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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