Sabotage your Au Pair’s Authority: 3 Easy Ways

by cv harquail on March 8, 2009

It amazes me sometimes, the stories I hear about host parents’ bad behavior.

I heard a story this week about an au pair who told her charge that he had lost the privilege of having ice cream after dinner, because he had refused to put away his toys at the end of a play date and had been mean to the other child.

on a couch dogs_web.jpg Later, during dinner, the Host Dad telephoned to check in. The kid told his dad that the au pair wouldn’t let him have ice cream. How did the dad respond? He told the kid to put the au pair (back) on the phone, and he told the au pair to give the kid ice cream anyway. Even after the au pair explained why the child had lost the privilege.

I know we host parents all have our faults and failings, we all have our challenges, and we are all learning as we go. But honestly, one of the worst things that you can do to your au pair is to sabotage her authority with your kids. It’s not only disrespectful (in a big way) to the au pair– but also it teaches the kids that the au pair does not have authority and does not need to be respected. Imagine how hard that makes it for your au pair to care for your kids.

Here are 3 Easy Ways to Sabotage your Au Pair’s Authority:

1. Reverse your Au Pair’s child-minding decisions.

2. Criticize your Au Pair in front of your children.

3. Criticize your Au Pair behind her back.

One of my hard and fast rules for myself is never to reverse my au pair’s decision, as long as it has been sensible and fair in some way. I’ve sometimes had stylistic differences with decisions an au pair has made, and I have often silently questioned whether she was too strict or too lenient, but as long as her decision was sensible, kind, and respectful– I’ve rolled with it. I’ve waited until later, in private, to bring it up and to talk over what alternatives I might have preferred.

inkstainswithroni everything happens for a reason.jpg

When an au pair has been doing something ‘wrong’ when I’ve been around, I have tried to intervene to adjust her behavior in a respectful way– only if it couldn’t wait until later. Like "I think I’d prefer that you cook those burgers until they’re pink, not still frozen inside. They taste better that way." But I would never explicitly criticize her or what she was doing, I’d never say "Don’t you know how to cook? That’s disgusting."

Sometimes I have discussed my au pair’s decisions with my kids, and been very aware that I need to support my au pair while being honest and respectful of my kids’ concerns. When my girls have complained about an au pair’s decisions, I’ve asked them to consider why the au pair might have chosen what she did, and show them how the decision was sensible. Once and a while I have said things like "I don’t know that I would have made the same choice, but she used good judgment and made a careful decision. Her job is not to make you happy, her job is to keep you safe and help you grow."

The next time your au pair makes a decision you disagree with, think about a way to discuss it that doesn’t include criticizing her in front of or behind your kids.


Jeana March 8, 2009 at 3:20 am

This is so important! All of my aupairs have had to see me back them up with their decisions and actions, before they were confident that I truly would support them. My younger daughter has been known to come to me after receiving answers from our aupairs, and whenever this happens I remind her that when she’s received an answer, there is no need to seek a different answer from another adult in our home. I also make sure that she apologizes to our aupair, as it is rude and disrespectful. In our home, “When Your Aupair Speaketh, So Speaketh Your Mama!”

Aupairgal March 2, 2010 at 5:19 pm

I actually had one of the kids come to me and ask something after his mom said no. I was like “Are you kidding me, mom is boss!” He did that a few more times and always got the look of “you know the answer to that” while his mom was trying to hold back her giggles.

cvh March 8, 2009 at 3:39 am

Jeana- I love that motto!

Franzi March 8, 2009 at 9:21 pm

I really like Jeanna’s motto! Though I think all sides have to agree that it is not that easy sometimes. Being a former au pair, I know that many girls try to push through their way w/o taking into account that they should follow the rules that the parents set – which might be why it appears that some au pairs are so strict (or the direct opposite).

Giving your au pair enough support so that she feels comfortable in educating your children is very important, I think. Because it is this comfortable feeling that enables an au pair to give her very best – and that can only help the children and aid the communication between everyone.

Very interesting post!

Calif mom March 9, 2009 at 7:01 am

Love that. We have a de facto version as well, but I really like having a new response in my pocket for just such occasions, when a child is shopping for a better answer — that “if an adult has already answered you, you don’t need a second opinion”. That works for backing up spouses and aunts/uncles too. Family lore has it that I did the same thing as a kid. I of course, have no recollection of this whatsoever!

When a kid comes to me asking for something when AP is on duty, I usually respond “Gee, I don’t know either. AP is in charge right now b/c I’m working.” They hate that and disappear quickly.

CVH –I tell you, I wouldn’t mind having an AP who would take something frozen and heat it up; even if they did it wrong I could at least teach that. And heck, my kids would balk at frozen in the middle and explain why was unsafe without me having to utter a peep. Around here, working with anything less processed than lunch meat is interpreted to mean ‘cooking’, and it’s something that we really miss. A disappointing loss, and something I’ll be looking for next time we are in selection process.

Dawn March 9, 2009 at 5:37 pm

I agree that it’s very important to “back up” your AP’s decisions about the kids in order not to undermine her authority. But I’d love some input on how to address things with an AP if you disagree with her “style” with your children on a general basis (as opposed to just talking about how you might have handled a particular situation differently). Our former AP didn’t seem to understand the concept of “choosing your battles” with children — the idea that sometimes you let certain things slide if it’s not really such a big deal. And I was really never able to adequately explain it to her; every conversation we had, she would “hear” it as specific to the individual situation, and still never grasped the more general concept. I never wanted to give a “litany” of examples, for fear of hurting her feelings or making her feel personally criticized. My older kids ended up not really “bonding” with the AP because they felt like she was always picking at them — and frankly, I didn’t blame them! So how do you explain to an AP that, in general, you feel like she is too strict — without her taking it so personally that you damage the relationship beyond repair?

As a related question, is there a way to communicate to an AP that you will “back” her decisions when she is “on duty,” but that you expect her to follow your lead when she is not on duty? With the same former AP, we also had an issue where she would frequently correct our children for things when my husband and/or I was right there and not bothered by the behavior. (For example, at the dinner table, she would insist that our son sit “the right way” on his chair, when it really didn’t bother me if he was sitting sideways, as long as he was eating and being pleasant at the table!) It always drove me crazy, but I felt like I still had to back her up in order to help maintain her authority. (Again, I was able to address the individual occurrences with her, but never found a way to communicate the more general principle that when the parents are present, she should not correct the children for behaviors that we did not seem bothered by.)

These issues are not at all present with our current AP, which makes me think that it’s more of a personality thing — something that can be (hopefully) avoided altogether by being more aware of this potential problem during the AP selection process. But I’d still be interested in input about how to address issues like this if they arise in an existing AP relationship. (I know I’m rambling a bit, but I guess my main issue/problem was “how do I address a difference in child-rearing approach on a general basis – as opposed to incident-by-incident, without it seeming so ‘big’ that the AP takes it as a criticism of ‘who she is'”?)

Franzi March 10, 2009 at 2:37 am

@ dawn, i think this is a question of personality. i actually had to learn the “pick your battle” thing during my au pair year. and i had over 1200 child care hours before i started my year! but at least for me, it was very different when i actually lived with the children and was around them 24/7. initially, i tried to have things my way. all the time. because i was in charge, and the adult etc.
little did i know that taking this route leads to lots of additional stress and arguments that are not really necessary. now i can be much more relaxed with kids and know when to let it go.

maybe your au pair had a bigger tolerance for arguments. where we don’t see a point in arguing, she wants the child to follow the rules (or whatever she thinks are the rules).

regarding too strict au pairs, i believe this is something that needs to be addressed during the matching process and during the first three months. many au pairs come from cultures where children are more “obedient” (or appear to be so) than american kids. and this is reflected in their way of dealing with your child. the concept of picking your battle doesn’t really exist as children are always expected to obey and behave…

i believe it would help your au pair to be told what your priorities are. do you want you child to primarily be polite? behave? eat up? if so, what are behaviors you consider polite?
maybe if you try to explain that you are looking for these behaviors primarily and not if s/he sits up straight in the chair, it is easier for your au pair to understand what you want your child to be raised. letting your au pair know that you value good table manners more than a child that is sitting up straight but spitting food all over the place might help her to understand your values and how they can be expressed in behavior.


Mom of 2 Girls March 15, 2009 at 5:47 am

Franzi, you are so wise! I agree that the priorities and “desired behaviors” discussion is useful, although with our first au pair, we found that she was only able to see black and white, never any shades of gray. This makes it very difficult, because children and their behavior is a fluid work-in-progress. One day, sitting sideways at the table may be bothersome because of other actions that accompany it or maybe mom or the ap is just tired or in a bad mood; another day, everyone’s having a pleasant conversation, enjoying the food, and no one really notices it at all. For the personality type that can’t accept that it’s ever OK to sit sideways, they will never get the whole “pick your battle” concept. Maybe you can relate it to examples where there are no shades of gray allowed: safety issues, specific important rules or moral issues. Depending on the age(s) of children, they can sometimes understand and might be able to explain it to the AP in simple terms that she might relate to.

Nicole March 16, 2009 at 7:20 am

I was so glad to read your post about getting your AP to “pick their battles”. We unfortunately just transitioned our AP, who we carefully selected and had great communications with for 2 months prior to her arrival, after only 2 weeks! She was miserable with the daily battles she was having with out 2 and 4 year old. After 2 days with them, she came to me and told me they were awful children who would not do anything she told them to do! Trust me, they are typical American children and generally well behaved (they had no problems with the previous AP, who was very warm and kindhearted, a total softy), but she was battling with them about everything and expecting them to jump at her every command (which were barked at them). The 2 year old wouldn’t even go near her it was so bad. Now we are without an AP and have no idea of how to weed out candidates to avoid another nightmare like this!
Thank goodness for this site, I think it might save my sanity!

anonymous mom March 16, 2009 at 7:41 pm

Nicole, was your au pair from Russia, Ukraine or any of the former soviet block countries?

Sounds to me like she had no (or very little) real experience with kids this age, and her “experience” from the application was bought. Unfortunately corruption there is widespread and many girls would do anything to get to America.

My advice to you on how to weed out candidates: check references thoroughly. If the reference “doesn’t speak english” and all of them don’t, skip on the candidate unless you can get somebody else to cross-examine them. And look for genuine love for children. This is a little harder to determine long-distance, but possible. Also beware of candidates from certain countries. There are still great au pairs from everywhere, just be aware that the chance that an au pair from a country that doesn’t offer many opportunities to its young women, may have more ulteriour motives and less genuine love for kids than a candidate who wants to return to their country after completing the program.

Calif mom March 16, 2009 at 8:25 pm


I feel for you! Have been through that same experience. Try hard not to take it personally. It’s really a problem of ‘fit’, both cultural and your family’s style. At least you dealt with it quickly rather than dragging it out for months, trying to make it work, only to end up in rematch.

My advice on rematching is to insist on only looking at candidates in your metro area and meet them in person. Take them to a park with the kids and you and see what happens. Best interview technique I know! (we once rematched with an AP who was in the states but elsewhere — I would never have agreed if I had met her in person, but by then we were committed to her).

Take your time on the rematch selection, even though you will be insanely stressed out by the whole thing. It will work out, and IMHO, our 2 rematch APs have been awesome (not counting the one we only phone interviewed)! Poke around this website for more advice on rematch and interviewing. There’s a lot here that I wish I had known years ago.

PS — We have not had good luck with former soviet states, either, having rematched two from different countries, but I would be okay with someone if I could meet her and make sure she was warm (we’re a friendly bunch of extroverts in my family, and the icy authoritarian thing just doesn’t work for me either!). I have met wonderful girls from Latvia and Baltic states, including our LCC. You have to be careful about personalities, no matter what country. We have had better luck with Brazilians since we also need a good driver, but beware of princesses (and partiers, if that concerns you. Frankly, our partier was a fab AP and it never interfered with duties.)

Nicole April 21, 2009 at 12:27 pm

Thanks ladies! I just realized someone had responded to me here! No, she was not from a soviet state, she was from South Africa, which we chose because of the reputation for being so warm and loving, but as you both said, it can be more of a personality/family thing. We are a very laid back family with a very fluid lifestyle and that really throws off some APs. We looked through a ton of applicants and finally settled on one from overseas, from Brazil. She arrives next month and I hope all is well. She seems warm and interested in the kids, but who really knows. The good thing is than an AP friend of ours has been helping us communicate with her and also really likes her and she knows our family and needs and thinks we are a good match too. We will see soon!
Thanks again for the advice. I definitely feel more prepared now that I found this site. I feel like a first time host mom again!

Kelly June 20, 2009 at 9:16 am

I am a South African Aupair working in Germany and with regard to the discipline thing, well I have major problems because in South Africa we are strict and here there is not a lot of discipline. Just the way different societies work I guess.

nannyKelly March 3, 2010 at 6:37 am

This is such a fabulous article, I want to forward to my former HF (but I won’t)! They critized me behind my back, in front of their children often. The children had zero respect for me. They also told me everything I was doing wrong in front of the children (usually at dinner) and critized my cooking, my language skills, etc in front of the children (“Kelly can barely speak French, Kelly doesn’t know how to cook, Kelly didn’t pick the cherries off the cherry tree, Kelly doesn’t take the dog for long enough walks, Kelly is fat”).

MommyMia March 3, 2010 at 3:18 pm

How sad for you, Kelly. When our kids say something critical of our AP at dinner (or other times) we respond with “AP is so loving and takes such good care of you. We don’t care if her English isn’t perfect, and it’s our job to correct her nicely if she says a word wrong!” If they complain about something she’s fixed for dinner, we say “It is so great to have someone else fix our dinner sometimes. You know how you want certain foods and mommy doesn’t always fix your choice? AP likes to have foods from her country sometimes, and she never complains about trying new foods that seem different or strange to her. If you don’t like what we’re having after you’ve tried two bites, you may be excused.” Usually they end up eating it, and even request certain favorites now. We never allowed them to call one of our former APs who was overweight, “fat.” We told them that it isn’t kind to make comments about others’ appearance, and some people do not know how to eat healthy foods or may have a medical problem that makes them overweight. Why people who participate in a cultural exchange program such as this don’t embrace the differences and learn and grow, I do not understand. It’s such an educational experience and teaches kids, APs and parents so much. I feel badly that you had to experience such a negative family, but hope you have some other good things to remember from that time.

nannyKelly March 4, 2010 at 6:49 am

Thank you.
The family I worked for had so many issues with body image and I’m not sure why. The little girl (4 years old) was extremely underweight and would “excersise” constantly saying it was “good for you”. She barely ate anything, so horrible at 4 years old!! I’m not even sure why I was called fat, as I am not. I’m 140lbs and 5’7! I wish I could email this article, but it won’t!
You sound like a great family and host mom! :)

Darthastewart March 4, 2010 at 10:28 am

That sounds like a nightmare experience. I’m glad it’s over now. I can’t imagine criticizing the nanny/au-pair like that.

My kids LOVE the food the au-pairs make. They just eat up literally and figuratively every bit of info about a new country.

And, no, you’re not fat. You’re a healthy weight. It sounds like they had some serious issues about food.

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