Improving the Relationship between your Au Pair and Your Kids

by cv harquail on February 17, 2011

A request from VtMom — Dear Au Pair Mom readers –I have a minor issue that’s been bothering me and wanted to solicit the collective wisdom of the group.

Compared to other posts on this blog, I have nothing to complain about. Instead, my issue surrounds something that’s “nice to have.”

Background: We have three children ranging in age from 3rd through 8th grade. Our kids are very busy and a lot of our AP role involves driving them – to school, activities, friends’ houses, etc – and cooking dinner for them a few evenings per week, supervising homework for the youngest, and serving as referee. It’s a 40-45 hour/week schedule, with rare weekend time that’s known well in advance. During their time together, the kids are getting ready for school, doing homework, eating and getting ready for bed. It’s rare during the week that all 3 have free time at the same time.live what u love hijirk.jpg

Our current AP is doing everything that she has been asked to do. She’s respectful of our rules, our belongings, always finishes the weekly tasks, is a good driver and I find her pleasant to have around. She’s followed through excellently with discipline for my youngest. She even volunteered to help shovel snow!

My biggest disappointment is that she has not developed much of a relationship with my kids.

[If I had little kids and my AP was home with them during the day I would feel differently, but with older kids, this is not a rematching matter.]

She’s friendly & affectionate toward the youngest, but I’d describe her relationship with the eldest as ambivalent. My eldest describes that the AP is “always on her phone” and the AP complains that my eldest is “always on the computer playing games.” There’s definitely some friction there, but I try to listen to both and to remain neutral.

I understand that it’s vastly easier to bond with a 5 yo than a 13 yo, but our previous AP managed to develop a good, warm relationship with each child just 1 year ago. My middle child is warm and cuddly, yet the AP has not made an effort to build a relationship and it’s not reasonable to expect a young tween to initiate it entirely on her own.

What might have led to this?

In retrospect, there were scheduling issues at the start of her year that limited opportunities to bond. Plus, the AP has a boyfriend in a different part of the country (did NOT know that before she arrived and probably would have passed on her had I known) so she’s often away and, consequently, has participated in only 1 family outing since she’s been here.

We invite her regularly, but she almost never eats dinner with us. I forced my kids to invite her to play board games with them on snow days – I think she would have been content to be on her phone all day while they played on their own.

At this point, we have 5 ½ months left. [[Why have I waited so long? Inertia. Waiting for the “right” time.   Inability to confront this subtle issue head on.]] I can mandate car privileges, but it’s tough to force someone into a relationship that they don’t want to fully engage in. How do you tell a person who is doing all other parts of their job well that I want her to be more friendly and outgoing with the kids?

One specific guideline to change

While I can’t force her to develop a relationship, there’s one obvious thing that she does not do which I think would help. She makes dinner for the kids but then does not sit down to eat with them. All of our previous APs and nannies have eaten with the kids – perhaps not every day, but frequently enough that they’ve had time to chitchat and learn a bit about each other.

Other choices

As I see it, I have a few choices:

Choice A: Let it be
My kids are so busy that, to be perfectly blunt, they don’t NEED a warm relationship with their caregiver. I could just chalk it up to a learning experience and, with future APs, be on the lookout for schedule issues & boyfriends that might limit early bonding. Also, with future APs, make it clear from the start that they should plan meals that they like to eat and sit down together with the kids at least once/week.

Choice B: Mandate that she eat dinner with them at least once/week
The menu is her choice, so I wouldn’t be forcing her to eat something she doesn’t like. I could couch it in terms that I’m surprised that she doesn’t sit down to eat with them and that one of the ways that our past APs got to know the girls better was to eat with them. I could also mention that communication would improve.

However, it’s possible that she just doesn’t like eating at this time…to which I think my response will be that she should sit down at the table with them even if she’s not going to eat. Any suggestions for how to have this conversation would be most appreciated.

Choice C: Hint. Ask her why she doesn’t eat with them.
Tell her that it would improve communication and give them all a chance to get to know one another better if she eats with them.

I see a risk in this approach that she doesn’t take my hint and then I will become resentful.

I’m leaning toward Choice B, but I would appreciate input from our community on advice on how to have this conversation.

While the advice is flowing, I’d appreciate any tips from those with older kids (those beyond the age of being read to or played with) on how you laid the groundwork for a positive relationship on both sides.

Thanks so much to everyone on AuPairMom — VtMommy

{ 41 comments }

Pearl February 17, 2011 at 2:38 pm

This is a toughie. Your post rang some faint bells with me because my au pair last year got along terrifically with everyone in the family except my eldest – a 6-7 year old at the time. I could never get to the bottom of it. Often, I would hear completely contradictory versions of the day from her and him – her saying that she asked him to play and he wouldn’t and he saying he asked her to play and she wouldn’t. Neither is dishonest, so I never could figure it out. I ended up chalking it up to maybe my son had a little boy crush on his au pair and didn’t know how to deal with his awkward feelings. The best I could do was to suggest things they could do together while I was away.

One thing that struck me as something you might do (other than asking her point blank to sit down with the kids while they eat, whether she eats or not, which I think is a good idea) is to forbid your au pair from talking on the phone while she’s on duty and limit your kid’s computer time. Seems these arguably less beneficial activities might be preventing them from having fun together and getting to know each other.

Good luck!

momofthree February 17, 2011 at 3:29 pm

VtMommy – i’ve had variations on this situation w all three of my APs. at first, my advice to you was going to be ‘option #4 – mandate a fun family outing or two and see if that helps your whole family bond.’ shared experience *should* be an effective means of drawing people closer together. but as i thought about it, i realized it’s only worked once in the three times i’ve tried it:

AP #1 – loved my infant/toddler daughters, thought my 6-7 yo son was ‘too competitive and reminded her of one of her brothers (ok, she was right…my son is a show-boat, though less so every year). DS was too young to recognize this and was unaware that she preferred my daughters. now…our family did many things w this AP. she also had a balanced social and dating life outside her family, but she really enjoyed doing things with us – museums, restaurants, theme parks, zoo, etc. she also accompanied us on several vacations. we enjoyed her company and she was helpful to us w the kids, even on VC. since the ultimate combination of factors resulted in no problems for anyone, we brought her back for a second year. she’s come back again once to visit since then, and during that visit found a way to have fun w my son.

AP #2 – just didn’t seem to know how to play w my son. she told me she was intimidated by how smart he was. again, i was told ‘he reminds me of my brother’, but this time in such a positive way she didn’t think she could measure up! by age 8, DS’s english was better than hers, and she was afraid to talk to him…so she just stopped. as a result, he never really bonded w her. as for my girls, age 3 by that time, they thought she was ok, but didn’t bond w her either. i think this was a result of their relatively strong personalities and her culturally-inherited service orientation – a la ‘whatever they ask me to do, i’ll do for them.’ she genuinely thought she was anticipating their needs and filling them. so, DS didn’t care too much about AP #2’s lack of interaction w him, and after several tries at ‘rehabbing’ AP’s ‘pushover’ style w my girls, it became clear that it was time for a change at the AP helm. the last staw for me was that all attempts at taking her out to do this w the family were disasters – all she wanted to do was get on her computer and skype, even on the one VC we attempted w her. we let AP #2 go a month early and looked for someone w more of a backbone.

AP #3 – was hired specifically because she had qualities that the previous APs lacked and that we thought would improve the relationship w all three kids. she’s a stronger disciplinarian than #2 and much less biased toward my daughters than #1. but…she’s very reserved and hardly the warm-and-fuzzy type. i’m sad to say this, but i don’t enjoy spending time w her, in part bc of her negativity (it’s cold. it’s raining. it’s so far away. nobody came to that AP meeting. we went bowling, but it wasn’t that fun. etc). we do set aside our feelings about her negativity and invite her to join us on outings. sometimes she does, sometimes she doesn’t. i can’t say her presence on outings has made us bond more. we won’t be asking her to return for a second year, though we’ll definitely finish out our year w her (still have about 7 months left).

bottom line – it’s hard to get the chemistry right, even when they look good on paper and you try taking corrective action. as grateful as i’ve been overall for the AP experience, i will be looking for alternatives to APs when we need to replace #3 in august. Vtmommy, keep us posted on the approach you decide to take and how it turns out!

Should be working February 17, 2011 at 4:48 pm

Wow, this is a pretty disheartening track record. I can see why you would look for alternatives. I am wondering, as my older kid approaches 10, whether APs will be less and less interested in her. A lot of candidates seem to want babies, toddlers and little kids. I worry that as we start to look at APs who aren’t into toddlers, that they might be looking just for an ‘easy’ job and are not as dedicated.

Calif Mom February 18, 2011 at 1:01 am

SBW,

fear not! The appeal of shorter hours opens you to a different group of APs, but not necessarily lazy ones or checked-out ones.

What I caution you’re careful to screen for is a love of teenybopperhood that stems from still being a child herself.

We thought it was fab that our au pair candidate said she loved being a tween and those were her best years of life. Think of the advantages–they like the same music, painting fingernails, playing with hair. (I’m gagging help me!) :-)

What this means is “I’m not really to be an adult”. So be sure you ask enough qualifiers to assess independence.

OP
Our AP was railing and nagging. She stopped. This was accomplished by a hard meeting in which we gave her one last chance to be nice to the kids. Yes, that’s the exact phrasing. Counselor was there.

Counselor then gave au pair a new frame of her job–not to get things done no matter the cost but to be fun for the kids. She told her she had to work at making them like her. I was surprised to hear this, and I don’t know what else she said, exactly, but she explained that you can’t just walk in and have a love fest. You have to earn their respect and earn their friendship.

That part worked. Pretty stunning actually, how much better that is.

But the still being a child herself part is a problem.

calif mom February 18, 2011 at 1:08 am

also wanted to add that I do think when the AP is “always on the phone” it doesn’t work well. The kids totally resent being ignored the whole time.

We haven’t banned au pair cell phone use outright, but limited it to making quick arrangements for activities.

And while it seems heavy handed, and there are time you just want/need to plug them in, we established a no screen time during the week rule. It has been easier to have a solid rule like that, at least for us, rather than a “you can watch one show after homework is done” because you start down a slippery slope, and the children are experts at wheedling, cajoling, playing one adult off another (esp if one is out of town and sad, or one is an immature au pair, or one got pulled out of a meeting at work to answer this stupid question…etc). The no screen time until the weekend rule has simplified things.

And it has forced the au pair to interact with the kids.

Here’s an idea on the “won’t play with me” issue. We had the same thing because the AP didn’t like the kids’ imaginary games and refused to take part in any way. Our au pair before had loved these games herself, would play for hours with tons of silliness and giggling all around. So new au pair had a hard row to hoe, but instead of finding an acceptable middle ground, she had just refused flat out to have anything to do with it. Once we understood what was actually going on, we devised a compromise and things are better on this aspect.

Should be working February 18, 2011 at 4:36 am

Thanks, Calif Mom, for the hope and the screening insight. This never occurred to me about screening for ‘still a child herself’ with the candidates who have been enthusiastic about my older one. Not sure HOW to screen for that, but excellent advice.

1sttimeAPmom February 25, 2011 at 12:29 am

We have our first Au Pair and boy have we learned alot! I found that she and her “friends” sought out families with babies because there was less “interacting”. The drawback for me is I have 4 under 6 and this did not meet her expectations. She does not interact well with my 6 yr old bc he is very verbal and impatient at times. He does tell me that she does not want to play or talk and that she uses her phone or computer all the time. Also, the play dates with other APs in our area turn into a social gathering for them to speak their native language and line the babies up in front of the TV or put them for a nap. I thought she wanted little kids to have fun and play with them, now I am seeing an alterior motive….We are addressing this and have limited the cell phone use, computer use and play dates unless planned with activities to be done during that time. We also are not sure if we should have and AP as the children get older bc of the demands.

Calif Mom February 25, 2011 at 4:59 pm

1sttime,

Just focus on getting through what you have on your plate now, and deal with a different schedule and older kids when you get closer to it! :-) I was once turned down by an otherwise great rematch AP because she wanted school-age children so she would have her days free to be with her friends who also had older kids.

I know that our first au pair took our youngest on many playdates with the kids of other au pairs, her friends. We were okay with it as long as the kids reported having a good time on those playdates. One of the little girls became good friends with our daughter.

But the key to success on this, IMHO, is that you have to grill your kids about how the playdates go, assuming they are old enough to tell you, which your 6 year old certainly is. And you need the AP to know that the kids HABITUALLY report to you on their day. Our current AP’s best friend lives nearby but her charges have lousy playdate manners and my kids have a terrible time when they are together. The AP didn’t tell us about the playdates, but the kids did! I had to put an end to it. The APs can see each other in the evenings and weekends, without dragging my kids into that kind of a social mess. They’ve got enough mishegoss to deal with at school.

AussieHostMum February 17, 2011 at 8:41 pm

Combine 2 and 3 and it sounds just like our last AP. The situation was terrible on my son because she wouldn’t interact him and was all the time on Skype. She would laugh and smile on that but not ever at the boy. It was very difficult on the whole family. I hope that I would nip the negative AP in the beginning now instead of just trying to cope with it.

Taking a Computer Lunch February 17, 2011 at 10:32 pm

momofthree, your AP #3 sounds like mine when she arrived. I think, in hindsight, that my AP was not truly prepared for everything appearing to be similar to Europe in the US and yet being so vastly different. We’ve learned to warn her about the differences, and to discuss them in terms of a “new experience.” Over time, her attitude has improved greatly as she has found activities she has enjoyed, and has learned to see the beauty in difference.

It sounds like you’re really trying to break through her reserve by asking her questions about herself and not just her as the caretaker of your kids. Keep trying!

Michigan Mom February 17, 2011 at 3:42 pm

I have kids roughly the same age as yours, so I understand what you mean about having different priorities than if they were younger children. Still, I would definitely tell her to stop using her cell phone when she’s working–I tell our au pairs upfront to avoid using their cell phones for personal calls when they’re with the kids. And I would also tell her to sit down with the kids at dinners.

One thing I do with our au pairs is ask them questions about the kids–e.g., “I thought X seemed a little down today, do you know if something happened?” or “Y was really excited when she got home, what was going on?” After a couple of weeks they start to anticipate that they’re going to get questions like that, and I think it makes them pay a little more attention and encourages them to have conversations with the kids about their day. I also strongly encourage the au pairs to eat with us (we all eat together) once a week at a minimum.

As far as snow days go, I always give our au pairs a rough schedule: the kids can play on their own until a certain time, then the au pair should find something for all of them to do together for a few hours, then the kids can be on their own again. I usually build in time for the kids to clean up their rooms and the play area in the basement (hey, if they’re going to be at home, they might as well be productive!). That way the kids don’t just watch Zach and Cody for 8 hours, and I know the au pair is interacting with them.

Au Pair in CO February 17, 2011 at 3:43 pm

I was just about to say what Pearl already did – tell your au pair to stay off her phone while on duty. I always had my phone on me while working, but only to make sure my host parents could get hold of me at any time, and I feel like you should be able to demand that of your au pair too:)

Should be working February 17, 2011 at 4:52 pm

If you have some AP work hours to spare, and don’t mind spending a little money on this project, I would not arrange for her to do a ‘family’ or multi-kid activity; instead I’d assign her to go do something truly fun with the older or middle child. This means real fun for BOTH of them, perhaps something the AP can’t do with younger kids, like a climbing wall or a rollercoaster park or something. Then the kid gets to see the AP having fun with something the kid likes, and the AP gets to have fun with the kid in a way she wouldn’t with the littler kid/s. Or even a teenage movie that would be suitable for the older kid but something the AP wants to see, if you can figure out something that would work.

Should be working February 17, 2011 at 5:14 pm

Let me clarify: I mean that the AP spends ‘fun’ time with one kid at a time. Isn’t one-on-one pretty special for us parents, and more fun and less stressful than trying to have fun with kids of different ages and interests? Our last AP got along MUCH better with our little one than our big one, and it was a big frustration. But when I scheduled a ‘fun’ outing for just the AP and the big kid, they always came back cheerful and the good vibe did seem to linger, for a while at least.

HM Pippa February 17, 2011 at 5:23 pm

I had a thought similar to Should Be Working: enroll them in an activity together. (This is the same principle as Mommy-and-Me classes, but for the older child) Take music lessons. Learn to play guitar (especially if it means learning a popular song both kids and AP like). Basketweaving. Book-making. Fused glass workshop. Pottery studio. More sporting? Learn to play lacrosse or handball or floor hockey. Does AP know how to knit? Have her teach your children. Lots of community centers offer inter-generational activities that are fun for youth, teens and adults alike.

My 2 cents February 17, 2011 at 7:40 pm

Yeah, we have and have had this problem too, especially as the year wears on. I’ve noticed our au pairs all seem to be able to meet the basic needs — and that requires a lot of time when they are little kids — but are otherwise kind of disengaged and disinterested. Meaning they sit and stare at the kids and aren’t exactly the most enterprising or energetic. I find I have to be direct and literally them what I “shouldn’t” have to in order to be a bit more involved. It works for a short time, but by then it’s bad to same old – same old.

But I’ve gotta say I’ve had the same experience with the pre-schools and my friends have had the same with private nannies, sadly. There’s the rare gem that can keep the attention of the kids and most degrade to staring and letting the kids play on their own or line up some play dates where they can stand and stare as the kids figure out what to do with one another.

Taking a Computer Lunch February 17, 2011 at 10:25 pm

My handbook says, “Please limit your phone calls to 10 minutes while you are working.” If the AP takes that to mean 10 minutes at a time, I make it clear that I mean 10 minutes total. Personally, I think it’s okay for my AP to figure out when and where she’s going to meet friends/boyfriend when she gets off, but not to chat extensively about her day. Same goes with the computer. The exception – a sick child at home on the couch.

APs #1-4 did great with both kids – all fell in love with The Camel, but most wanted special time with my son as well (AP #2 would ask for weekend time to take him to the movies – they saw lots of animated films together when he was 4-5). AP #4 played soccer with him until The Camel came home – they made films together about games he made up and really bonded.

My LCC warned me that when a fluent AP is followed by a non-English speaker there is often trouble, and that’s exactly what happened. AP #5 was reserved about her English and didn’t really attempt to engage my son on his terms until her time was nearly up (she would offer to play a board game when he wanted to play soccer). She was excellent with The Camel, and actually spoke more English with her than my son. She had trained as a kindergarten teacher and much of her speech was educational in nature and talking “at” my son rather than “with” him (and too bad, really, because she missed an excellent opportunity to improve her English and learn about American culture from a ‘tween point of view.

AP #6 saw the steep learning curve of The Camel and focused on her. She took her time to develop a relationship with my son, who frankly, now sees APs as belonging to The Camel and providing him with assistance. That being said, she does an excellent job of playing Wii with him, and when her friends are over, they will play a group boardgame (my son loves boardgames but thinks two people are never enough).

May I ask what your AP does if she doesn’t eat with the kids. Does she talk on the phone? Leave them alone at the table? Reinforce manners? Ignore them?

Does this AP, who has 5 1/2 months left think she will extend with you? Marry her boyfriend?

It’s time to have the 1 on 1 when the kids are in bed (or at least out of earshot). “I understand that you may not want to eat with the kids, but I expect that you will sit at the table with them, praising good manners and correcting bad ones. I expect that you will ask them questions about their day and have a conversation with them.

Is the cell phone hers or yours? If it’s yours, print-out the log of calls and confront her. Tell her that you are not paying her to talk to her boyfriend, her AP friends, etc. while she is taking care of the kids.

And then, show up unannounced to check in to see if there’s follow-through (or if you and DH can’t, then have a neighbor, a relative, a friend, do it).

OP February 19, 2011 at 12:45 am

TACL,

When the kids eat, she sits at the kitchen island and plays with her iPhone (provided by boyfriend, so I cannot monitor) and pretty much ignores them. We discussed reinforcing good manners, but she cannot effectively do this if she’s 8 feet away (no wonder table manners have taken a nosedive). She has basically relegated herself to the status of their maid. I find this behavior very odd and antisocial.

My handbook also says to keep phone time to a minimum. However, I’ve found it difficult to take action on this when my kids are at the age when they prefer to play by themselves, play on their electronic devices, or read. My kids don’t spend an excessive time online/on ipods so we have only loosely enforced rules around this. But, the last two au pairs read books when there was down time. Overall, I feel uncomfortable saying to her, “get off your phone” when the kids are playing on their ipods. I’m not really concerned about her modeling behaviors that I want because my kids are readers, but I guess I could play that card when making the request and tell her that I expect her not to spend so much time on her phone because I don’t want them to pick up that behavior. Also, it gets back to the point that this is her work time – I certainly can’t play games on my phone/text/check email all day at work. If she truly has nothing to do, she can read a book.

She is currently in her 2nd year and is engaged to marry the boyfriend after her au pair year ends. I was so excited to find a great 2nd year AP with superb English skills, driving, a year in the US already, family leaving the program so I could call for references, that I forgot to ask about a boyfriend. Sigh…

I’m planning a one-on-one for next week, after the holiday, which is why I came seeking advice from our aupairmom community…I was struggling with how to approach it and if it is reasonable to mandate that she sit down with them.

Calif Mom February 21, 2011 at 9:20 pm

“Book reading” burned me…I was thrilled when interviewing our current AP to hear that she spends a lot of time reading and visits the library at home every week. Turns out she reads trashy YA fiction and magazines like Cosmo (“Best Sex Positions for Him…And YOU!”), which she leaves around the house for my 11 year old to discover.

OP February 23, 2011 at 9:29 am

Good point! Though, my 13 yo reads her share of trashy YA fiction. My AP has a subscription to Cosmo, and I do not want my AP to be reading it (or even have Cosmo in view) around my kids. Just seeing the cover makes my 13 yo uncomfortable and I really don’t want my youngest asking questions about the titles of articles displayed on the front cover.

Calif Mom February 23, 2011 at 11:18 am

If she’s home I pick up the offending item, hand it to her and remind her that the kids both read quite well. If she’s away, I take them to her room every time I find one and drop them on the floor inside the door. You’d think it wouldn’t take that many embarrassing moments like this, but….

I was surprised that a 22 year old (a native English speaker) would read the “Rider” series and be a *huge* Justin Bieber fan, but APs never cease to amaze me. I remind myself that this all really is good experience and will help me face the teenage years racing toward me! It’s good to be reminded that not every family has the same priorities that we do, and figure out how to manage those and help our kid keep one foot in each world, too.

Taking a Computer Lunch February 21, 2011 at 10:17 pm

OP, Remind her that she will want to use you as a reference for any work she does, and that she will not want future employers hearing that she spent most of her time on the phone. They will want to hear that she worked hard, appeared to be engaged, and that she is worth hiring.

Feel like rematch? Then warn her that she has two weeks to put some effort into her work, to sit at the table with the kids, to put the phone down, to make sure the work you ask of her is done and done well, to make sure homework is done, and that the kids feel that she cares about them (even if she doesn’t).

Can you live with the status quo for the next few months? Then warn her not to use you as a reference, that while she has done the basic job of keeping your children alive and fed, and that you are happy enough to have her finish the year with you, you haven’t been thrilled with her performance, her failure to interact with the kids on more than a basic level, and her lack of interest in being part of the family at all. Do it gently, or she’ll join her boyfriend sooner rather than later.

Sota Gal February 21, 2011 at 11:04 pm

IMO, she should not be on her phone or computer regardless of what your kids are doing. When an adult is at their job, they typically cannot be on the phone unless they work in a call center. I have a list of “SotaGal’s stupid things to do”, an idea that I took from an old manager; if we had “nothing to do” there was surely something on Dale’s list that would pass our time. I’ve used this in the past for tasks that were within the au pairs scope – so no scrubbing the kitchen floors or washing windows – but organizing kid drawers/closets (almost time for those summer clothes to come back out!), cleaning kids bathroom and working with HK’s to get it done (to eliminate maid-status) or what ever. I also had one AP that made a box with slips of paper for things to do if the kids said that they were bored, may not fly with older kids but may be worth a shot. She had things like play Battleship (DS’s fave), play Wii, read a chapter in “their book” together, paint, ride bikes/scooters. Whatever was pulled from the box had to be done for at least 15 minutes but they usually made it longer and had a blast.

I like the idea of reading having her read, and am reading a book about the importance of you guessed it, reading. Primarily it’s about the importance of reading TO kids. All the way through high school. It talks about how by age 9 the motivation to read for leisure really starts to decline in the US and continues to drop from there. Adults reading to themselves (example) as well as reading aloud to kids can keep that alive, resulting in greater knowledge, fluency and higher test scores. Though perhaps you’ll have to point out what is and isn’t OK to read or they’ll be watching her plan her honeymoon!

Sounds like you might need to insist that she sit down with them at the table and encourage her to get to know the kids better. We’ve made it part of our handbook that the kids should not be sitting at the table alone while eating and that it should be treated as a time to talk about their day and sharing their experiences.

Melissa February 22, 2011 at 3:57 pm

This is timely for me because we are dealing with similar issues right now. We have an otherwise good AP who is positive and enthusiastic with the kids and has a great attitude with us in general (which is really important to us, as I’ve learned that having a negative AP can be a MAJOR source of frustration). However, she doesn’t exhibit as much creativity or initiative with the kids as I would like and does a lot of sitting on the sofa and tv watching with them. I’m ok with SOME tv, but it is turning into the default activity, which is not ok. We recently had a talk about it and I am trying to put more specific activities onto our weekly calendar, but it is time-consuming on my end.

Also, phone usage has become a major issue lately and has really shaken my trust and good will. We state in our handbook, limited phone calls and no internet while working. She never has her laptop out, but her phone, with internet access, was pretty much attached to her. She is otherwise very mature and has shown good judgment, so I was ok with occasional usage (a text here and there to make plans, schedule a skype call, etc) and she and my older child do like to enjoy music together on her iPod. Well, it started to become more of an issue so I did some investigating and found that she was pretty much constantly texting while with the kids. There was an instance with 100 texts during a 7 hour workday, and near constant Twitter ramblings. I was shocked and really bummed out. This was an issue with our last AP too, but it was easier to understand and deal with because she was quite the partyier and we had to rein her in on a number of similar issues (car, curfew etc). In this case, I’m particularly disappointed. I even had a few chats with our AP about it informally, saying that I’d like her to monitor her usage, but didn’t go so far as to set an ‘off limits rule.’ We really try to strike a good balance between ’employee’ and ‘family member’ and treat our APs like adults and with respect and maturity, good judgment, and taking an active role in our family are all things we stress heavily during the matching process. Which is why it feels like such a slap in the face when they pull such a sneaky maneuver like this. I sooo don’t understand why this is such an issue for so many host families???!! Aaah! It really makes me feel like I should throw trying to be nice and understanding and generous out the window and just treat my APs like employees (ok, sorry for the rant…feel a bit better now….)

Calif Mom February 23, 2011 at 11:28 am

Oh yuck. Sounds like you do need to do some heavier management of this issue. There does need to be middle ground.

I’m not justifying what the AP is doing, but if you think about this with a bit more distance, it’s all about the brain’s reward center. Texts and calls and emails and FB and Twitter and all these “social media” deliver little endorphin hits to the brain every time someone replies. It makes you feel loved, important, needed, relevant — all those emotional rewards that humans need. Being an AP could be pretty isolating during the day, just like being a mom who isn’t working felt very isolating to me, even if I was dragging kids to grocery store, library, etc. I do much better at work than at home (as long as my workplace has a non-hostile, troll-limiting culture).

So….all this texting is both culturally cool, not unusual in the AP demographic, and literally addictive to the brain. And you have to come in and show the costs of spending time this way, and apply some leverage on the “job” and “safety” sides of the scale to get her usage back into balance.

Yes, managing APs can be exhausting. I’m thinking about making our next one pay for her own cell phone beyond basic service to my phone. That will limit its use, and I won’t be the bad guy.

You have to be sure, too, that you and your spouse aren’t constantly on your blackberries/smartphones when you’re around the kids. Otherwise you weaken your case and aren’t modeling what you want to have happen.

Anna February 18, 2011 at 2:30 pm

I haven’t read all the replies yet, but if I were you, I would restrict her on-the-job phone time.
I actually have such a restriction in my handbook, it says something like “when you are working, please limit personal phone calls to no more than 2-5 minutes, and if you receive a phone call, ask your friends to call you later when you are not working”.

It is only fair to request that while she is working with your kids, she should be focusing her attention on them. Even though they are not little, this is her job description. It seems like she is half-heartedly just going through the motions while all her thoughts are with her boyfriend. If you supply the cell phone, I would check the phone logs to see if her usage is unreasonable during her work hours. You might have some eye-openers (I know I did when I ran such a check with an au pair who didn’t work out in the end).

As to dinner- I would mandate her to sit down with your kids, even if she is not eating. Is this during her working hours? Then I think it is perfectly reasonable. She is supposed to supervise dinner, ensure manners, cleanup,etc… she should sit down with them!

OB Mom February 18, 2011 at 8:51 pm

This could almost be me, except for the phone part. Our AP is very good about not using the phone during work. We also don’t really have the eating together problem. Many years ago I added “must eat one meal a week with the family”, and that has worked well (all should add to their handbook!). The current AP actually cooks one meal a week too so that’s fantastic!

She isn’t good about finding something to bond with the kids about. At every “after hours one on one” (which we have ~ 6-8 weeks), I keep reminding her that it is important that she find something to bond with them about. She’s made some efforts, but not as much as I’d hoped. We’ve already listed all the “do not’s” (go and hang out in your room while you are on duty, assume DS#2 will get dressed alone, let them play on the trampoline with friends without watching them (sometimes she does jump with them too, but not often). I also keep trying some “do’s”, but I’m not sure if it is sticking very well.

DS#1 (10) is quite busy with HW and can keep himself entertained and engaged very well on his own. He’s not afraid to ask for someone to play with him, and he and the AP seem to get into reasonable conversations about various topics, so I’m not worried there. It’s really with DS#2 (7) who really likes to be with people and needs direction to help find things to do. He’s very cuddly and all the previous AP’s used to sit with him on their laps to read or talk or play. He still likes to do that with me, so I know he hasn’t completely grown out of it. Quite often we’ve found him watching TV alone when we’ve come home from work (she used to go to her room). To me participating in their kid-oriented culture, would give them more to talk about. Cuddling on the couch is easy.

Sometimes it seems like she really doesn’t like kids. She’s great with adults and is really enjoying the adventure of being in the US. How can you tell someone that they need to like children more? Not possible.

Also, quite honestly, when I was her age, I would have been exactly the same. I liked children, but wasn’t inspired by their learning and growth as I am now with my own children. Kids were usually fun to hang around, but I didn’t know how to bond with them in a deep manner. But then again, I don’t think I would have been a good AP!

I don’t really have any solutions, just comiserating, stuck in the grey area of “not bad enough to rematch”, but “not good enough to extend” … just want to “stick it out while hoping it doesnt cause too much problems with the boys”.

OP February 19, 2011 at 12:50 am

OB Mom, you wrote, “Sometimes it seems like she really doesn’t like kids. She’s great with adults and is really enjoying the adventure of being in the US.” That’s a bit how I feel – she’s engaging and easy to talk to on an adult level, but it hasn’t carried over to the kids. They’re certainly content to do their own thing and they’re not super social and won’t think to initiate conversation on their own, but they have commented numerous times that she never eats with them. I also wonder if she just plain doesn’t like them.

AFHostMom February 19, 2011 at 12:15 pm

Regarding the phone issue, she’s not doing her job. When I’m at work, I don’t stare at my BB (personal) or text or make long phone calls. Sure, we all do on occasion–making dentist appts for the kids, calling the scout leader to see if there is a meeting, etc–but there’s a bright line between that and playing on the phone all day.
We just retooled our HB in preparation for a match (which may be coming this weekend), and I changed the phone language. We had “please limit calls to 10 minutes during work.” Which my AP took as “You can make 5 or more calls in a day as long as they aren’t more than 10 min each.” We had so many other phone issues with her (60-90 min calls to home, which is clearly out of bounds), and I had already decided to rematch, so I never addressed her failure to follow the spirit of the guideline, even though she was following the letter. Our new verbiage is much more specific (like Anna’s)

Eurogirl February 19, 2011 at 3:19 pm

Well I had a situation a little like this in that when I worked with a family who had twins and then a big sister, big sister thought the au pair was for the babies and she didn’t need me – personally, I found my way around that by taking her out without the twins occasionally (even for cake and hot chocolate as a very special treat). When her mama was busy with the twins, or the twins were in a class or activity.

The day I left I felt like I was breaking her heart. Was actually far closer to her than to the twins by that stage. Strange how these things turn out.

That said I don’t think you can (or should) force her to make that kind of effort…she would resent it and kids always sense if someone does not really want to spend time with them :-(

CanadianAuPair February 21, 2011 at 9:22 am

Hi there. I’m working as an au pair looking after two girls, 5 and 10.

Sure, I understand it’s easier to bond with a 5 year old, she’s more clingy, and needs more help which leads to more bonding time, but I have to say, I think there are ample opportunities to create special ties with older children too, and I think your au pair is just choosing not to do so.

With my 10 year old, I find our relationship even more rewarding, as she can engage in more advanced things. One thing I do that I think makes a huge difference is that even though I’m off duty at 7 (Mom comes home and 5 year old goes to bed), I always stick around until 8 and spend that hour doing something one on one with the 10 year old. It gives Mom a chance to get settled after work, and make supper for herself and my host dad (I always cook for and eat with the girls), but she still has some time alone with her daughter before she goes to bed at 9. I think as the elder daughter, she gets roped into doing things more appropriate for a 5 year old sometimes, and so for that hour I make sure we do something she wants to do that she might not be able to do with her sister around.

Another thing I really enjoy doing, is that I read all the novels she reads for school. It gives us a common interest to talk about, and I can lend a hand if she needs help with homework. I love to read so it doesn’t take much on my end and we end up having loads to talk about (like the fact that we are both HUGE Harry Potter fans! haha).

I would suggest prompting your au pair to find something in common with your older child, allowing their relationship to grow stonger without it seeming like a chore!

Should be working February 21, 2011 at 9:26 am

What a great AP you are! I like it that you read her books. I do that with my daughter and it gives me huge insight as to what her psychic life is like.

future AP February 21, 2011 at 11:13 am

Hi everyone. I’m not an AP yet, but I’m planning to come to the US in a few months and I’m now into the matching process. I understand it’s a lot easier to get along and bond with younger children, but I also find relationships with tween or teens to be more engaging for both parts. Since I received an offer from a family with 3 “grown” boys (7,10,13) I’ve started to think about something I could “use” to create ties with them.
As lots of these moms and APs told you, you should really talk to your AP and share your concern with her. As I said, I’m not AP yet, but I guess I’m in the same age-range as your AP is, so I can imagine what the reaction might be. Just try to be nice and somehow broadminded in telling her what’s doing wrong and why, maybe make sure you also tell her how happy you are with the rest of the job she’s doing right. That said, there is one little thing I thought about: it’s a game that should be fun & useful in the “creating ties” process.
You can suggest your AP to create a box with a whole on the top, just like a money box. (Making a nice box with the kids can be fun itself). That will be the “activity box”. Each kid, no matter the age, will have to fill the box with at least one activity per week. They can draw the activity, write what they want to do on a piece of paper (if they’re able to write), put something in the box who suggests the activity (a baseball ball if they want to play, a movie ticket if they wanna go to the cinema, and so on).
When the AP and the kids have spare time which they don’t know how to spend, they choose the activity from the box by lot. So the “draw” itself, the choice, will be part of the game itself, as it will be making the box and -for the kids- drawing or writing or even just thinking to the activity they want to fill the box with.
That way, every week they will be involved in activities they like (at least once per week), and your AP will have some suggestions about what your children really would like to do. The papers can even be anonymous if there is some kid who is afraid of asking and so on… It is also a nice thing to ensure that your kids and the AP have something that is just “theirs”, it could help to create chemistry.
Good luck!!

hOstCDmom February 21, 2011 at 5:26 pm

This is a GREAT idea! I’m going to copy it ASAP! Thanks!!

future AP February 21, 2011 at 5:37 pm

you’re more than welcome! glad you liked it :)))

Sota Gal February 21, 2011 at 11:11 pm

Hi FutureAP,
that is such a great idea! We had an AP that did something similar and used it when there was a complaint of being bored or nothing to do and they had the best times from that box. Sounds like you are already off to a great year even before you get started!
Best of Luck!

future AP February 23, 2011 at 6:19 pm

@sota Gal, thanks!! hope so :)))

OP March 1, 2011 at 11:28 pm

Thank you all for your suggestions and ideas. I will need to proactively think of was to set the foundation for a relationship between my oldest two and the next AP – I think it’s just too late for this one and my eldest would resent it. She (my eldest) doe want to participate in screening the next AP – not only will having her do the online pre-screening help me, but it will also give her a greater sense of ownership over our final choice and the relationship.

I did sit down on Friday to have a chat with our AP. I opened with telling her all the positives: no worries about my children being safe, good driving, always takes care of her responsibilities, covers all the basics, respects our rules, house & car, etc. Then I told her that there were two things we’d like to change. Rather than tell her that she’d been doing something wrong or playing up the “relationship with the kids” angle (because, since she’s getting married in August, I’m unforunately not sure she cares), I positioned these as being about modeling behavior for my kids. I asked her to eat (or sit) with them at dinners and carry on a conversation with them to model conversational skills. I reminded her that we prefer less time to be spent on the phone because we don’t want to model constant attention to electronics. She replied that she sometimes reads on her phone, to which I answered that she should tell my kids this or talk at dinner about the books she’s reading.

All in all, it was a good discussion. This is an AP whose English skills are off the charts, so I felt that she clearly understood my points. I asked her if my requests seemed reasonable and she concurred. I was looking forward to posting that my issues had been resolved!

This evening, she made my kids dinner and did NOT sit with them. She spent dinner time cleaning up he pots & pans and didn’t even chitchat with them. I checked with my middle (most neutral opinion) daughter and the eldest confirmed. I’m a bit stunned.

I’ve now recapped our discussion in writing and will sit down with her when I have some time later this week (and before the next meal she’s responsible for) to discuss…again…

Hopefully, it was just a misunderstanding, though we spoke about it at such length that I don’t see how it could be. This time I’ll be even more direct about my expectations.

I’ll let you know how this second discussion goes.

Lessons learned:
Add to my handbook that I expect the AP to sit down with the kids at dinner when we’re not home (I have had 9 nannies/APs and have never had to spell this out before)
Avoid extension APs with US boyfriends

OP - Closing the loop on my post March 25, 2011 at 11:57 am

The 2nd discussion went better. My AP has such excellent spoken English, that I take for granted that she understands and processes everything that I say. This time, I recapped our discussion in writing and we re-discussed. She said that she’s not hungry. We had covered this is talk #1, but I reiterated that she doesn’t have to eat, she can simply sit with them.

She is now sitting & talking with the girls when they eat dinner and reading books & magazines instead of constantly being on her iPhone.

Thanks again for all of your suggestions!

Melissa March 25, 2011 at 4:30 pm

Thanks for letting us know how things are working out. That’s great that it seems to be improving. We had a similar situation with iPhone usage. I’m not big on having strict rules with our APs, such as NO phone/internet use while working, especially because I screen for an older, mature AP and constantly emphasis the importance of her being an ‘adult’ in our household. I do say that they can use their phone, but that it should be limited (a few texts to make plans for the night, quick phone call, etc) and that they should exercise good judgement. Well, our prior AP was on her phone constantly and it became a huge issue. I was very frustrated because I felt that my attempts to treat her like an adult were useless after all, and it wasn’t a communication issue because, like your AP, her English was perfect and she never voiced any concerns or disagreement with me about it. We talked about it and I said that unfortunately, we need to move to a ‘no phone at all while working’ rule. She agreed, but then did it anyway when I wasn’t home. I pretty much lost all trust after that & things went downhill fast (this could probably be a whole post in itself!). I was extremely disappointed and disillusioned afterwards, and my takeaway was that, as much as I don’t like it and it’s not ‘me’, I guess I need to be more employer-like and set tougher rules from the beginning and try to nip any usage or other problems early on, before it becomes a pattern.
I hope your situation works out well. Let us know how it’s going in a few weeks.

Calif Mom March 25, 2011 at 5:23 pm

Wow, she would hate our house. We have a “no reading at the table” rule, except for breakfast. Otherwise we would all be sitting there reading while we ate! That’s not the point of sitting down together, even if you’re not hungry.

( I too have been fooled by APs who had excellent English; good English does not = maturity, does not = understanding, does not = intelligence! )

But congrats on getting her to take some baby steps forward. Sounds like this one is never going to be a chummy type. Get good with that.

Melissa–that situation wasn’t really about the phone. The phone was just the catalyst. Don’t beat yourself up over not having set the standards earlier (though that’s good practice). That one didn’t have much chance for success. Attitude–and by that I mean actually liking kids and wanting to help the parents build a fun, functional family–is soooo important!

Good luck!

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