Each host family is its own self-reinforcing social system. Families have their own logic, their own climate, their own emotional rules, values, priorities, and patterns of behavior. Although the new person in the family/home means that everyone adjusts, au pairs adjust more to the family than the family adjusts to the au pair.
Family systems make au pairs accommodate & adjust
The relatively imbalanced accommodation, where the au pair adjusts more, happens mostly because the family’s patterns of behavior are so ingrained, so interconnected and so regularly reinforced that it’s hard for an au pair to make a dent in them. The family has more members, the family has the power position of employer (vs employee), the family is in its own home culture, and the family remains while au pairs come and go.
Of course, some au pairs can push family dynamics one way or another. “Wet Blanket” and “Miss Pointy Boots” got their host families depressed and agitated. Other au pairs seems to spark more happiness, more gratitude and more appreciation (in addition to what might be attributed to the parents actually getting the help they need).
Even if they can’t change the whole family system, can an au pair intentionally improve certain kinds of host family interactions — like sibling relationships?
I’ve been stuck on this question, having read Bettina’s email, about her host children’s angry, ugly behaviors towards each other.
My first response was to imagine Bettina taking charge of the older two girls, showing them how to behave, reinforcing good behavior and ‘counting to time out’ the bad behavior, even if the parents weren’t on board. Ever the optimist, I was assuming Bettina could make a positive difference in her host family.
But then I thought about the power of the family system, and the lack of support of the host parents, and wondered whether to tell her, “Yeah, go ahead and rematch. Go find a loving family where they don’t shout hateful things at each other.
Here’s Bettina’s story-— after you read it, come back and tell us:
- Can an au pair change a family’s dynamics for good?
- Can an au pair improve sibling dynamics?
- How should Bettina respond?