out the “systems” problem that were behind my kid’s inability to do it herself. Telling her “well, you got yourself dressed every day last summer so I know you can do it!” was not helpful for some reason. Should it have been? Well, maybe, but the kid has been having a rough couple of weeks (gee, stress, maybe?). So again, I had to sidle up to a different approach without undermining her. But did AP following along with me/us or even eavesdrop in the hallway to try and learn what mom’s magic is all about? nope. When I came back to the kitchen, having launched Kid into a better mood with her own ideas for what to wear, and I explained to AP what kid and I had discovered about why it was so hard to figure out what to wear, AP didn’t engage in the next steps that would lead to solutions, but made excuses and tried to cover her tracks. Mind you, I wasn’t in blame seeking mode, I was trying like hell to show her root cause analysis techniques and trying to prevent future problems. I don’t have time for all this blame @#$@$.

My real question is, will my repeating mantras about taking baby steps and picking battles actually be enough? Or is all this just whispering into the wind? (I would hate to read her FB page about us, frankly.) She has an annoying habit of muttering out loud but under her breath the things that most people internalize, like “I’m not even going to mention that you haven’t done xy and z while I go and help you do A. Okay, let’s go do A!” with fake cheeriness. This is at best unthoughtful and annoying, and at worst, it’s damaging to relationships.

I DO let a lot go. Believe me, I got good with the dishwasher not being loaded properly long ago! This one loads the dishwasher just fine, but she shrieks. It’s the tone and unrelenting corrections that are wearing me out and are hard to filter. Maybe I had more patience before, but the status quo really isn’t working. I guess I have my key messages for a Big Talk now, don’t I?

Should be working October 28, 2010 at 1:24 am

Actually I think the issue of over-disciplining is a very big one. Both our APs have been too bossy/authoritarian/negative-discipline-oriented in many respects. Both have felt the need to ‘chime in’ when I or my husband are already disciplining kids, or asking them to sit up straight, or whatever.

My husband also sometimes ‘chimes in’ on discipline, and to be fair so do I when he or AP is the one handling the issue. One tactic I have used is to ostentatiously (and with his understanding of what I’m doing) tell my husband “I think just one of us should do the ‘bossing’ here, otherwise we’re ganging up on [kid 1 or 2].” The AP usually gets it and stops chiming in, for the moment. But it’s a frequent issue, and I do wish she would be gentler in her standards for the kids.

I think you already have all these good strategies in place: reminding AP that she is the big-sister and not the authority when parents are around; modeling good discipline, etc. I guess if she really can’t change, and it’s too much, rematch would be the next step. Our AP also just can’t seem to give up her harsh-toned style with the kids sometimes, but proportionally it’s not as constant as what you describe, and she is fun most of the time, so we’re sticking with her for now.

OB mom October 28, 2010 at 2:26 am

I don’t relish your situation and it sounds like you have either a very stubborn AP or a very insecure one.

One commom worry that I think most APs have is that their host parents won’t back them upvwhen they discipline the kids and their authority will be lost. I always tell our APs that we will back them up 100% in front of the kids, and discuss later if need be. You are discussing later, but have you undermined her authority by reversing her rules in front of them. We haven’t had an overzealous AP, but certainly have had situations we should not have taken action ( eg lose TV for 3 days ) but did follow through for her as a n example. She knew we supported her so lightened up and they knew we supported her so listened.

For the cases where she is your “Ponch” perhaps you can respectfully say to her in front of the kids …” I have this under control” and try to redirect her . ” Can you please set the table”?

Good luck! Keep us posted!

Calif Mom October 28, 2010 at 11:34 am

You got both points: stubborn AND insecure.

With the “offensive bits” event, I didn’t know until it was too late that she had even made that a rule. It’s certainly not one she got from me, and it’s not in our handbook. And these bits really were too strong for a little kid to enjoy.

We do absolutely back her up, and that’s part of why I end up cringing so often. I don’t want to undermine her constantly in front of the kids, so I have to wait to address these things until after the kids are in bed. As I said, a lot of the problem is that she has made so many rules, and she gets so visibly upset when they fail to comply.

Anonamomma October 28, 2010 at 4:02 am

Discipline is something that I have discussed with my AP and I have a very basic rule – when I am there, i.e. in the house, I am in charge. This is not to undermine her authority but to enhance mine – I don’t need a second in command reissuing my orders nor do you.

Explain to the AP that when you are in house, you are responsible for your children and what they do, eat, don’t do and don’t eat, etc. That this is her time to relax with them and enjoy them without having to enforce rules or monitor behaviour, there is already one adult on watch, they don’t need another.

Tell her how you feel, that this issue may become a deal breaker because you are beginning to feel uneasy leaving her with the children and you have noticed a change (negative) in their behaviour which you are unhappy to allow continue.

I admire your patience and grasp of the situation, that you realise her behaviour is a character trait and part of her personality and not intentional or malicious. However I have a very bad temper, it is ingrained in my personality, I have learned to accept it but I must also control it (which only came with age I’m afraid!).

In my honest opinion, sit down, talk to the children and find out what is going on when you are not there, (allow for the drama) and lay it all out on the table with her, get those worries off your chest and take it from there. If you do feel that this situation will not improve then you need to make a judgment call.

And lets be real it may be that she is just not suited to the job. You can be an extremely nice person, have a great sense of humour, hard working, responsible, drive a car and love children and still not make a good/great au pair on a full time basis. It’s a hard job and it suits a certain type of personality more than others – she could be the other.

Good luck.

Calif Mom October 28, 2010 at 11:45 am

THis is an interesting idea. I have tried to tell the kids “Honey, AP is off duty, don’t pester her” but then AP will hear this, come out of her room and insist on helping me with the kids in the evenings. I think she feels sorry for me, and wants to be helpful (it’s that conscientious streak that is such a blessing/curse) but it just comes out wrong. But then at other times she will demand that the children do something that they are clearly having problems with and need the project broken down into steps but she just can’t join in and work it through alongside them. She is not big on seeing things from others’ perspectives. That’s the part that I don’t know how to coach. Probably because you can’t.

Maybe I need to insist on her being off the clock. A little shift back to employee rather than member of family would be good here! I’ll see if there are other ways I can insert that.

Deb Schwarz October 28, 2010 at 6:43 am

If your au pair wasn’t being so darned difficult to live with, I would have laughed more at your wry humor (you really are funny)…..but it’s just plain sad. As a mom to four, I know that kids are resilient, but really… much negativity can they take? Sounds to me like she was raised that way, and that has probably contributed to her self-esteem issues and thus her perfectionism. God help you. I always tell new host families (and remind repeat ones – and myself a million times) – the MOST important attribute in an au pair is a positive attitude. I swear, I can take most things (banged cars, rolling in at 2….even 3am, parties while we are gone), but if they are a downer, then it brings the whole family energy to a level that isn’t fun or healthy. We have a new au pair (2nd year) three weeks in, and I’m just not feeling the love – and reflected tonight with my hubby that it has less to do with the fact that she’s not that neat (I just about died when I saw the inside of the au pair car the other day), or doesn’t seem to like our kids – but the main issue is that she seems sullen and not enjoying life (my husband wonders if she is depressed). So – perhaps we brave California host moms should bite the bullet, and throw this “half empty/depressive” fish back into the pond and go fishing again for some sunnier species. (sigh) I’ll go find my rod if you do…..

Calif Mom October 28, 2010 at 11:52 am

Thanks, Deb. I’m mortified at all the typos, which tells me I must have been pretty upset when I penned it. Even in light of day, the issues stand. I guess I’m sad because I thought we had done a great job interviewing and finding an optimistic AP. I’m also feeling guilty because she keeps telling us what a great family we are, how lucky she is, etc. Hard to be a wet blanket and give her the shape up or ship out message. But once again, I’m dreading summer already, because summer means siblings spend time together.

You sure don’t deserve another problem AP, Deb! We had a depressive AP and it was no good at all. Just got worse with time. (As for partying, I’ve been encouraging it! I want a happy AP!) Especially going into winter. Even in California, the days get gray.

Deb Schwarz October 28, 2010 at 1:16 pm

Funny, my hubby says that next time, we are are going to put applications on the wall, and throw a dart – might be much better than taking the time to screen so thoroughly – LOL!

I do think that now that we are on our 16th au pair (10 of them were two at a time) – and many of them truly wonderful, we more clearly recognize a good fit vs. a bad one, and our tolerance threshold is lower. Sounds like you have had some very good au pairs, so that definitely comes into play. You just know when it’s not feeling right.

I’m going to go out and buy a white board today (I love that “eraser” suggestion!), and I’m going to finally read the “How to get your kids to listen” book and give it to the au pair. I’m heading to Australia next week for a Cultural Care trip, and I might try and meet some au pair applicants while I’m there (under the radar)…..want me to find a new one for you? (although it sounds like yours might be from there and I know how sometimes you just have to avoid a country after a not so great experience – but then again, sounds like yours might be a South African? (they tend to be more hard-“you know whats” than Aussies). I’m going to try and lay low until I get back (e.g. not address the sulleness for now because my husband would probably divorce me if it’s just him and 4 kids while I’m away). It’s funny, but our au pair sounds similar to yours – very bubbly when the kids aren’t around, but when they are, then she seems grouchy (we get the eye rolling, sighs, judgmental attitude and the “I asked them to do that, but they wouldn’t do it” – including eating dinner one night and cleaning the guinea pig cage the next). I hear you about dreading the “R” word, so I find that it’s sometimes helps to start looking on the side (e.g., or agency websites) to give you the confidence to bite the bullet, dust off the rod, or catch the next train.

Nicola aupair November 6, 2010 at 8:49 am

I don’t think it is an Aussie au-pair- Calif Mom said that it was “a former British colony”- Australia is still part of the Commonwealth. Just being painstakingly correct here ;)

It could be a cultural thing. As an Australian au-pair in Italy, I was distressed over my charge’s 11pm bedtime hour when he had to be up by 6.30, and I hated not having a routine. In return, my host grandmother undermined my authority because she thought I was too harsh.

Should be working #2 October 28, 2010 at 7:57 am

You have already received good comments and I will try not to re-iterate what others have already said. BUT I feel very strongly that life is too short to tiptoe around an AP. Sometimes we forget that we are actually the employer and although we are here to make the AP year secure, interesting and life developing we need to remember that the APs are still living in OUR homes and with OUR families, not the other way around.

A few years back we had a similar type of AP that mostly communicated by deep sighs, sourness and a lot of eye rolling. She made the kids and us feel highly uncomfortable in our own home, tip toeing around, my hubby and I were arguing constantly because all I could talk about was the AP and how frustrated I was (we had had 4 outstanding APs prior, so this was a total chok). Everything in our our little home was turned upside down in a matter of weeks and we parted ways with her after 10 weeeks. The instant relief when she was gone was so thick that you could cut it.

If you worry about how she treats your kids when you are not there, if she makes a moody/negative impact on the household, if she does not respect your rules and your instructions and most importantly of all, if it hurts you to watch your kids around her – then in my opinion you really have one choice – rematch.

Good luck – I hope all works out for the best! (and yes – you are really funny, I know I would have a blast having that 2nd drink with you)

Should be working October 28, 2010 at 10:15 am

Just to be clear, this poster isn’t me. Do you want to try another, less similar name? Anyway, really, shouldn’t we ALL be working?? ;)

Calif Mom October 28, 2010 at 12:01 pm

Sadly, my hips are not reacting nearly as well to the extra wine!

We’re at about month 3. The dreaded month 3. It just struck me as relevant that the counselor doesn’t like her attitude either. In a very real way, I wish she was a total train wreck, because it’s much easier to deal with that. It’s a lot harder to be sitting on a functioning train that happens to be a depressing style, a bit uncomfortable. This train is getting us from point a to point B–and especially when you don’t know what the next train might be like, it might be late or not show up or have mechanical difficulties–well, it’s a lot harder to hop off of at the next station and switch to another line.

Deb Schwarz October 28, 2010 at 11:24 pm

BTW, counselors typically meet a ton of au pairs over time, and we can spot the “problem” ones fairly quickly. If your LCC thinks she is a problem, then time to rematch, and maybe she’ll help you find a great one in transition. It is a slower time of the year for rematches, though – I hope it goes well and please let us know what happens.

Jennifer October 28, 2010 at 8:46 am

Instead of having the kids jump at the second she requests something maybe suggest they phrase it as “after you’re done with xxx, put your shoes away” or as soon as you are finished with xxx chore you may do xxx fun activity.

We also use a whiteboard in our kitchen (a small one I set up on a little easle). Assuming your kids can read… I list chores/reminders for my kids. They can erase them when they are completed and they know they need to be done that day. This eliminates ALOT of nagging and has been a HUGE help. I’ve suggested the AP use this too, although I have yet to see her put anything on there but it’s a great help for me. She does know that when I have something on there that she needs to make sure they do it as well.

Jennifer October 28, 2010 at 8:48 am

My kids are so used to having the whiteboard there my son sometimes writes his own reminders on it. He needed to take items to school today for an activity and he wrote on it last night so he wouldn’t forget this morning. :)

Lisa, PA HM October 28, 2010 at 8:51 am

I would prefer to live with a so-so AP who I know loves my children, then one who is constantly scolding. My families first AP was from Germany and spent the 3 months she was with us attempting to impose her rules on our family (she could not understand why I cleaned up the food my 22 month old threw to the floor instead of making the 22 month old do it – I was happy the 22 month old was staying in her seat since she was no longer strapped into a high chair). While the AP was an excellent driver, planned creative arts and crafts projects (again, she was VERY disappointed 22 month old did not want to finger paint for more than 15 minutes – I was thrilled 22 month old was able to pay attention for that long), and attended to her duties seriously the lack of warmth and constant complaints about how spoiled children in the US are (all while complaining we did not provide AP with a GPS for “her” car, have cable tv in our house, or allow her to use the cell phone to text) led to transition. I knew it was necessary when I found myself dreading driving home from work to hear the days complaints or how much better it was in Germany.
End result we got a loving, caring AP from Brazil who stayed with us for 2 years. She wasn’t good at arts and crafts, wasn’t the greatest at cleaning up after the kids, but every afternoon when I came home she was happy and the kids were happy.

Calif Mom October 28, 2010 at 12:04 pm

Yes, we’ve had that lovely extended Brazilian AP and happy kids at homecoming experience, too. But homework wasn’t getting done, and then we had to deal with that at 8:00 with an exhausted kid, exhausted parents, rinse and repeat. That’s why we went with a native speaking, college girl. So much for that approach!

momto2 October 28, 2010 at 6:13 pm

This is exactly what it was like for us living with our last AP. We thought we had screened so well–we reviewed 25+applications, and conducted 3 separate hour long interviews, and provided extensive write ups about our kids, our family, our rules and everything all up front. We had plenty of time to select the best candidate, and were not selecting out of desperation like we had in the past. We wanted to make sure it was a fit for us and for the AP, so we made everything about the job expectations and our family lifestyle very clear. “Super” was her answer to everything.

Things were okay for the first couple of weeks, but we knew after 6 weeks we had made a horrible mistake. We were so unprepared to have someone come into our lives and tell us all the things that, in their 21 year old opinion, were wrong with every aspect of our lives. Our food was horrible and lacked nutrition (we cook home made gourmet meals almost daily), the one to two days a week we let our kids EARN video games was excessive (the kids each read 200 books last summer and get straight A’s), we were overly affectionate with our kids which was rewarding their negative behaviors (they bicker and get sassy sometimes, but we still love them nonetheless), and of course the fact that we place so much emphasis on reading and education really cut into her outdoor activity time. Our children were unbelievably affected by this person. They became depressed and cried a lot, melted down a lot, and were having constant wake-ups/nightmares almost nightly. They did not want to be left alone with her and just weren’t their happy little selves anymore, but then again, neither were we. We tried to be patient for several week, writing it off as culture shock and homesicknesses, but she was just so downright mean and so critical of everything we/the kids did. If we heard one more time how much better everything was in her country we would have screamed! (She had an ubelievable sense of cultural superiority.) We tried to talk through the issue of how she came across to us and the kids, but she would get so defensive and she kept justifying her actions as “how she was raised.” She never complimented one thing about us, our kids, our home, or the U.S. I think in her mind, she was sent here to “fix” us. When her lack of tolerance turned to neglect/abuse of the kids, and when we started having that dreaded driving home from work feeling (and the dreaded leaving the kids with her in the morning feeling) every single day, we called it quits, even though we knew we would be without childcare for several weeks. When she left we could not describe the sense of relief, though it took several weeks to work through feeling/emotions with the kids. We have selected a new AP (funny, she is also from Brazil!) who is still getting settled in. The kids are very timid, but she is patient. She is appreciative, and she has not criticized a single thing. The other AP transitioned to a second family where she lasted just under a month before getting sent home. I have no idea what happened, but I am grateful that she is no longer taking care of children.

Aupairgal October 28, 2010 at 10:22 am

I had the same situation, but the other way around. HM could not leave those kids alone. Unfortunately they weren’t my kids so I couldn’t say anything but it really bugged me sometimes.

NE mom October 28, 2010 at 4:08 pm

I have lurked here for awhile, but just HAD to respond to this post — we just went through such a similar situation! Au pair was competent, but just horrible to my kids. Caregiving completely inconsistent with how we parent our kids and it was simply inherent in her personality. While I agree that kids are resilient, they were also miserable with her. One of the most important things I want from an au pair is modeling of positive behavior. I would be incredibly disappointed if my kids grew to be like her! We cut bait early and went into rematch. It’s been 6 weeks w/o an au pair and I have no complaints. The gray cloud over our house lifted once she left.

I was also so disappointed – felt like I had screened for everything and we were getting a positive, loving au pair and she wound up being everything that I had tried to screen out.

Anyway, my very long way of voting REMATCH!

Calif Mom October 28, 2010 at 4:43 pm

Wow–thanks for sharing. I know it takes some people a lot to come out of lurkdom, so obviously our predicament struck a chord.

I’ve been through rematch (oh have I….) and I do know the joy of having that stress lifted off the house. But I also know the hell of finding someone new, and the transition, and figuring out which parts they are going to need a lot of support at, or that I will just need to write off. And this AP would be just crushed. There’s no simple solution here. I guess better to hurt her feelings now with the tough love “be nicer” talk than to keep my own resentment building and poisoning the well.

Thanks to all who’ve chimed in–I invite all input! Magic bullets especially welcome.

franzi October 28, 2010 at 6:16 pm

here’s how you can try to approach the topic of your AP feeling more for the kids:
sit down with her and each one of you should write down what you think is good childcare values and good role model behavior for your kids.
have her write down how she sees herself and her childcare skills. then ask her to write down how she thinks others see her childcare skills.
you write down how others (meaning you and your husband) perceive her childcare skills.
then discuss the results.

i assume that your AP will think very highly of herself and also think others do. chances are your answers will differ greatly from hers. and this is where you can explain how what she thinks is great skills does not transfer to your family and your kids. make it very clear what you demand of her and what needs to change in order for your relationship to work.

Should be working October 29, 2010 at 3:24 am

Great idea, Franzi. I would likely only use this in a situation where things are not going well, because it could lead to unnecessarily hurt feelings in a situation that is going better. But I like the writing-it-down part, because then you KNOW that the AP has understood what you think and vice versa.

Calif Mom October 29, 2010 at 9:12 am

Franzi, you scare me. You hit the nail on the head in the second paragraph.

I am going to try some version this idea–all my talking hasn’t worked, and asking her to “do a little exercise with me” may flag for her that this is serious. I recognize how tricky it is, because one of my fears is that my attempt to improve performance will backfire and we’ll end up with a resentful, naggy AP. But better to force the issue than keep lingering.


franzi October 31, 2010 at 4:46 pm

all these years of higher education finally put to use! ;-)

Anonamomma October 29, 2010 at 3:08 am

Franzi, I love it, excellent idea. I take my hat of to you on that one.

Should be working October 29, 2010 at 3:32 am

I know there are threads on how to screen candidates, including the personality-test thread, but I’m still mystified as to how HFs can screen for depression, negativity, discipline philosophy, arrogance and so forth.

Anna October 29, 2010 at 9:37 am

I have been screening for negative sullen personality since I had such an experience with a Russian au pair.
In both agencies I’ve used, there is a section where an au pair can choose a certain number of adjectives to describe oneself. I was specifically looking for “happy”.
Many Brazilian au pairs had that, but not all. Our second au pair was a Brazilian who didn’t check “happy”, and she was more on the serious side – so it works (she was still a good personality, just not “happy”).

It is just a small tip of course, and is not a panacea for such a screen.

Arrogance I think can come through in the interviews, if the family really listens carefully and the au pair gives longer than yes or no answers. By asking certain questions, listening to the way she speaks, being sensitive to whether she interrupts you or not… I feel I can screen for arrogance… I am very sensitive to perceived disrespect, it is a big thing in how I treat my kids, I think I can feel this out with anybody.

Nina October 29, 2010 at 11:38 am

I would suggest speaking to your kids and asking how she is when you leave the house. It could just be that she is fairly new and when you are away she is super with them, but when you are there she is trying to show that she is in control and sort of “look at me, when I’m around your kids are eating everything, I’m reinforcing your rules, what a great AP I am!” It might just be that she is trying TOO hard. Especially with the things like coming out of her room when she hears you tell your kids that she is having her break. It comes across to me personally that she is meaning well, so she probably does care quite a lot.

If she is like this when she is alone with the kids, then if you haven’t done so already, sit her down with a list of the family rules/au pair handbook and explain to her the things that you are not happy with. As nice as she may be in other aspects, if your kids are unhappy, then she is not doing her job right. I mean, I can understand to some extent, if she’s been raised in such a way then she will think of these things before anything i.e. telling the child to eat everything, but if you’ve told her otherwise, and she still refuses to move from her stand, then you need to air these issues in a proper sit down and say “look, you’re doing X, Y and Z, but in our family we do it like A, B and C”. If she still continues after this, tell her that she really needs to stop and if she doesn’t, then she is going into rematch.

Best of luck with it all.

Gianna October 29, 2010 at 5:14 pm

I suggest asking alot of questions about how an aupair was disciplined herself as a child. What were her parents’ rules for her ? How were they enforced ? I have observed
that sometimes people who were overdisciplined feel compelled to show that they are now the ” boss” . I do not feel it fair or reasonable to sacrifice kids to someone else’s neurosis. I also think that certain cultures are more child friendly than others.

Should be working October 30, 2010 at 2:25 am

Thanks, Gianna, this is definitely a question I will ask in the future: “How were you disciplined as a child?” Unfortunately I worry that APs who have been harshly disciplined either wouldn’t see the discipline as harsh or would be savvy enough to come up with a more ‘vanilla’ answer. Our AP eventually ‘came out’ to me as having been beaten but I know she would never have told me that right off. She did say her father was ‘very strict’, however. But would I exclude all offspring of ‘very strict’ parents?

Calif mom November 3, 2010 at 4:33 pm

Gianna, this is on my new list of questions. She did tell me her mom was a strong disciplinarian; my mistake was in maing the assumption that she was like me, and had reacted in an oppositional way to her mom’s style. Nope. This was a case of apple tree and gravity. Lesson learned!

And what you wrote–“I do not feel it fair or reasonable to sacrifice kids to someone else’s neurosis.” AMEN! It has been resonating in my head for the past several days as things, um, evolve here at the homestead.

Gianna October 31, 2010 at 5:02 pm

I sure wish I knew the answer to that – I usually read your posts avidly. I guess if someone told me she had ” very strict ” parents , I would ask ” Can you tell me a little more about that ? ” or ” how do you think you will discipline your own children someday ? ” Not all children of excessively strict parents are too strict – some are too easy ! It really is tricky.

franzi November 1, 2010 at 1:53 pm

then again the question “how do you think you will discipline your children?” will likely not include “spank them”. i do think that this (potentially very) sensitive topic provokes vanilla answers.

i like the question about rules set by the parents. this might help to detect those girls that are just waiting to break out and go from shy to party animal.

calif mom November 3, 2010 at 4:35 pm

I’m okay with party animal, as long as they are nice to my kids when they’re on duty! It’s the turning into Mini Mom that I want to avoid.

This is a good question to ask franzi, the “how do you think you will discipline your own children?” — it would have also drawn out that our au pair has no intention of having her own children, and that would have given me (much needed at the time) pause.

Anna November 3, 2010 at 5:02 pm

Calif mom, how old are your kids and how many there are?
I might have a wonderful suggestion for you, please email me at

Calif Mom November 8, 2010 at 5:04 pm

Update from the Post-Nag Zone:

We had one of those awful, gut-wrenching, tough-but-honest, sit-down-at-the-table-with-the-counselor conversations which went something like this:

Here’s how we feel things are going. Here are two specific things that happened recently that speak to an overall pattern that is not acceptable.
Here’s what we have been doing in our effort to get you to do things differently.
You haven’t changed what you’re doing.
Things cannot continue this way.

I had no idea. That’s how I was treated as a kid.You’re right that I was at the end of my rope. I thought you were giving me advice, not instructions.

Counselor to HPs:
Are you willing to give her a chance to turn it around?

Counselor to AP:
You have dug yourself into a hole and you need to regain kids’ trust and friendship.

I don’t know what else the counselor told her after we HPs left, but I’m now a believer in the value of these 3-way meetings. I have been burned by APs before after going through this whole “let’s all sit down with the counselor” thing, so the jury is still out. Having bent over backwards for predecessors only to end up in rematch anyway, I’m not interested in stringing anything along and dragging out the pain. So I did not immediately say “Oh yes, let’s give it another go!” I needed time to cool off and assess AP’s responses to the meeting.

But…this time…while things aren’t perfect, they are much happier.

Positive signs: there hasn’t been a meltdown by a kid in days. AP is really bringing her “A” game and has redoubled her efforts. She is trying very hard (especially when I’m in earshot) to bring a positive aspect to her interactions with both kids.

And thinking back, AP didn’t melt down herself in our meeting, but handled our (pretty relentless and brutally honest) criticism with unexpected maturity. She didn’t throw us under the bus at all when the counselor asked her for how she saw things going. Being human, I know there were points she could have leveled at us and gone into tit-for-tat, but she didn’t.

The next day, on her own (unless the counselor suggested it) she sat the kids down and said “I’ve been thinking. I’ve been expecting a lot from you and it hasn’t been much fun. So from now on, I’m only going to nag you about one thing at a time. How does that sound? Can we agree that you two will [insert dreaded chore here] every day, and that I will remind you to do that one thing, but that one thing only?”

New interview question to add your lists, Host parents:
“What generation do your parents relate to?” Yes, indeed, Should Be Working, she had no idea she was seen as strict or harsh. Even when I had said things like “Okay, so what happened earlier today clearly didn’t work. Let’s talk about how you can avoid that happening again in the future.” Turns out I need to use a much more direct and blunt style (the style she is used to hearing from her parents). I’m going to try to flag things with “Stop Doing X,” and “Only Do Y now” and see if that helps.

Keep your fingers crossed–I’ll keep you posted on how this maintains over the long haul.

The take-aways worth sharing here are that painful conversations can actually have a positive outcome. Whodathunkit? ;-)

franzi November 8, 2010 at 5:10 pm

thanks for the update!
i hope the AP continues to bring her A game. did you share with her that you noticed a change in behavior? i believe this is important to let her know. just an approving smile here or there, and of course when you sit down again to discuss how things are going.

with no kid meltdown i am sure she notices these changes as well.

the fact that she handled the situation well speaks for her and i really hope it was out of maturity and not out of a “i don’t care anymore” attitude. only time will tell.

good luck and keep us updated!

Calif Mom November 16, 2010 at 4:15 pm

Yes, Franzi, thank you for the important point. This is key; reinforcing her positive changes with specific examples of things she is doing better. She has really stepped up. She even asked HD if he thinks she’s doing better.

Honestly, after past experience with au pairs NOT stepping up after stern conversations like the one we had, I didn’t have a lot of hope for this. But instead of spiralling downward, things continue to improve. We even invited her on a long weekend trip (which made me nervous since it meant cramped quarters and nonstop togetherness for us all) and we pretty much had a good time. She is really working hard to both fulfill her duties and change how she interacts with the kids. Many fewer kid meltdowns. Much happier children.

Reminds me, too, that I need to check in with my eldest kid for her perspective. One thing I want to make clear is that we did *not* let the kids know about the brutally honest conversation or bringing in the counselor. I think that while my eldest did know I wasn’t happy with all the nagging being done by the AP, it’s really important that the kids NOT be brought in on every aspect of the relationship. This is to both maintain the AP’s stature with the kids, and also, frankly, so we can evaluate changes in her behavior by seeing how the kids react. Otherwise, if the kids knew, and the AP knew that the kids knew, and the kids knew that the AP knew that the kids knew, it would be very hard to know what was really going on between and among them!

I had told AP this is going to be a growth year for her; she has taught me something too. Now to keep it maintained as we head into the holidays…

Advice to myself: don’t let those weekly check-in meetings slide! Reinforce positive behavior! And start that Thanksgiving checklist…my staffer just told me she had already cooked her soup. Whippersnapper.

Should be working November 9, 2010 at 3:57 am

Fascinating update! Good to think for my own future reference that harsh APs really, really, might not think they are being harsh. And it has to be said DIRECTLY to them that it is too harsh. And alternatives have to be modeled.

A former AP who is a friend of our AP visited last week and stayed with us. We all had moments of thinking how she is a bit ‘sweeter’ than our AP with the kids. And then when she and our AP were taking the kids on an outing and kid #2 resisted, suddenly the visiting friend became harsh and bossy, and I saw her ‘AP style’.

So I think tops on my list of interview questions will be wide-open inquiries into how AP’s parents raised her, what kinds of things they did when she resisted or disobeyed. For instance, one thing that all the APs have done, and my friends from same geographical areas/cultures do with kids, is to tell kids, “If you don’t hurry up/come along, then I’m going to leave you behind/make you walk.” When a friend of mine did that when my kid was resisting going somewhere, I told her quietly that I don’t do that because 1) it’s an empty threat, I wouldn’t really abandon or make them walk and 2) if the kid actually believes it, it would be frightening. So it’s a way to control kids through fear and anger, which I definitely have done sometimes in other contexts but aspire NOT to do.

In fact, I might use that as an interview question: “Kid 2 is whining and dragging his feet, it’s time to leave, what do you say/do?” Or even better, “What did your parents do when you resisted going along with them?”

Taking a Computer Lunch November 9, 2010 at 8:05 am

The question I ask of APs, which originated from my own meltdowns during what I called “the bewitching hour,” when I had a 4-month-old and a 25-month-old who were both infants (The Camel, being severely retarded, functioned about the same as her brother), “What would you do if one child child was feverish and ill and unable to self-soothe, and the other child was in a situation where he or she was going to get injured if you didn’t help immediately.” I have changed the stressful situation since the days of the bewitching hour when they were both hungry and needed to nurse/drink from a bottle at the same time and cried incessantly (which to me sounds like nails on a chalkboard).

That question alone has been the best marker of personality – and I always look for people who are much calmer than I (because I have a short fuse). And, quite honestly, most of my APs have worked in chaotic caregiving situations (e.g. hospitals, kindergartens, group homes) that have given them the skills to accomplish what they need efficiently and calmly. I also pay extra for that expertise, but it has been worth it to me.

Even though the bewitching hour is long gone (and while The Camel now functions like a toddler, her brother is a daredevil on a skateboard and bike, so the potential for the need to consider which child to attend to first still exists).

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