How to stay happy as a Lame Duck host parent

by cv harquail on December 28, 2009

There comes a time in your relationship with your au pair where your ability to influence her behavior vanishes- just vanishes. This usually happens as she is getting ready to leave, either to go back home or to go on to an extension with another family. [When this happens during rematch, it’s an entirely different situation– for another post.]

You lose your influence because you lose a certain power known to economists as “the shadow of the future”. The shadow of the future is the idea that, if you and your partner want to keep your relationship going in the future, you have to behave in an ethical manner in the present. When your au pair relationship is coming to a close, it’s all of a sudden high noon. No more shadow.


For some au pairs, this will never be an issue. Many au pairs cherish their relationship with your family, they have high personal standards and they want to be remembered as terrific, responsible women who will be sorely missed. In the best relationships, your au pair goes out with a bang feeling proud of what she’s accomplished. And, you stand on the front porch with your kids, sobbing and wondering how you’ll get along without her.

But for other au pairs, their incentive to maintain a good relationship with you evaporates. They don’t care so much any more, because they’ve gotten from you what they can, and they are biding their time until they depart.

Now, the problem of lame duck-ness exists for both host parent and au pair… she is also likely to lose her influence on you as you contemplate no longer having to keep her happy, etc. with one huge exception– she retains leverage over you as long as you need her to care for your kid(s).

Some families try to gain a little bit of leverage by beginning to scale back on privileges– reduced use of the car, for example. But you don’t want to get into a battle of withdrawing one privilege only to have her reduce her effort, leading you both racing to the bottom of a tit-for-tat withdrawal strategy. That’s a sure way to end on a sad and sour note. But what else can you do?

1. Talk about the end before you get there. Discuss with your au pair the spirit with which you two should bring “this phase of your relationship” to a close. Be candid about the worst case scenario, and be clear and enthusiastic communicating the best case scenario.

2. Appeal to your au pair’s best nature. Talk about how you want to remember her, how much you enjoy her, how much the kids will miss her. Mention that you love the care she puts into their laundry, and that you wonder whether your next au pair will do the same. If you keep talking about her at her best, this will make it less likely that she’ll feel comfortable scrimping on the effort.

3. Refocus your priorities. Consider that she may begin to ‘work to rule’ and do only what’s required. As long as she cares for the children kindly and continues to follow safety guidelines, consider rolling with that.

4. Consider an end-of-year bonus or event that she can work towards. If you could figure out how to do it in a light-handed way, you might offer your au pair an extra 2 days off (or similar) if she keeps up the good work and gets all of her closing out tasks done.

5. Be the big person. Don’t get cheap on her, don’t get too mean, don’t give up.

[An aside: Several of our au pairs have received end-of-year bonuses from my DH and me. We have given them $200 or $300 extra, on top of their pocket money and after they have settled up their phone bills, as an extra thank you. Each time, this extra gift has been appreciated, and each time we’ve given it, it’s been with no strings attached. But, I’ve wondered whether I could have used the bonus better- maybe as a ‘completion payment’ for a last month well done – if we’d had an au pair whose effort really diminished in those last weeks… ]

Recognizing that, as the end is near, you become a lame duck… what other ideas do you have for staying happy?

Happy Duck by law_kevin on Flickr

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Southern Host Mom December 28, 2009 at 3:53 pm

Along the lines of “appealing to the Au Pair’s better nature,” I like to remind our Au Pairs that the children will remember her last days with us the most. I try to emphasize that we all want to create the best possible memories for the children (and Au Pair and host folks, too, of course), and end on the best possible note.

CV December 28, 2009 at 9:03 pm

I think that ‘great memories’ part is really powerful…

There is the psychological dynamic known as “the recency effect” where instead of evaluating the ‘overall’ experience we remember and grade only the ‘recent’ experience… so this is important for adults.

With kids, they indeed remember the later part of your au pair’s time better, simply becuase they can remember more as they get older!

Mom23 December 28, 2009 at 4:47 pm

We also give a bonus on the last day an au pair is with us. We have noticed that the au pair’s level of focus on our family has diminished as her time with us comes to an end. I like the idea of CV’s to have a frank discussion about the last days. I will use that the next time we are saying good-bye.

Anonymous December 28, 2009 at 5:29 pm

Love this post ! I also love the idea of a year end bonus.

Calif Mom December 31, 2009 at 4:04 pm

How does one raise the prospect of this year-end bonus without feeling tacky? It’s one thing to give a bonus as a surprise, and I’m great with that idea, but it’s not a motivator then. I can’t imagine dangling it out there as a carrot.

TX Mom January 4, 2010 at 12:01 pm

Agree, CalifMom, We’ve given the bonus as a surprise the night before they leave – or at the last minute. I know one of our AP’s would have spent it long before she earned it! :) For the countries/agencies that have a “successful completion deposit” I have hung that out as a motivator but I have always considered our bonus a “gift” not something promised for meeting performance levels.

Jeana December 29, 2009 at 12:12 am

I think it is so important to be proactive about this time of our relationship with our aupairs. Toward the end of the first year, I find that my aupairs have established friendships, where they have more of a social life, than in their early months. As such, they receive more invitations, and have more opportunities to do fun things when they are not working. Being aware of this, I’m already putting more effort into scheduling our aupair’s work hours, as she’ll be leaving us in several months. I’m so glad you addressed this issue!

Sara Duke December 29, 2009 at 8:29 am

Our au pairs have tended to switch out in the late spring or summer, and so we always invite them to join us on vacation in our extension month. [Our family vacations are simple – we either rent a small house without TV or Internet access and spend a week outdoors in the mountains or by a lake or we go bother relatives.]

I always talk to our au pairs as their time comes to a close, and tell them that I understand how important it is for them to be with their friends as much as possible (because they’re not just saying goodbye to us – they’re also saying goodbye to other au pairs and people they’ve come to know), to visit all the places they intended to see, etc., but that I need them to keep on working, too.

I have found that being open and honest with them about good-byes is the best way for them to deal with their conflicting feelings, too.

We always give our au pairs a box for their last birthday or Christmas with us and tell them to fill it and we will ship it home for them. It always seems like an empty present to them, until they pack to go home and realize all their stuff won’t fit in their suitcases. When they get home and see the expense of the box (we’ve never spent less than $150 because we air mail it and insure it for the cost of shipping), they are extremely grateful. We have stayed connected. We do not pay a separation bonus although we do try to find time to take our au pair out for a nice dinner without the kids.

I advise host parents to do their best to return home on time in their au pair’s last month and to give them evening time to see their friends or an extra weekend off to make that last quick trip. Being generous with time will go just as far as being generous with money.

CV December 29, 2009 at 5:33 pm

Sara, this box idea is one of the best gift ideas EVER!

aria February 17, 2010 at 6:54 pm

I agree, I never would have thought of that, but it’s an amazing idea!!

Anonymous December 29, 2009 at 9:44 am

We are in the process of matching with a new AP while our current AP looks for a new family to extend with. I tried to gently remind her that I will be her reference for finding a new HM and that I will be honest with them about her performance. I think that in this particular situation, the threat of a bad reference is an incredibly powerful stick. Once she matches (if she does) I won’t have that, but hopefully, it will be so close to the end that it won’t matter.

Calif Mom December 31, 2009 at 4:02 pm

Ah, but you will still have leverage because she will know you *could* give feedback to her new host family, and she won’t want to jeopardize that. Unless there’s a Big Reason that she is not extending with you that has been left out of this discussion. :-)

NoVA Host Mom December 29, 2009 at 10:12 am

We have not come to this point yet as we are on our second AP and she is extending (YES!) for another year. This is a great topic, though, and gets me thinking about what is to come. The bonus is a good idea, but so is Sara Duke’s shipping box one!

Q for Sara: what size box do you do? Just curious. It’s such a great idea.

Sara Duke December 29, 2009 at 1:45 pm

It’s a box that holds 3 flats of the beverage cans that my daughter gets fed by g-tube, so about 2 feet, by 18 inches by 18 inches (and very sturdy because those cans weigh a ton all boxed up). Sometimes I give a slightly larger box if the au pair has gone out her way for us (our last au pair had to massage a hamster with peanut butter after he got loose and stuck to a glue trap while my son wailed — and the smell of peanut butter made her sick!) She got a box big enough to hold the blanket my mother had given her!

Check with the post office before you give the box – each country has different shipping regulations about how big the box can be. And check with the au pair about how likely the box is to arrive home! I always insure them so I can send the au pair money for the lost items if it doesn’t make it.

franzi December 29, 2009 at 12:03 pm

i’m not so sure if the prospect of a year end bonus is really raising the performance. what would you do if she is working so-so only? would you still pay the bonus? what if she asks for the bonus early?

i admit, i was slacking in my last month. i had mood swings, i wanted to do so many things that i didn’t manage to do the past 11 months that my hostkids and host family did suffer a lack of attention.
i’m sure though that if it would have been too much, my HP would have told me. and that’s my advise for families facing a lame duck AP: talk about it! 3-4 months before she leaves is best to talk about the whole “what do you want to do/see in your last months” thing. then you can also bring up the topic of trying to be supportive about her plans but wanting her to keep her performance up.

TXMom January 2, 2010 at 2:32 pm

Our LCC also has a talk with the au pair and reminds her to “stay focused” on the kids at about 8 months. With good AP/LCC relationships this talk has been helpful.

It seems that my agency has started sending the forms really early for the AP to decide to extend or not (at 6 months?) I think that is too early because the AP starts to think about the end when that form comes.

I believe one of our AP’s stole from us at the end of her stay; we didn’t discover things missing until after she was gone and we had no reason to suspect that she would steal or was stealing while she was still with us. I am heart broken by the violation of trust; obviously she never thought she would have to face us. Fortunately the children were never “violated” in any physically or mentally with her immaturity.

Anonymous January 8, 2010 at 3:13 pm

I’m glad this topic was posted and hope for more advice from host parents.

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