Micro-Affirmations: Tiny, Powerful Ways to Motivate & Thank Your Au Pair

by cv harquail on June 10, 2014

For work completely unrelated to AuPairMom, I’ve been researching the concept of “micro-affirmations”, which are the opposite of “micro-aggressions”.  These are small, almost imperceptible behaviors towards one another than can either affirm or threaten another person.  In organizations, they are the behavioral building blocks of an inclusive welcoming culture, or a dominating, oppressive one.

il_570xN.214276242Often here on AuPairMom we’ve encouraged each other to look for the small wins, the everyday appreciations, the gratitudes in the moment, and then share these with our AuPairs.

We know that explicit feedback like what we offer in family meetings, or formal feedback that we might need to give during a reset conversation, can be useful for ‘big’ corrections and adjustments. And little feedback, like micro-affirmations, can be useful not only for reinforcing positive things, but also for simply being grateful for the good that we enjoy any given day.  

Here’s an excerpt from a well-known piece by Mary Rowe at MIT, outlining the concept of micro-affirmations.  I thought about highlighting my favorite parts, but there are so many I’d have to bold the entire passage.

What are micro-affirmations?

Micro-affirmations (are) — apparently small acts, which are often ephemeral and hard-to-see, events that are public and private, often unconscious but very effective, which occur wherever people wish to help others to succeed. 

Micro-affirmations are tiny acts of opening doors to opportunity, gestures of inclusion and caring, and graceful acts of listening.

Micro-affirmations lie in the practice of generosity, in consistently giving credit to others—in providing comfort and support when others are in distress, when there has been a failure at the bench, or an idea that did not work out, or a public attack. Micro-affirmations include the myriad details of fair, specific, timely, consistent and clear feedback that help a person build on strength and correct weakness.

How do micro-affirmations work?

Appropriately affirming the work of another person is likely both to help that person do well, and to help him or her to enjoy doing we second effect is that consistent, appropriate affirmation of others can spread from one person to another—potentially raising morale and productivity.  …  

Consistent, appropriate affirmation of others can spread from one person to another—potentially raising morale and productivity.  (Micro-affirmations are helpful when you are) senior to another person, to “model” affirming behavior.

[This is especially critical for showing your children how they ought to treat other people, at the same time as you share with your family and your au pair the specific things that you’re appreciating.]

The Real Surprise to Me:


The third effect is subtle, and deals with the point that it may be hard for a person to “catch” himself or herself unconsciously behaving inequitably. I may not always be able to “catch myself” behaving in a way that I do not wish to behave. But if I try always to affirm others in an appropriate and consistent way, I have a good chance of blocking behavior of mine that I that I want to prevent. Many micro-inequities are not conscious,  but affirming others can become a conscious and unconscious practice that prevents unconscious slights.

The aha of this third effect, for me, is the idea of crowding out the bad by filling the space of your attention and your interaction with the good.  

Bonus: This behavior nudges the same kind of positive shift for the people you’re interacting with:

Reinforce and reward good behavior that, as it takes place, is inconsistent with, and blocks, the (bad) behavior that you hope will disappear…. 

Small wins, tiny adjustments, big rewards.




See also: Micro-affirmations & Micro-inequities©2008 Mary Rowe, MIT
The Five Actions of Gratitude

Image from SunandMoonCrafts on Etsy.


TU June 11, 2014 at 7:39 am

That was a lovely and positive read to start my day. Micro affirmation to u.

3txmom June 11, 2014 at 10:27 am

Really good. Thank you for sharing at a time when I need focus on the positive to help push out the negative!

NoVA Twin Mom June 11, 2014 at 12:11 pm

Thanks for posting this. We’re between au pairs at the moment, but I need to remember that even just a small gesture can go a long way toward showing my appreciation. I also need to remember to “catch” my kids being good – easier said than done – so I can start peppering their daily life with these microaffirmations.

WarmStateMomma June 11, 2014 at 2:21 pm

Thanks for this reminder!

hostmominco June 11, 2014 at 7:15 pm

Can anyone provide suggestion for micro affirmations? I left a thank you card and gift card with a small $ amount on the counter this morning for our new and wonderful au pair and she texted me to thank me as soon as she opened it. Other ideas other than thank you cards and gift cards would be appreciated! I’d like to mix it up a bit.

Repeataupair June 11, 2014 at 7:38 pm

I really love when my host parents say thank you before walking out the door when I do evenings, although it’s part of my job and I don’t expect anything it is really nice to feel appreciated.
My host mom also often talks about me in front of the kids like “It is really nice that au pair did that for you, she did not have to because blablabla” I don’t have many examples in mind but although I don’t mind doing all those things, it really makes me feel good and happy to here that.

WarmStateMomma June 12, 2014 at 7:38 am

My toddler asks me for treats after my AP tells her no. I back up the AP by telling my toddler “AP said no and she’s the boss.” She loves that and my toddler is learning not to badger all adults until someone caves.

I also try to say thank you when the AP does dishes, takes care of the toddler while I do dishes, etc. She says they don’t say thank you within the family for household niceties/participation in her home.

Old China Hand June 12, 2014 at 12:04 pm

The book 5 love languages is technically about romance but has good ideas for what makes other people feel loved and appreciated. so if you can figure out what is most important to your AP (like words of affirmation vs gifts) then you can target that.

TexasHM June 13, 2014 at 11:33 am

Absolutely we are a HUGE 5 love languages family. Last AP was physical touch so I would give her a hug and say thanks and she would cry! Previous AP to that was gifts, current I think is acts of service but speaks words of affirmation which is awesome because thats my love language! :)

Old China Hand June 13, 2014 at 12:15 pm

Our AP is acts of service. I realized it when she nominated us for host family of the year and all she talked about was the acts of service we did for her (like take her to the asian grocery store). So she does acts of service for me and I try to keep in mind why even though it isn’t my love language (I am quality time, though I’m not sure I need any more from the AP anyway :)).

Summer B June 11, 2014 at 11:28 pm

Love this post! Micro Affirmations can smooth the roughest seas! I don’t remember who said it but I love the quote “First observe, then serve.” It makes so much sense. It is hard to see the things people need or do if we aren’t watching them. Au Pairs do so much unseen and deserve a lot of credit for their efforts!

Au Pair Report author June 11, 2014 at 11:29 pm

While I think all au pairs would appreciate these micro-affirmations from host parents, my sense is that au pairs especially value the ones that come from their host children throughout the day.

These micro-affirmations may include physical affection such as hugs and kisses or just the desire children show to spend time with the au pair. However, not all kids are effusive or easy to warm up.

If you see small ways your child is showing an appreciation for the au pair that would not be easy for her to detect, pointing those out may be helpful. It also seems like a good idea to enlist kids deliberately in the micro-affirmation campaign–for example, making cookies together for the au pair or picking out some flowers for her on the one or six month anniversary of her arrival.

WarmStateMomma June 12, 2014 at 7:42 am

My daughter’s face lights up when the AP comes downstairs. She starts yelling her special nickname for the AP and waives to her. I head to work with no guilt because my daughter is spending the day with someone she loves.

HRHM June 12, 2014 at 1:01 am

I make a point to pick out a small treat from the German isle in our grocery store from time to time, the kids make her pictures and cards when they are drawing, DH brings her a souvenir when he travels. With our current AP, I really feel like doing these things because I can tell she appreciates them and doesn’t expect them.

Taking a Computer Lunch June 13, 2014 at 8:54 am

For me, a quiet thank you, like “I really enjoyed watching you play with x today, you’re so great when you do y with him,” is perfect for routine work. AP #4 always thanked me for cooking dinner and asked me about my day when she came home. I really learned from her, and ask my APs about their day. It’s a quiet antidote to a busy day, and allows me to have a mental shift before the AP asks me for time off, tells me about a negative thing one kid did, etc.

My biggest advice – and this works with kids, too – is pay attention to what they like and dislike. My cookbooks are full of notations about who likes what, so when it comes time to make a favorite meal, purchase chocolates as a thank-you treat, or buy the right gift card, it’s quite easy to do.

Mimi June 14, 2014 at 12:21 am

Great post. I agree that it’s not so much what I do to show our AP she’s appreciated, it’s super important for our boys to show appreciation, too. It helps them think about others and makes for a better relationship with her. Having said that, a special treat, a random note/text, or gift from me often appear for our APs–not even when they’ve done something that warrants it, but when they (or I) need it.

anna former au pair June 15, 2014 at 10:08 am

My US host parents were awesome at this. My host dad would always thank me for a great job every night. My host mot always made a point of thanking me for cooking dinner (3-5 days a week). It always warmed my heart and made rough days easier to put behind you. As a result I never felt it was a hardship to help out extra when something came up – because I knew they valued what I did for them.

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