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