Share with your Au Pair your system for ‘disciplining’ your kids

by cv harquail on August 10, 2010

Usually I shy away from offering or requesting parenting advice on this blog… I know what has worked for my family and I also know that every family’s systems have to fit within its own values, norms and culture. So, when it comes to questions of “how should my Au Pair discipline my kids” I haven’t had much to say, until now.

Kids, au pairs, and parents all need to share a system of discipline.

(Personally, I’d prefer the phrase “system for shaping the children’s positive behavior”, but let’s use discipline.)

In order for kids to learn to behave well, kids need to be:

  • Clear about exactly what your behavioral expectations are.
  • Confident that there are consequences for both bad and good behavior.
  • Certain that your expectations of them will be applied consistently.


You host parents should have begun to write down your expectations for your children’s behavior as part of creating your au pair handbook… as you tell your au pair what you want from he kids, you are also able to clarify this for your kids themselves.

Discipline systems

You have to have a system. Random punishments, ad hoc expectations, and differences across the ‘adults in charge’ don’t teach kids anything but ‘Hey, maybe I can get away with it this time!

No matter what systems you use– time outs, no privileges, screaming — you have to maintain some consistency between you and your au pair. Not only should the kids not hit each other when s/he’s in charge, they shouldn’t be allowed to hit each other when you are in charge.

If you expect your au pair to keep kids under control, and you are unwilling to do the same when you are in charge, you are behaving like a bad parent. Period.

Kids need consistency. You and your au pair must apply the same rules and the same kinds of consequences.

How to learn a system and maintain consistency

1. One way to maintain consistency is for all of you to follow the same book. Yes, I said book. Find a book with a system you like, buy a copy for yourself/partner and your au pair, and all of you implement it.

My personal fave is 1-2-3 Magic: Effective Discipline for Children 2-12 (affiliate link). This is also a favorite of noted AuPairMom-er, CalifMom. 1-2-3 Magic uses a counting system with no yelling linked to time outs. We riff on this a bit by asking the children to reflect on how they could be kinder, more helpful, etc. while they are in their time out, but generally we’ve followed this system.

[1-2-3 Magic has worked so well for my family that, for the first time, I’m putting an affiliate link on AuPairMom. This simply means that if you click on the link and buy the book off Amazon, Au PairMom gets $.25.  It’s kindof like getting an allowance, I think. ]

201008101538.jpg1-2-3 Magic is also straightforward enough that all of our au pairs have been able to apply it. The book is easy to read, and there are even summaries online that you can download for your au pair’s handbook. (I also noticed, when I went looking for an image, that there is a webpage, a newsletter, DVDs, the whole works. No matter what medium you prefer, they’ve got it.) (Note: here’s an affiliate link if you want to buy the book on Amazon: 1-2-3 Magic: Effective Discipline for Children 2-12)

2. Another way to maintain consistency is for you and your au pair to attend the same parenting class. In my town the YMCA does classes on raising successful kids, and they have childcare during the sessions.

You must be a good role model

Regardless of how you learn a system or which you choose, you the host parent will need to model the discipline style and strategy that you’ve chosen. You are modeling it not only for your au pair’s benefit, but also for your kids’ benefit.

And a bonus? This is one of those situations where knowing that your au pair is watching you and following your lead helps to make and keep you a more consistent parent.

Of course, many of us lose it and scream on occasion, even when this is not part of our official system. (In my family, we call that “1-2-3-BREAKdowwwwnnnnn”.)

And, even though we’re more okay when we shout than we would be if we heard our au pair shout, it’s better to avoid a double standard. Thus, you should avoid breakdowns by using a good system, that fits your family, and that you’ll apply consistently yourself.

Another bonus of having the same system and applying it consistently is that you will seldom if ever feel like you need to intervene when your au pair is on duty and the kids are being hellions. If your au pair knows the system you approve of, and she’s using the system you’ve approved of, everybody knows what comes next. You don’t need to be ready to come to the rescue, intervene, and potentially damage your au pair’s credibility with your kids.

201008111526.jpgOur  other go-to parenting book is How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk (affiliate link). This book offers advice on how to create and sustain good relationships between kids and parents, and helps set the stage for love and respect within your household.

Katydid sent in this specific request:

I’m always wondering the best way to empower our Au Pairs to get our kids (now 3yr old boy & 5yr old girl) to do what they are supposed to and to discipline the children when they misbehave.

As a parent I can threaten with a heavy hand to take away privileges and when I’m really hot under the collar “i’m going to spank you if you don’t stop” sometimes comes out of my mouth. Frankly if I ever heard our Au pair talk to the kids the way I do sometimes I wouldn’t be happy with them.

I have to add that my husband and I both work at home in an office attached to the rest of the house, so when everyone is here – we hear it all and have to make decisions about when we get involved or just let our Au Pair handle it.

What else might you advise Katydid for empowering your au pair?


First Time HP August 11, 2010 at 5:11 pm

We discussed general rules, what chores the kids should do, rules about toys, snacks that sort of thing and what type of punishments we normally dole out (timeouts for minor offenses, loss of privileges for bigger ones). I think most of what our AP has learned has been by observing us, watching how and what we discipline the kids for. We didn’t get into a whole lot of detail because I think there are so many possibilities that you could never make a complete list of do’s and don’ts. I remember early on coming home and my oldest child had been sent to his room by the AP and she had this serious look on her face as she told me he said a bad word. Naturally I started to worry about what he said (dreading the worst), when she told me he said “fart” I had a hard time keeping a straight face as although we would have told him not to say that we wouldn’t have made it as serious as she did. We still backed her as we didn’t want to undermine her but as time went on she picked up enough from us that we now are fairly aligned when it comes to discipline.

franzi August 11, 2010 at 5:30 pm

i agree, a lot is learned by observing. and as much as you can try to explain in the first 3 days, it takes a real tantrum when the hp are on duty to really learn.

things unknown to the ap such as time outs need to be explained and “modeled” if the situation arrises. i had never given a time out before and at that felt quite akward the first times i had to give a time out to one of the kids.

if your ap is a rematch, keep in mind that she might be used to a different system in place, maybe one that worked well for her, so make sure she is on your “book”.

CS Nanny August 11, 2010 at 6:00 pm

I honestly found (and still find) that kids are generally better behaved for their aupairs and nannies than their parents. I know the kids I work with now mind me better than their parents because I do not give into whatever they when, when they want it. If you have a strong aupair who sets her rules and boundaries up right away, then things tend to run smoothly. I personally use the time out methods as well as the extinction method. The first family I AP’d for said I could spank the child if I deemed it necessary, but I didn’t feel comfortable doing that.

Melissa August 11, 2010 at 8:27 pm

I also feel that my kids are often better behaved for our au pairs than for me. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, however, because I’d much rather them push the limits and ‘test’ me, more then they test her, and ultimately, I’m better equipped to handle the major meltdowns. However, I don’t think the reason behind it is as simple as doing a better job of setting boundaries and upholding rules. I think it’s sometimes the natural thing for the mom to get the most grief from kids (I remember really pushing the envelope about things with my mom, especially as a teen, that I never would with my dad!). But also, my time with my kids is much more harried and ‘real’,for lack of a better word, in that I am usually trying to get all of the other things that are involved with running a household and family done at the same time. E.g., My AP doesn’t do the grocery shopping and so hasn’t had that fun situation of threatening my children who are fighting in the cart, with, ‘if you don’t start behaving RIGHT NOW, we’re leaving’, only to think to myself, ‘am i REALLY going to follow-through with that? And leave my full cart of groceries here, only to have to come back again?’ aah, if only being a perfect parent was so easy! lol.

CS Nanny August 11, 2010 at 8:31 pm

LOL. I had to laugh at your grocery store comment because I remember my mom telling my sisters and I that exact same thing. :)

Taking a Computer Lunch August 11, 2010 at 7:43 pm

My handbook makes it clear that if the AP doesn’t like our rules for our son, she may choose to say, “That’s okay when your parents are in charge, but you may not do it when I’m in charge.” I think older children (and I put The Camel in this category because she’s been around the block), can handle changes in disciplinary styles because they go to school, where each teacher might have different rules. I’m not overly concerned that my AP mimic me, as long as she’s not cruel or inconsistent.

The Camel is the The Camel and because she functions at less than one year even though she’s 11, she does better with positive reinforcement (e.g. “Good girl!”) than any form of punishment, although every AP sees me lose patience while feeding her and models my behavior (always an “Ouch!” moment for me). A time out would be lost on her.

My son pushes the envelope, especially with APs that aren’t good at keeping him on track. Once they start disciplining him consistently, he behaves much better, because he respects them. When APs take away a privilege, I enforce it, and likewise they when I do.

CS Nanny August 11, 2010 at 8:30 pm

Thank you for including that you support your aupair in her decisions regarding discipline and your children. There is nothing more frustrating or hurtful than to have a parent not support you, unless the AP is has overstepped her bounds. This completely undermines the authority your AP has with your child.

Should be working August 11, 2010 at 8:17 pm

This topic has been on my mind! Our AP is mostly good with the kids, but she has done things I really don’t like when dealing with disciplinary issues, e.g. threaten a kid that they would have to get out of the car and walk home (completely implausible, kids are little, no sidewalks where we live). And she told my littler one that if he swam right after eating, he could sink and drown. So I have tried to get through to her that fear-provoking threats are not the proper strategy. As an alternative to her “get out and walk” threat, I have modeled for her “pulling over” when kids misbehave in the car, and telling kids they’ll have to get out and sit on the bench (or somewhere right there next to the car) while we wait in the car until they can manage. But she still tends to resort to fear-producing threats–as opposed to threats (or mere announcements) of natural consequences.

My other problem with both APs we’ve had is that they are too moralizing in their discipline. I’m probably different than some parents, but I don’t think it’s helpful to lecture my kids. The AP seems to always want the last word in disagreements with my kids (e.g. “You need to share if you want people to share with you . . . Some day you will understand . . . If everyone did that, wouldn’t the world be awful?”) , and I try NOT to take for myself the last word. Obviously I think all those things are true, but I don’t think moralizing and lecturing gets through to kids at all. In this I use the “How to Talk…” approach–made my AP read the book, she thought it was silly.

Taking a Computer Lunch August 11, 2010 at 10:28 pm

When I was cleaning up “the AP bedroom” after my Chinese AP departed last weekend, I found a booklet she left behind, which was a guide to American families for Chinese APs. Bemused, I sat down and read it. It was rather glib, and written from the perspective of someone with a vague sense of Chinese culture, but one section struck me, and that was the emphasis on how American’s value independence, and as a result the children have a right to be heard.

Perhaps, you need to sit down with your AP, when your kids are not around, and listen to her feelings about your approach to discipline and how it differs from her experience in her country, and then you could ask her to listen to you. You are not going to get her to change overnight, but you might get her to think before she speaks.

One more point, if you cannot change her approach. When she’s not around, talk to your kids about her moralizing – not in a negative way, but in a thoughtful way. “When X said “you need to share,” what did you think?” When our son has been disciplined, we don’t always get to hear it when it happens, but we do quiz him on why he lost his privilege and what he might have done differently (he knows that sometimes he just gets his dander up and can’t stop himself, but it’s interesting to listen to him acknowledge that weakness and to try to make amends when he has calmed down).

A long time ago, I realized that HD and I do things completely differently, and I figured it was okay. A lot of people are going to come and go from my kids’ lives and each one of them is going to treat them differently. The sooner they learn to be flexible and responsive, the better. As long as the disciplinarian is not being cruel, making a threat that cannot be followed through (because the kids lose respect when they realize there’s no punishment), or cause harm (mental or physical), then I try to keep my mouth shut. And personally, I think threatening to abandon kids at the side of the road falls into two categories: an idle threat and mental cruelty. I would take the AP aside when the kids are not around and say, “That’s not acceptable.”

Latina AP August 16, 2010 at 9:46 pm

Is funny cuz is my HM who says and quote “is you don’t stop crying right now I will kick you out of the car!” First time I heard it I thought was to hard, but I should admit that I pull over and say the same. My 5yo when gets mad start kicking and screaming which made me crazy specially cuz we need to drive in the highway and I think is dangerous, so I pull over usually, but then the 7yo starts crying cuz the parents made them believe if they stopat the highway a police comes and put you in jail for life…

Latina AP August 16, 2010 at 9:46 pm

Is funny cuz is my HM who says and quote “is you don’t stop crying right now I will kick you out of the car!” First time I heard it I thought was to hard, but I should admit that I pull over and say the same. My 5yo when gets mad start kicking and screaming which made me crazy specially cuz we need to drive in the highway and I think is dangerous, so I pull over usually, but then the 7yo starts crying cuz the parents made them believe if they stop at the highway a police comes and put you in jail for life…

NC AP August 12, 2010 at 5:09 am

My second host mom asked me to read “How to talk…” (and the second book, too) and I think it is great! I’m probably not following all the methods perfectly, but it helped me a lot to find a different style in talking to children and to be aware of what I say and how it might affect them. My au pair year is over, but I still take care of children part-time and I still try to use this approach, and I re-read the book again from time to time to see if I can improve.

HRHM August 12, 2010 at 4:07 am

2 observations about APs and discipline
1. One of the most frequent and vigorous complaints I hear from our APs’ friends has been about parents who don’t back them up and/or don’t allow them (the AP) to reasonably discipline. This can be pure torture for the AP who can’t get kids to school on time, can’t get toys put away, can’t get messes and chaos under control because she has nothing in her armamentarium to enforce behavior. We have a once-daily treat that has worked as a great incentive for our kids behavior (taken away for bad). Our AP has actually thanked us for being active partners in disciplining/directing our kids.

2. We as Americans have a “unique” parenting style compared to the rest of the planet. Most other cultures still use the “benign neglect” model that was the norm when I was a kid – short of a storm or subzero temperatures, we were shoved out the door and told to come back at meal times LOL. My Mom never colored or played barbies and if we complained about being bored we were given chores. So we entertained ourselves and made our own fun (this started prior to kindergarten) On the contrary, most of us “enrich” our kids, spend a lot of time designing/planning activities to stimulate intellect, do a lot of transporting to various events, etc. The APs have been alternatingly amused and disgusted by the amount of attention American kids get from their parents and have indicated that they see it as a sign of the kids being “spoiled”. Needless to say, this cultural difference needs to be addressed early on to avoid resentment and unwanted discipline behaviors on the part of the AP.

momto2 August 12, 2010 at 7:01 am

These are issues we are currently experiencing with our AP. We hosted other S.American AP’s before, but went with Northern Europe this time since we were concerned that our S.Americans, who were very loving and sweet, were a little too “soft” on accountability. What we were not prepared for was the cold, stoic, holier-than-thou approach of our current AP. After 1 month she had a complete meltdown b/c she felt that our kids were “spoiled” and that we are too overly-affectionate with them. She has stated that the amount of unconditional love that we display with them makes her uncomfortable b/c we hug and kiss them even after giving them a consequence and we tell them that we still love them no matter what, after every time out. Even though we are very concerned about accountability and shaping well behaved children, she thinks our emphasis on making our kids feel loved is rewarding their bad behavior. She has it in her head that she is going to single-handedly unspoil our kids by being super-strict, and withholding any semblance of affection unless they earn it with perfect behavior.

We have always supported our AP’s when they doled out a consequence, but this AP will take away everything possible at the first sign of negative behavior on a Monday…….leaving nothing left to lose for the rest of the week, which sets up for a pretty lousy week for the kids and AP Tuesday-Friday. One of our kids lost t.v., computer and video game privileges for raising his voice with our AP on a Monday afternoon. Our only question to her was, “how are you going to reward any positive behavior for the rest of the week, since those are the only things he could have earned?”

We have had to take the AP aside and counsel her on the difference between disciplining a child and being “punitive” which may have been lost through translation. Example: if a kid asks for a snack and doesn’t finish it, wrap it up and serve it for his next meal to teach him not to waste food. Don’t make him sit at the table for 2 hours on a hard wooden chair until he forces himself to eat food he’s not hungry for so that you are satisfied that he learned not to waste food.

Obviously next year, we will need to find a happy cultural medium between super soft AP’s and the super cold AP. We are quite certain our kids will help this AP pack her bags at the end of her year.

NJMom August 12, 2010 at 4:32 pm

Yikes, how long has this AP been with you? This sounds borderline abusive to me (mental/emotional) this is. The sitting on the chair for two hours because he didn’t finish a snack, for example. Are you sure you want to complete the year with this person?!

Anna August 12, 2010 at 8:52 pm

I grew up in a cold european country, but this is not normal behavior; your au pair has issues and it sounds abusive to me.

Taking a Computer Lunch August 12, 2010 at 10:24 pm

I agree with Anna. I’ve had two European APs and both were loving and attentive (although not as affectionate as Brazilians, they were exactly what my kids needed at that time – and while that involved discipline, nothing like you’ve described). I’ve also lived in Europe and never witnessed behavior like you’re describing. All I can say is listen to your gut and trust your instincts.

NJMOm August 13, 2010 at 6:33 am

Yes, good point, I guess the reason this raises major red flags for me as well is that we had a East European as our first AP followed by two Latins and while there are definitely differences I never had the issues you describe with AP#1. She was very firm and strict even but extremely loving and had the ability to discern when she needed to be one or the other. I would not attribute this just to her country of origin. I think you need to look into this further.

momto2 August 13, 2010 at 6:45 am

Where we certainly don’t expect the AP’s to be perfect, I must admit I about went through the roof when I learned how she handled the situation–but we talked through it. The AP had only been with us about a month when this happened, and we focused on re-training. We told the AP that she would never use this type of consequence ever again, or it would result in an immediate request for rematch. She said that’s the way she was raised, so I tried to understand it as a “cultural difference”(–but like the above have noted, it is likely just this “AP’s difference”). This is when she had the meltdown about how spoiled our children are b/c we are not strict enough and we are overly affectionate, which makes her feel uncomfortable. I kind of felt sorry for this girl who obviously never knew unconditional love, and whose parents were clearly very punitive. The AP has never used this type of method to handle a situation since, (she has now been here 3 months), and my kids would definitely tell me if she did. She is still very cold and unyielding, but we are supportive of her in front of the kids.

In the meantime, she has about 2 weeks to go before the kids are in school full-time and her hours are reduced drastically. Provided we don’t have a relapse, we will make it to the end of the school year, and look for our happy medium. Unfortunately, the AP will have completely missed out on the rewards of this job, which is the bond our previous AP’s have made with the children.

Traci August 12, 2010 at 9:53 am

So nice to meet another sister in the Lord. Don’t you love in courage! Found you over there. I’m now following your blog.

I blog over at Ordinary Inspirations.

It is really great to connect with you!


OnceAnAuPair August 12, 2010 at 11:33 am

I’ve always found discpline such a tricky subject. The family I was an au pair for, never told me how to deal with discpline except “be stonger”. I saw the mother hit the little boy on multiple occasions, and that’s not something I wanted to repeat. Those children never listened to me, maybe because they knew I would never physically punish them.

But with all of the other children, I’ve taken care of, time-outs is the best form of getting the point across, or taking away small privaleges (the pool for the afternoon, their after lunch candy, etc).

Dorsi August 12, 2010 at 2:09 pm

I wanted to address Katydid’s question about when to step in to “help” the AP (since HM and HD live at home.) I think the answer is, almost never.

I am at home, in my room, about 70-80% of the hours that my AP is working (because I work nights and sleep during the day). I often will hear my child upset/whining/crying. There is a bit less nuance in my situation, because my son is quite young. I don’t worry so much about appropriate discipline, just appropriate care. I trust and expect my AP to respond to his needs. If I hear uncontrolled crying (rare), I may go out to investigate. More likely, I will go out after the problem is solved and ask the AP how things are going.

I don’t want my child to know that I am emotionally/physically available while the AP is working. I cannot work if I don’t sleep during the day. I cannot sleep if my child is coming to me with problems/needs. The AP cannot be a trusted source of care and discipline if the parents are listening and available in the next room.

Chev August 12, 2010 at 10:38 pm

I agree with Dorsi, if it’s in anyway possible for you to not intervene – e.g. your kids/AP may be frazzled and not happy but fine getting through it, don’t intervene. It completely undermines the AP’s authority. Just have a chat with her about what you’d like her to do and say in specific situations with the kids so she knows that when your 3 yr old does this then this is an appropriate response and discipline action.
I had a work at home father with my first HF when i was 18 and it was pretty bad because unlike you he wasn’t able to handle his kids tantruming or lock the office door so they wouldn’t get in and whine to him. So i’d be in the position where i’d get told “no matter what they say, you’re taking them to hockey lessons today” then after the kids whinging loudly about it for 5 minutes he’d come out and tell the kids to just go watch tv instead of going to lessons today. He’d also come take the kids out of time out when i’d put them there (like their mum had told me to do) which completely undermined my authority in front of the kids and made them a lot less likely to listen to me the next time.

I’m lucky with my family now as i’ve been with them since the boys were 6 weeks and now that they’re testing toddlers my HP’s and I are on the same page when it comes to disciplining/handling undesirable behaviour. I tend to do 3 strikes and you’re out. Out being the corner with no toys and no cuddles until you’ve settled down and are ready to come play nice – generally about a minute :)

NoDisciplineHouse August 13, 2010 at 6:46 pm

I’m with a family that discipline changes every 5 minutes but for a majority of the time it barely exists. At the beginning of my year I was told by HP, “Your not to discipline the children in any way, you are not the parent”. That alone is off putting. I mean, I’m not even allowed to do time outs! If something happens, I’m to ring one of my HP and explain the situation which is normally twisted around after they speak to the child in trouble. They believe their children instantly over the au pair and if the child has done something really bad and obvious then they might give a 2 minute lecture but otherwise no discipline. During the past year, I’ve seen one of my kids totally trash their bedroom and it was my job to clean it up. No punishment was given at all. When driving the kids around in the car, I’m constantly getting my seat kicked, balls thrown at me or abusive cursing. It’s wrong! I’ve tried to address the problems several times but they just don’t want to hear it. Most recently, a computer screen was smashed with a hammer and finally we had some sort of punishment, no play dates for a week but then the very next day, the child was sent on a sleepover. Honestly, how is this teaching the kids? I mean there is a lot more that goes on but in the long run they are all only hurting themselves. I’m just glad there are some families who have a discipline plan set up cos I think it really helps in many situations. Unfortunately, the kids run this house :(

theGermanGirl-FutureAP August 16, 2010 at 11:04 am

How do you take this? I couldn’t function in a household like that…the first sentence alone would be a giant red flag for me in matching…
Didn’t you ever consider to rematch?

NoDisciplineHouse August 19, 2010 at 2:06 am

I thought about rematch all the time but I was also warned from my HM many times what would happen if an au pair in their home wanted rematch so I stuck the whole year out with many, many tears and gritting my teeth!

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