Protect Your Au Pair’s Off-Duty Time

by cv harquail on January 11, 2010

Au Pairs work hard. When they are off duty, they need their downtime.

But, if they’re good au pairs, your kids probably like them and enjoy spending time interacting with them. Kids don’t always know the difference between on-duty and off-duty, so it’s our job as host parents to help au pairs protect their downtime.

This isn’t so hard if your au pair likes to go out…if s/he is a homebody who likes to watch the telly in the family room, or just hang out having tea in the kitchen, s/he can get caught in that place where saying “no, I don’t want to (whatever) is just too hard to do. And then, s/he’s not really “off”, is s/he?

201001102344.jpgHere’s a comment from one au pair:

I am a current au pair in France who tends to stay at home on the weekend, I do then get approached to help do homework or play. While it is not tiring I do feel that this is my time alone. Any advice?

‘ Sota Gal has one suggestion:

Can you talk to your host family about this? Perhaps that you could suggest that you can be available to help with homework on Fridays after school while you are already working, or even during a short (say 30 minutes?) period of time on Saturday or Sunday.

Are you being sought out in your room or is it when you are in main living areas of the house. The host parents may not even realize this is happening, or if they do, they aren’t thinking it’s a problem because nothing has been said otherwise. I think an honest talk with host parents is in order, it would be awful to let this build up inside you to the point where it DOES become a big deal.

Trust me, I let something tiny slide with our au pair for months, to the point of feeling resentful, and what should have been a quick discussion/solution, turned into a big fight with hurt feelings. It all worked out in the end, but it was rocky for a while. Let us know who it works out….
201001102344.jpg 201001102344.jpg

What else do you parents and au pairs suggest for this situation?

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{ 21 comments }

Anonymous January 11, 2010 at 11:10 am

I think this issue requires a degree of understanding from both the AP and the host family. If the AP is hanging around in the common areas of the house, i.e., kitchen, TV room, then there is going to be a certain expectation that the kids are going to interact with her, and that the host family may expect her to pitch in here and there. For example, if I’m in the kitchen cooking dinner with my hands full, and one of the kids asks for a glass of juice, I’m going to say to AP if she’s standing there in the kitchen leaning against the counter, “Hey AP, would you mind grabbing a cup of juice for Kid X?” That’s just life and part of being part of a family. On the other hand, I’m not going to say to AP (as she stands in the kitchen), “Hey, would you mind sitting down and doing Kid Y’s math homework with him for the next hour?”

We try hard to respect our AP’s off duty time, but at the same time, having live-in childcare is supposed to come with the benefits of having someone live in your home. The kids are told that if she is in her room, off duty, then they are not supposed to knock on her door.

On a related issue, we have occasionally checked with AP on her days off to see if she’s planning to be around the house, and left our 11 year old son home with her while running out to run errands or something with the younger kids. She is a student, so she often spends her weekend afternoons at home studying. We tell the 11 year old that AP is here if there is an emergency involving blood or fire, but that otherwise he is not to bother her while she studies. He is quite happy to sit and watch TV or play Wii, and as far as I know, has never asked her for anything while we’re gone. I always okay this with her in advance, and she knows she doesn’t need to do anything for him or “work” – but she’s there in an emergency. He is probably old enough to be left home alone for an hour or two, but I’m not quite comfortable with that yet. Our AP has never complained about this situation, and if she tells me she is planning on heading out, I don’t leave him home. I hope this isn’t an abuse of the AP’s off duty time – I definitely would not do that if she expressed any concern about it. I’d be curious to see what some of the APs think of this, though.

Au Pair January 13, 2010 at 12:09 am

That`s very thoughtful of you, some host families have the tedency to use and re-use the Au Pair as if she was obligated to since she lives with them. I`ve heard so many histories that chocked me and some i lived on my own.
As an abused AP I don`t believe you are abusing yours.

NoVA Host Mom January 11, 2010 at 11:36 am

I think two things are going on here. Both Sota and Anonymous have it right.

First, the AP seems to be in “common space” (i.e. the family room) and wanting privacy and to be left alone. Sorry, but in our house if you want quiet time, you head to your room. I do it. I just let my husband know I need a little bit to lay down or decompress and I go. If there are kids who love their AP and see her sitting in the family room, they are going to want to play with their play friend, or see her as the “smart big sister” who can help with homework. If you do not wish to help, then you need to tell the kids that you cannot help right now, but you will be glad to help them on Monday during working hours. When my daughter is having a good time and she sees her AP, she always goes and gives AP a hug, or wants her to share a book or play with the toy cars. It’s expected when the AP has a good relationship with the charge. We do try to steer our tot into another direction so while she can greet AP, she does not rope the poor AP into a full-on game of something. Or you could spend your “alone time” in private space where you can actually be alone. Your room would be a great example.

Second is that the HM and HD (since is sounds from the short note like it’s likely the kids making the approach) are not aware or have not really sat the kids down and explained “on-duty AP” vs “off-duty AP”. Talk to the parents and explain to them how intrusive you seem to feel it is that the kids approach you when you are off duty. It may be that the kids see you as more of a member of the family than you prefer to actually be. Communication is what is definately needed here.

(and if you are going to tell me that since you have no TV in your room you don’t want to spend your private time there, may I suggest a portable DVD player and a subscription to NetFlix or other video rental – I have done this myself when I just need a little veggie time. Or there is always a book, magazine, or newspaper. Sorry – moms have to offer the non-electronic media suggestion. It’s in the contract).

Former French Au Pair January 11, 2010 at 12:40 pm

Discussion and posts are right on target. I think this issue mainly depends on: 1) How the HF communicates with AP and children about time off/ things children should not do when AP is off; 2) How the AP communicates her expectations with HF about embracing the “living with an American family” aspect of the program and her time off.
Personally, as an au pair for 18-months-old triplets and a 5-year-old, I knew better than to be in the family room if I wanted to relax… I would either go to my room and read/ chill/ watch TV OR go out with friends. If I was off and wanted to “hang out” with the family, I was always invited and enjoyed doing family activities, going outside, participating in snacks, etc. My HF was happy to see more involvement from their AP than the last one that was always gone as soon as she switched to “off duty” (funny image in my mind is the AP having a reversible shirt that says “on duty” or “off duty” and would switch it at the exact minute she would be excused…).

This is definitely a grey area between “on” and “off” duty, but as NoVa HM said, communication is key… And I would definitely recommend for the HF to discuss with AP even if s/he doesn’t bring it up, as s/he may be too shy to bring this up for fear it is seen as an “issue” and lack of understanding on her part…

A January 11, 2010 at 1:06 pm

This is so hard! If my kids did not want to sit in our au pair’s lap in the evening, I would not want her as an AP!
But she should not have to hide in her room all the time.
First, the au pair should not feel guilty about politely saying, “sorry, I cannot help right now.” She could also say, “why don’t you ask your mom?” An upbeat tone of voice might (should?) keep feelings from being hurt.

Calif Mom January 11, 2010 at 2:23 pm

“Redirection” is a priceless skill. I learned it from watching talented preschool teachers and parents ahead of me on the learning curve, mostly at the playground.

In a home with an au pair, ALL the adults need to be comfortable shifting the kids’ demands around. This varies with age, but a kid who is old enough to have homework is certainly old enough to not have feelings hurt when the AP tells them, “I love you, but I’m not on duty.”

We established the “grown-up-in-charge” concept when our first kid was born, at the advice of our pediatrician, and it has been extremely useful. That kid is ten now, and we still use it! It is a formal shift of responsibility–for example, you’re pushing a kid on the swing and another kid needs to go the bathroom. You yell to husband, “ok, Hub, you’re grown up in charge of X” and he confirms it. No lost children at the park, the zoo, the grocery store, wherever. And no hurt feelings amongst kids. They feel taken care of, actually, not like a burden.

(I know a family where a kid got trampled by a horse when a group of parents were standing around chatting b/c no one was specifically assigned oversight. “Grownupincharge” would have prevented this airlift and paralysis. Not to be overly dramatic, but this is real.)

I used to work at home, and our au pair learned to redirect the kids “I’m grownupincharge now, honey. What do you need? let’s go get it. do you want the blue cup or the pink one?”

It’s just a practice thing. What’s nice about this is that you can apply it to casual babysitters, aunts and uncles, etc, and the kids know that they should self-direct their needs to that adult.

Also, on the weekends, on Saturday morning, I remind my kids that our AP is “off duty” for the weekend.

They do love her, and she gets “attack hugged” on her way out the door, but when she’s off duty, she’s off duty, and she feels comfortable telling the kids that too.

But you know what, she feels completely loved every time she leaves home on an outing, too, and it’s a nice feeling. I sure didn’t get that from my job when I was 25! :-)

Anonymous January 11, 2010 at 6:16 pm

I love the idea of communicating “grown up in charge.” Thanks for sharing!

Au Pair January 13, 2010 at 12:12 am

yes.. “redirection” very precious skill… I never thought of that…thanks

franzi January 13, 2010 at 3:05 pm

my second family also used this concept and it worked well (kids 5 and 10). we also used it for outings with more kids eg pool or birthday parties.

TX Mom January 13, 2010 at 3:34 pm

I’m glad to know we aren’t the only family using the terminology. My sister got my daughter a great door hanger of a defiant looking pre-tween, “MY Room; I’m in charge here.”

Our youngest gets to be “in charge” of the dog. :)

Aupair January 11, 2010 at 3:23 pm

This is a difficult subject for me as an au pair. I am ALWAYS in my room during downtime and am sought out because I am English to help with English homework on a saturday night. Just this weekend I was interrupted while trying to study and the HM saw this but did not steer her child out of my room. I am often in my room when sought and just this weekend was roped into a game supposedly suggested by the mother for two hours. I think that they may just be worried that I am lonely in my room but I am quite clear in expressing that I am speaking to a friend or reading my book.

I love the children but even the parents need some time away. I revel in the weekends when everyone is out of the house, even then I may still stay in my room but I have no fear that there will be a knock on my door.

My 2 cents January 11, 2010 at 5:55 pm

Man au pair, sounds like not only the kids need the “training” in your house! You didn’t ask for advice, but I’ll give it anyway, because it really grabs me when people take unfair advantage.

1. Be firm and consistent and confident in your ability and right to say no. Be nice, but say “no X, I can’t help you now, I’m reading” and then escort them out, literally. Or, to host mom, “I’m sorry I can’t help, I’m reading.” Ignore any pleading looks that come your way, and don’t cave into any misguided feelings of guilt. Just continue to say no in the nicest way. Don’t offer another time to do it during your time off either. A few applications of this within a matter of days and the message will be clear to all that you’ve set a new boundary.

2. Talk to your host parents if you can. Sounds to me like they are taking advantage of you, and not innocently if it involves seeking you out in your room or sending the kids your way in the guise of a game. Of course, you cannot outright say this to them, but perhaps pointing out the constant disruptions with the kids and specifically asking that they tell the kids not to bother you in your room should at the very least get the ball rolling, if not subtly remind them that what they are doing is rude.

3. If they are really serious about really needing you in particular to help with homework, and English specifically, then enter into a conversation with your host parents where you allot time within your 45 hours for that. If need be, be upfront about the fact that the kids coming to you at random times during the evening and on weekends is not when you are at your best frame of mind to teach, and that perhaps teaching closer to another time during your work day is better (right after school for example). If they cannot allot paid time for it, it cannot be that important in the relative list of priorities that have for you !

Good luck

AP in CA January 13, 2010 at 12:22 am

My HF do that all the time. I feel so stupid and abused. Stupid because I honestly care about them and they have no worry about watching my clock. I know it is my fault I should have put some bounds since the beginning, but now the situation is out of control… I fell sufocated. the bathroom is downstairs, when i go I`m often required to do something.I really just don`t know what to do, I`ve said sometimes that I`ve been working a lot, they just don`t see.And when one of the kids get sick I work 13 hours a day, and they pretend that they didn`t know, or that it`s not their faulf… Seriouslly.. I do not know what to do. My coordinator is a HF kissing ass… I`m sorry for the language, but she does nothing…

New AuPair January 13, 2010 at 12:35 am

This also happen’s to me..not all the time, but a couple times a week. I am also having a probably with no knocking on my door. My HM doesn’t know when she comes in, she just opens the door and walks in. What if I were changing? There are many times I have been on skype with family and she will come in and give me a list of things to do for the next day, or reminders. I don’t know how to say I am talking to family, or I am busy, I could come down in 10 min, and we can have a conversation about it…What are your thoughts on this?? HP or APs?!

Sara Duke January 13, 2010 at 7:53 am

I would ask her to arrange a time to communicate what she wants, whether it’s when your duties end as she comes home or some time after the kids go to bed. We ask our au pair to check in with us at some point during the weekend, even if she is “off” so she is aware of changes in the children (we have one medically fragile child who can turn on a dime), the appointments for upcoming week, and any variations in the usual routine. We communicate with her in the morning when she starts (my husband is usually home for about an hour before he goes to work) and in the evening when her work ends (I come home about an hour before her day is done to cook dinner while she feeds my handicapped daughter).

I think it is okay to politely say, “I know you need to talk about this, but I’m speaking with my family/reading/studying right now. Could we please talk about this later? What would be a good time?” And then later, ask her to establish a time to communicate this information to you.

As a host parent I have taken leave if my children are sick in order to get home on time. Only once did I ask an au pair to work more than 10 hours, and that was a day a piece of metal holding plates to my daughter’s vertebrae came loose and broke through the skin at the back of her neck (and I had to rush her to the ER for emergency surgery). The au pair got many gifts for being willing to step in and care for my son, including a phone card, some food that she liked, and an extra day off (not to mention my gratitude for noticing the metal in the first place).

My 2 cents January 13, 2010 at 10:47 am

I know it’s hard, but understand that you have the right to stand up for yourself. It is plain that you are becoming more and more hurt and resentful — and no wonder why!

It’s up to you to stop the cycle and you can do this. Forget the LCC; strikes me it will only complicate things especially with the dynamic that is going. No matter what the request is, and now matter how quick or simple it seems, say “sorry, but I can’t do that right now.” No explaining, no apologies. These are not owed. Repeat as needed. Yes, you will feel guilty. Yes, you may get a disgruntled look from your HF. Yes, it may change the dynamic of your relationship with HF to one that is less casual. But since this is understandably a problem for you, you need to train them that it is not okay to assume you are there for using 24/7, or you need to think about leaving. You will only get more resentful and may tempted to start slacking on the job or cutting corners to make up for it, if you KWIM.

P.S. – we have an understanding in our house that if kids are sick the AP may need to work some extra times she does not usually, up to her 45 hours of course. We always ask if that’s okay when it happens (rarely) so that we directly acknowledge her flexibility and understanding. And we try to make that time a lot easier on her by making clear naps can be a lot longer and the day can be wasted watching TV or movies or, in her case, skyping or reading while the kids are absorbed in Sponge Bob.

InDeutschland February 15, 2010 at 6:12 pm

I’m not sure if this applies, but I will say it anyways. When the 4-year-old comes up to my room because he wants to spend time with me, he is always reminded that in my room, I make the rules. I rarely send him away, but instead expect him to participate in what I am doing. For example when I take an afternoon nap, I let him come in a lay down with me on the couch. I explain to him that he has to be quiet because this is quiet time. Or if I am studying, then he can study with me(he is 4 so he usually just draws something).
Also, shouldn’t the parents be able to help the son? I mean, they speak English too. Also British and American English is spelled differently.

PA aupair mom January 11, 2010 at 7:17 pm

My AP and I have an understanding. If she is in her room and the door is closed, the kids, and HD and I, are not to bother her. If her door is open, she knows that the kids may try to talk to her. We have communicated conistently that she always has the right to say “no” to requests for playing Mario bros., watching a movie, eating dinner, going shopping, etc if it is her “off duty” time. Constant communication and realistic expectations have made it easier for everyone involved.

anon January 11, 2010 at 4:03 pm

I can see how this could be a big problem! I love the idea of “grownupincharge”. I try to do that in our house, but we don’t have a word/phrase– I’m gonna copy it :) As the HM who works home occasionally, I try to make the kids aware of “who’s in charge”– if a child asks me for something with AP is on duty, I say “you need to ask AP”. If AP is off-duty and hanging around, I remind the kids to give her an out and respect her off-duty time. I also re-enforce to the AP that she can say no. My 6.5-yo gets it, and when I get home early to take care of chores while AP is on duty, she now asks “who’s in charge?” then deals. My 2.5-yo is not quite capable of grasping this, but we’re getting there.

Calif Mom January 13, 2010 at 6:00 pm

With little ones like that, you could even make a fun sheriff’s badge sort of thing for the grown up to wear. That would work with preschoolers.

I think the au pairs on this string have received some great advice — they need to address the issue at a family meeting, but also establishing a way to communicate that DOES work. We use email during the day, and I put notes on the white board on the fridge. She always goes into the kitchen for a late-night snack, so I know she will see reminders about after-school things the next day, etc.

au pairs, you DESERVE and NEED an adequate amount of privacy in order to be healthy and take care of those kids. This is one of the new things you will learn in your “au pair year” — and it’s a good one for all women! –boundary setting. It’s very hard, but you can learn it as a skill and get better at it with practice. You will feel very proud of your self, and stronger, after you take some steps to fix this!

aussiegirlaupair January 14, 2010 at 6:07 am

In my experience, I have spent a lot of time with the children in my off time. If I wanted privacy I would go to my room and shut the door or go out of the house. If the children/parents, wanted me they would knock on the door. I wanted the children to know I was always avaliable if they needed me. If something happend to there parents in an emergency they could come and get me, I never wanted the children to feel like I was offlimits. I had young children under 5 and I enjoyed spending time with them. Often on the weekends if I was home for a relaxing day, I was more then happy to read stories or play games.

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