Host Family Advice: Resist the Amenities Arms Race

by cv harquail on June 17, 2008

Truth: Every good host mom wants her Au Pair to be reasonably happy.

Truth: You can’t make her more happy by giving her more stuff.

One important way to help your Au Pair feel happy with her situation is to provide her with various “creature comforts”, including a nice bedroom, entertainment equipment, access to family amenities like a pool or beach club, favorite food, and so on.

I believe that, in general, a host family should provide their Au Pair with a physical situation at the same “comfort level” as the children enjoy. For example, if your kids’ bedrooms are air-conditioned, the Au Pair’s bedroom should be air-conditioned too. If you wouldn’t have your kids sleeping on that mattress, you shouldn’t put it in the Au Pair’s room.

Potential Traps on the way to “Comfort”

In the effort to make our Au Pairs physically comfortable, there are two traps that families can fall into. The first trap is giving your Au Pair more stuff and more privileges than she can appreciate. [This trap is otherwise known as “spoiling” your au pair, and it’s the subject of an upcoming post.]

The second trap you can run into is what I call the “Amenities Arms Race”.

The Amenities Arms Race is what happens in a cluster of host families when each family tries to outdo the others in terms of the comfort level of their Au Pair’s situation. For example, if you find out that the Jones’ Au Pair has a new Razr cell phone while your Au Pair only has a land line, when you purchase a cell phone for your Au Pair so that you all can “keep up”, you start the Amenities Arms Race. The Amenities Arms Race also starts when your Au Pair has cable television, and the Jones’ Au Pair has a DVD player and TiVo, …

You get the picture — the Amenities Arms Race is about keeping up with what the Joneses have provided for their au pair, so that your Au Pair remains satisfied with her own situation.

Where does the Amenities Arms Race come from?

The Arms Race sometimes happens inadvertently. What looks like an arms race can occur when there is significant disparity in the income levels of families in your cluster. Wealthier host families will be able to provide more goodies for their own Au Pairs than will less wealthy host families.

Or, amenities get upgraded when your family purchases something new and then the old item — still in great condition — is passed down to the Au Pair.

So what’s the problem?

The problem comes in when the Amenities Arms Race is started on purpose, when you and/or other host families try to improve your Au Pairs’ physical situation in explicit comparison to the situations of other local Au Pairs. How nice it must be, to be able to suggest to your Au Pair: “Your situation here with us is so much better than the situation of the au pair across the street.”

If you think you might be able to win it, the Amenities Arms Race might seem worth a try. But…

The Amenities Arms Race is futile, because…

** Au Pairs will compare their situations with the situations of other Au Pairs that they know. It’s a common psychological process, and it often ends with a person calculating her “relative deprivation”.

** Differences in physical situations are much easier to compare than differences in social situations. While it’s easy for Au Pairs to compare their bedroom, car or TV with the bedrooms, cars or TVs of other Au Pairs, they can never really know how good or not good their situation is with your family on the important dimensions– socially, psychologically, and emotionally.

** Ironically, it’s the Au Pair’s social, psychological, and emotional comfort with your family that really makes her happy or not.

So, what can a caring host mom do?

I say: Provide for your Au Pair whatever you think is reasonable, and then resist the temptation to compare or keep up with everyone else.

Instead, focus your efforts on what you and your family can do to create a more enjoyable social, psychological, and emotional context for you Au Pair and for each other.

Tip: When an Au Pair has a nice TV, it’s just a nice TV. When an Au Pair is listened to, respected, considered when you go grocery shopping, and so on , she feels good — and so do you.

Your thoughts? Comment below!

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acicala August 3, 2008 at 4:32 pm

Any suggestions on how to deal with an offshoot of the amenities arms race – the hours issue? Our au pair has a friend who works nowhere near the 45 hours – at most 25 hour per week. Our au pair works on average about 40 hours per week with no weekend hours required. She is making her “relative deprivation” known. We cannot work less and were very clear during the matching process regarding the schedule. We also have spent over a $1000 on camps to lighten her load for the past two weeks. She plays well with our children and we all like her, but there is nothing more we can do to change the hours short of hiring someone else which doesn’t seem reasonable given that 40 hours. Any suggestions on how to make her feel better about the situation?

cvh August 4, 2008 at 3:43 pm

I SO hear you on this point Acicala– this is something that drives me crazy… so let me go straight to writing the post I’ve had in mind!

Rocio August 4, 2008 at 7:25 pm

Well, that depends of the Au Pair’s personality.
The other day I was very embarrassed by asking a mirror to my room, and I don’t have a TV in my room. So I think it depends of the au pairs personality. One time a wise man said to me: – Never compare your stuff with others girls’s stuff.
I hope that helps.
Very nice website.

emorton91 December 12, 2008 at 10:38 pm

I totally agree I have this going on now and it is aweful. I would let your LCC know that is going on and she too can talk to the aupair.

IJC June 14, 2009 at 3:49 pm

I think it depends on the age and maturity level of your au pair. A young silly one is going to be very concerned that the other au pairs have better TVs or whatever. But an older or more mature one will be much more concerned that the family treat her kindly and with respect. To avoid hassles, it’s probably better to spell out exactly what she’ll be getting in terms of free time, material goods and other perks before you hire her.

etznab August 25, 2010 at 7:13 am

I have never been a host, but I’m considering it for the next year. This post was of particular interest to me, since I have never been into typical American amenities. For example I don’t have cable and my only cell phone is a $30 prepaid that has probably been used twice in the past six months. I can’t imagine ever paying $5 for coffee at Starbucks. I can afford these things, but they have no interest to me.

Since I don’t purchase such things for myself, I can’t imagine buying them for an aupair. Will this deny someone the “American” experience? I plan to be upfront about this so there are no surprises. But I wonder if this viewpoint will still open me to lots of complaints about not having “things”. I have no issue spending lots of money at restaurants and other social events and would be happy to pay for the aupair to attend as well if the kids are going.

Calif Mom August 25, 2010 at 10:21 am

Your “host letter” will be an important tool for you. Be very specific about these issues: it may take you a bit longer to find an AP whose values align with yours, but you will find her.

(After an uneven track record finding APs who mesh with our family–0 fer 3–but having found lovely APs through rematch, the last time we had to go ‘back to the pond’ for a new AP, I completely revised our Host Letter. My husband dubbed the first draft the “I Dare You To Match With Us” letter. He toned it down a bit, but left in the very clear facts about us that a prospective AP needs to know up front because they are immutable. Princesses seeking a marble palace in 90210 need not apply, basically. So far, we are off to a good start with our new AP, who has been with us several weeks and doesn’t mind the things that others have found unacceptable. So this approach works.)

In your case, since Starbucks has become a big part of urban and suburban culture, I would mention that you never buy it. (I am a confessed coffee snob, but will do starbucks when desperate. Because, in my view, I have much better stuff available at home, if she rejects that she can buy her own ‘Bucks. When we’re on vacation together and she’s on the clock, I’ll buy her morning brew alongside mine.)

Spend time now collecting your thoughts about what is important to your family as they come up. You’re so lucky to have this blog as you contemplate starting out! It has saved my sanity more than once…

Keep asking questions!

azmom February 23, 2011 at 1:01 am

I am entirely feeling this and happy to see this post linked today. I’m trying to resist adding a few things to “give” our AP, because I know what her two closest AP friends get. I then remind myself that she does have more than required, all that the kids have access, we gave her off yesterday (holiday) when everyone else had to work, even though at least one parent was off, etc. So, so, so, so hard to not get into the arms race.

I don’t want my kids to become teenagers, that’s for sure. I can only imagine the arms race of pre-teen kids, but teenage? Ugh.

Xaupair October 25, 2011 at 11:06 am

Well, when I was an Au pair I didn’t care about stuff like that, at least I didn’t compare “my stuff” to what other Au pairs had… But maybe that’s because I was, actually, pretty spoiled. I could see that other Au pairs were jealous of my situation when visiting me – my room and bathroom were really big and just renovated and they always commented on that. I didn’t make much fuss about it though. What I really appreciated, and the way I felt spoiled, was that my host family listened to me, showed me respect, and they would let me have a say when it came to what to get at the grocery store and my HP really put value in my child care skills and asked me for advice and we had a great communication – which made me feel like an important addition to the family!! :)

This is kind of funny though; when my friend xxx, also an Au pair, arrived her HM took her to the store and asked her: “what would you like? You can take anything and put it in the cart! Is there anything you miss from home?” (that’s nice!!).. After some careful
consideration and thoughts (she didn’t wanna seem too greedy) she said: “well, I LOVE bananas…”, her HM’s answer to her ONLY “wish” from the store?

“Bananas are too expensive, so we don’t buy bananas, xxx”.

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