Too Stern? Or Not Stern Enough? Your Au Pair’s ‘Tone of Voice’ with Kids

by cv harquail on August 6, 2013

From Should be working

How can I help the AP know

– when to be tough,
– when to insist,
– when to give in,
– when to just do it for the kid even though the kid can do it for himself,
– when to reach for the ‘strict tone’ and when to leave it,  and — especially tricky–
– how to say something in a non-grumpy tone if it’s going to be especially incendiary?

We have an AP who is great in most respects–responsible, friendly, truly cares about the kids, she goes out of her way to be part of the family and keep things smoothly rolling along.

twilight sparkleWith the exception of tone of voice, sometimes. It sounds like a small thing, but it happens relatively frequently that she gets all ‘tough’ with the kids in what seems to me (when I’m in earshot) to be the wrong moment. Like they are exhausted after a long day of swimming and the zoo, it’s clearly just not the time to insist that they empty the dishwasher or help put away clothes.

And it’s not even the insistence on the task, it’s more that she gets a ‘tough tone’ that could even be considered sarcastic or mean, although I know she really isn’t sarcastic or mean. I can use a pretty tough, even angry tone, but I feel like I do that when it’s called for and appropriate (mostly).

E.g. my teenager is nervous about a trip to the mall with new friends, spends too long trying on different outfits, is all bent out of shape about her hair–and after everyone is in the car with all their gear, the AP says in a grumpy voice, “don’t you need to go get your purse?” It’s just unnecessarily b*tchy.

Is this part of the kids (who are all over 8) learning to get along with different types? They really like her. I just hear this tone, sometimes, that makes me feel for the kids. I know the AP has a really tough mom and grew up in a strict house, and we’ve talked about how in our house we try to be patient and supportive, and structured rather than ‘strict’ per se. She also has said how much she loves how nice we are and how relaxed we are compared to her family.

How can I help her with building the sense of judgment for when to use that tough tone and when not?

I am not at all a super-gentle, patient mom, but I feel like I try to model restraint and judgment as to when to be harsh and when not.

I realized the mall example doesn’t quite capture the problem, it’s not harsh to remind the teen about the purse and even to make her get it herself. It is just this very sarcastic or angry tone of voice–that I believe the AP doesn’t even feel, she actually was pretty relaxed about the whole preparations.


I can’t wait to hear the advice you get, SBW, because I think I have the same problem that your AP does (or at least I could improve as a parent in the same way you would like her too!)

In my case, I know my harsher tone (at the times when it isn’t necessary, bc sometimes it is necessary and/or appropriate) is usually due to my stress level at the moment, or feeling that my gazillion children are whirling dervishes and my world is slipping out of my control.

I know that having an AP helps me in this regard :) as I am more restrains and try to model (more) ideal parenting/child management when I have an “audience”! (I’m a PT-WAHM/SAHM, so AP sees/hears me in action a lot!)

Emerald City HM

On the surface, possibly because of her upbringing, it sounds to me like she might lack empathy. Which is kind of a difficult skill to learn, particularly if you aren’t given good guidance. You might look up how to teach empathy to adults or kids and see if that’s maybe a path that is helpful.

Should be working

ECHM, well, it’s more that she lacks in-the-moment empathy. Oftentimes she has shown great empathy in a larger context, explaining to me how my daughter feels when I’ve misunderstood or made a wrong call; and she notices moods and reacts accordingly some of the time. It’s this harsh tone that comes up in the wrong places or is just a little TOO harsh even if the kids are being obnoxious.

Taking a Computer Lunch 

I put in my handbook that I’m the grouchy disciplinarian and what my teenagers need is more of a friend. Sure, I want the AP to figure out how to make them do what needs to be done so I don’t end up fighting with them over it when I get home, but I want them to engage.

If your AP is young and hasn’t really worked outside the home before, then she may not have a lot of experience cajoling kids. What I tell APs is that they are role models, not moms. (My extra-ordinaires have tended to have more experience with kid motivation and have a few tricks up their sleeves that I don’t have.)

The most inexperienced AP was the one most likely to meet at the door whining she couldn’t get my youngest teenager to do what needed to be done. The tattletale mentality annoyed me endlessly, and made me curt with her. She was also more likely to have inappropriate conversations with that child – like which rock band singers had dropped out of school or had drug overdoses.

So, with your sharp AP, tell her that she’s a role model. You want her to help your teen and tween navigate their way to adulthood. Telling a teen that she’s forgotten her purse when they’re all the way in the car, is too late. Tell her, that the teenager would learn to pay attention if she said at the moment of the sale, “You don’t want to forget your purse.”

If she likes to bake, urge her to bake a cake with the kids or teach them how to make a treat from her country. If she’s sporty, have her work on a sport with them. Tell her the more she behaves like a favorite aunt and pays attention to them, praises them, and urges them to stretch their wings, the more they’ll trust her and do what she wants them to do.

Ask your LCC to provide tips on how to talk to big kids.

Momma Gadget

I am interested in hearing this also.
A jocular, sarcastic tone is OK with my older teenager,but is often too harsh for my ( frustratingly) anxiety prone preteen.
Not sure how to explain the nuances.

DE in NZ HM 

Don’t have good advice to offer as I am struggling with what is probably a very similar issue in my relationship (with UK DH), but I had a slight grin on my lips when I read Sbw’s post. First thing that came to mind: Is your AP German (or middle to Eastern European)? I’m originally from Germany and at home have often been told about / been accused of my ‘not nice’ or even ‘angry’ tone of voice that apparently I use in quite regular (English) conversations. It’s something I am not aware off most of the time (and usually I am not anywhere near angry) but have tried to work on for a number of years – not easy!

So it might just be her ‘professional/ business’ voice. I am not trying to excuse anything and I think it’s fair and important to address the issue with the AP/ help the AP. A first step might be to tell her how she sounds to you – she might not be aware and that (sarcastic or otherwise) message you pick up on might not be intended…

And, like others, I am also interested to hear from others for my own benefit!

MidAtlantic Host Family

Also German decent and accused of the same. I am not sure how to describe it but much more direct in communication without sugarcoating, which sometimes people read into it things I do not mean.

I agree with DE in NZ, but likewise it is something to work through. I much prefer someone to say something or ask than not.

[Jump in with your comments, below!]


Should be working August 8, 2013 at 3:57 pm

Yes, she is German. And yes, this is an issue with some German APs from what I understand. It is a sensitive thing to bring up, because when I’ve tried to do so indirectly and gently (which might not work with Germans) she gets a little defensive and seems to think I’m being overly controlling. I like the idea that I tell her that I’m trying to model tone of voice for the teen and preteens, who definitely NEED that modeling. Then I can also give examples of how my teen/preteens say things in ways that I find too harsh and show how I ask them to try to speak in a different tone.

German Au-Pair August 11, 2013 at 8:08 pm

Same “problem” here. In Germany we grow up being expected to be able to figure things out on our own and to take responsibility for ourselves pretty early.
When I was 12 I met my friends in town before going to my gymnastics class and I was expected to show up on time and have my stuff ready. No one modeled how to do it for us, someone told us how to do it. If we did forget our shoes, no one called our moms to come and bring shoes but we had to pick between sitting on the bench for 1.5 hours or particpating barefoot, which was horrible.
The whole concept of being a role model is not that big of a deal here, too. I think it’s totally fine to talk about a drug abusing rockstar with a teenager because things do happen and I think kids need to learn that other people’s choices should not be choices you need to make, too. Of course I wouldn’t do so if I was told not to by the kids’ parents but without that I wouldn’t think anything of it.

I would be nice about it because she hasn’t done anything wrong in her mind but I would also be very direct and tell her that you know that it doesn’t seem that way to her but you fear that your kids might pick up an unnecessarily harsh tone and you would appreciate her paying attention to that. I would also be very specific about it. (Like the car thing: tell her that “Hey, don’t forget your purse” would have seemed friendlier and more appropriate in your culture than what she said. For a German what she said sounds perfectly fine.) It will take some effort and it probably won’t go away completely but when you pay attention to it, it will improve. Tell her that you might remind her if she says something similiar (not in front of the kids of course) so she can get a feel for what you mean exactly. With that heads-up it won’t feel that controlling.
I think it’s really important to make clear that you understand that this is mostly a cultural thing but you need your teens to learn a behavior that is expected in YOUR culture, too.

Seattle Mom August 13, 2013 at 4:03 pm

I’m struggling a little with this too, and my AP is Thai! She is super sweet and obviously loves the kids and they love her. She is very playful and friendly with them. But I have heard her say things that I really don’t approve of and I am just hoping that it’s not going to ruin them in some way. Mainly she sometimes teases them at inappropriate moments- like when they are being cranky and whiney because they are tired (they are 4 1/2 and 2 1/2), which I think is counter productive and not appropriate to their level of development. She also gets a lot more stern with them than I do about following the routine (pick up toys, brush teeth, take bath, etc). The funny thing is that sometimes my 2 1/2 year old starts talking to me the way AP talks to her. In an exaggerated way, of course.

I’m not going to do anything about it as of yet.. I bite my tongue, hold my breath, and remind myself that the kids are going to encounter all kinds of authority figures in their life. The AP is not cruel or unloving, and they do love her. I also think that in terms of their long term self esteem and all that their interactions with me and DH are more important.

Our AP is also not the brightest.. she has been in the US for 1 1/2 years now (came to us on extension from another family) and her English is still not good.. if I try to talk to her about anything too complicated or philosophical she doesn’t understand what I’m saying so I tend not to bother. I would say she’s great 50% of the time, good 40% of the time, and not to my liking 10% of the time- not so bad. Our first AP came to us with worse English and she achieved near native fluency by halfway through her year and was always interested in talking about how to work with the kids better- I’m going to be looking for that more in our next AP.

Seattle Mom August 13, 2013 at 7:01 pm

Ok I also recognize there are cultural issues here.. part of the reason this AP understands us less well than the last is that the culture is more different.

Taking a Computer Lunch August 13, 2013 at 7:49 pm

I’ve had experiences like that. Sometimes I’ve discovered that the AP was a B student. Even though I don’t ask a GPA question, I’ve discovered that the B and C students I have hosted have been less curious and less motivated than the A students who have lived in my household.

I recently had a conversation with a colleague about qualities she sought in candidates she was hiring. She said curiosity was most important to her. She thought that curious people were more likely to ask questions and learn from their mistakes.

If your AP is doing a good to great job 90% of the time, then you might talk to her quietly (when the kids are out of earshot) about the 10%, but reminding her first what a good job she is doing. But you’re right. Your kids are going to encounter a lot of people in their lives, and the sooner they get accustomed to a variety of discipline techniques, the better off they will be.

Host Mom in the City August 13, 2013 at 8:20 pm

TACL – you’re so right about A students! We’ve added that to our interview questions actually – “how did you do in school and what subjects did you enjoy?” My current AP tells me frequently how bored she was in school and thinks it’s funny that she has fallen asleep in her (bare minimum just to pass the requirements) AP courses. It says a lot about her personality overall – lack of respect for others’ feelings, lack of interest in anything wordly or outside of her own feelings and norms, lack of direction in life. I am now really convinced that the type of student an au pair was in school is a big indicator.

Returning HM August 13, 2013 at 9:55 pm

This cracks me up because our AP and I were just talking about this topic tonight, as we were reflecting on her year with us — in which she grew and learned so very, very much — and the kind of year her friends had with their HFs.

We too have discovered that the kind of student an AP is and was really matters in how she will be as an AP. And another thing we have learned after just about seven years in the AP program is that we can tell almost to a “T” how an AP is going to get along with us by how she regards au pair school at orientation. If an AP is bored and thinks it’s a waste of time (has happened twice), chances are good that the AP is not going to be a good fit for us because she won’t be the sort of person who finds something to learn in all situations. If the AP finds SOMETHING about it interesting or fun or thought-provoking or idea-generating, then we’re in business. Because honestly, childcare is often routine and repetitive, and the person who can be curious and look for learning opportunities even in this setting is in general a better fit for our family.

Host Mom in the City August 14, 2013 at 6:38 am

Great point! Shocker – my current AP thought training school was lame because she knew it all already (obviously not). Our next one asked to go to this extra day early class they are having now because “good to take advantage of learning if its offered.” And I’m she she already DOES know the training school info since she’s an extraordinaire. Hope that’s a good sign!

NoVA Twin Mom August 14, 2013 at 8:27 am

I never realized the correlation before – but our two au pairs that really didn’t work out thought orientation was dumb. Our most recent, “I-called-rematch-after-3.5-workdays-with-APIA’s-full-support” flameout spent PAGES on her blog complaining about how stupid orientation was. Apparently she either didn’t realize I could read her language or didn’t think we’d read it after she invited all her facebook followers to read it.

In retrospect, the most illuminating complaint was how much time they spent on teaching about ticks and tick removal. She didn’t understand how anyone could be so stupid as to not know what to do if a tick got on a child, as apparently they’re taught from birth in her country how to handle ticks. Apparently it didn’t occur to her that not everyone in orientation was from the same part of the world and would have the same experience with ticks…

Getting ready for a “new-to-us but extending so has already been here a year” au pair to arrive in a few weeks! :)

Au pair August 17, 2013 at 9:43 pm

Nova twins mom: I have to say, orientation IS boring..they texted us full for 10h a day with unuseful stuff. I would have liked to hear something about American families, their styles of parenting etc. but after 5 hours of the never shake a baby speech, believe me you are going to fall asleep. I can’t say that I learned anything at orientation except some new English words..

NoVA Twin Mom August 19, 2013 at 10:04 am

Au pair (and others) –

I agree, orientation probably isn’t the most exciting way to spend your time. My problem wasn’t just that she found the experience boring, but her attitude toward the whole thing.

Instead of seeing if she could learn ANYTHING – even make friends, or learn what parts of the world don’t have ticks – she focused on how dumb the company was for teaching her about ticks.

And if it’s really that bad, start making suggestions (to your company) about topics they can include in future orientations! They’d probably appreciate the input.

German Au-Pair August 20, 2013 at 10:44 am

Orientation had great, motivated teachers and it was a nice way to start the experience in another country and to get acclimated before actually meeting the host families.
BUT our first aid class actually gave out information that was just plain wrong and potentially dangeroous and they didn’t even take a look at if you’re doing it right. It was a “cross it off the list” kind of thing, while it could have been something really useful.
I wouldn’t say that not finding orientation useful says something about you as a person.

Host Mom in the City August 20, 2013 at 12:47 pm

I only have a sample size of two, so my opinion isn’t worth much :) But I don’t think I was saying that if you don’t find orientation “useful,” then you’re not going to be a good au pair. Only that if you arrive complaining about how that orientation was “so lame and I already knew everything and i can’t believe they make us sit through that. I just put my head down and went to sleep,” then that says a TON to me about what kind of au pair you’re going to be. On the flip side, if you arrive to our home saying exactly what you did – that there are some positives and that you thought it was a good way to start out, but that you had some feedback for what they could do better, that is a good sign that you’ll be able to apply the same pattern to daily au pair life (that is, appreciating the good things, being able to think big picture, and actively being interested in coming up with solutions to make things better).

German Au-Pair August 20, 2013 at 7:58 pm

Okay, I do get what you mean there. The tick-removal thing for example would not be relevant to me because I had a dog growing up but I still can see how it’s a relevant topic.

As for the school thing I can honestly say that some of my friends who work harder than I do had worse grades than I had. A friend of mine studies like crazy, knows a lot, is super responsible but totally lacks any basic feeling for language, which loses him points in every single subject (because you always have to explain things in written form and if you really suck, your grades won’t be good.)
So please, don’t see bad grades as a red flag. If the person seems like a good candidate otherwise, chances are there are reasons for those grades.
Plus in other countries school is not like in the US. You can still get into a good university even if you don’t spend your entire school careeer preparing to get there. Therefore not focussing on your school career enough doesn’t mean the same lack of responsibility as it would in the US.
I can only advocate being very open minded about the screening for grades aspect.

Didis August 14, 2013 at 1:58 pm

I believe it is really hard for au pairs from all around the world to adjust to lifestyle, criteria and way of raising kids in USA. This is very different from most of the world.

Parents here are raising kids to believe that they can conquer the world, that they are the most intelligent, the prettiest, the best in everything.

Parents teach their kids that they always have options, solutions, that there will always be someone to help them, assist them. Parents teach their kids not to go into conflicts, to be always polite and step back in case of anything that is wrong.
I admire that and fully respect it.
I believe that children should be encouraged to do the best they can and be amazing, kind, respectful person as they grow up.

What I believe, based on my culture and way I am raised – not everyone in life of your children will think they are the best, smartest, prettiest. Not everyone will agree with everything they say and patiently wait until they are done talking, making decision for minutes or clean after their mess.

What will happen when your child comes to school/job/area/park and find himself in situation that is not what they are used to?

I am helping my hosts to raise kids like they want me to and I believe that it’s a good way to raise them as confident and amazing little people.
But any situation that arise I also tell them that even tho they are prettiest to me, they are maybe not to everyone, I tell them that sometimes they can’t have choose their breakfast or clothes for today, that if they forget their toy for show and tell I will not go back for it. If they spill milk I will not clean it. And I don;t change my mind based on are they tired, or stressed, or sad. Because in school/park/job people will have expectations from them whether they want to fulfill them or not.

Maybe I fall in that category of au pair who use little harsher voice from time to time and I don’t have understanding always as I should, but I see myself making progress and changing their lives, I see them becoming more responsible, respectful, kind and even tho many of you wouldn’t like to hear your child cry for 10 minutes and spending half day in time out. But I prefer that than having 10y old that I have to clean after and do her homework.

Ellbow October 11, 2013 at 3:05 am

I’m an Au Pair (American) in Germany now, and with my first family I got comments from the mom that I was sometimes too strict with the children and used to stern of a tone in similar situations (when they were tired, at the end of the day, or when they hadn’t been given warnings directly before the tone was used). Given, these kids were younger, so the situations my host mom felt I was being too strict happened more often.

For me the issue was that my tone is often a gut reaction. It’s not only that there are kids running around screaming and I need everyone to calm down so I burst a little; it’s also that I was raised to set rules and keep them at all times. If I said we don’t do “x” then regardless of how tired the kids are, or what kind of schedule we’re on, I’m going to do whatever I have to to keep them from doing “x”. While I totally understand where my host mom was coming from with regards to my tone and my being strict, I also felt that I was being undermined by being asked to change my child management techniques (applied to the house rules as the parents had told me).

From the Au Pair prospective I would say you should first talk to your children, and ask them how they feel about your AP, the good and the bad. It’s really important here that you do this in an open ended way so as not to suggest that her tone may be hurting your kids’ feelings, but give them time to tell you what’s bothering them. Maybe the tone doesn’t bother them at all in which case working on it in front of them will undermine your AP’s position in the family. Second I would say that talking to your AP directly, but with some behavior management language (e.g. “I feel that your tone can sometimes be too harsh with the children and I see this as negatively impacting your relationship with them” or “I need you to…” statements) may help the issue. She’s German so say it directly, but she’s sensitive to the criticism so make it about you more than her. She can’t argue with what you need, only with what you think she needs.

I hope this helps,

Skny November 14, 2013 at 7:14 pm

How do you teach a caregiver/Au Pair to respect the children?
Not an au pair, but our after day care sitter (as hubby swears au pair never again) who tried hard, but doesn’t get that kids deserve respect.
Example: they are getting out of the house. My 3yo wants to get her coat on by herself. She is very proud she got arms on. Only need to zipper. Yes, zipper is hard and sometimes she gets and sometimes not. So as 3yo is trying she will say: ok 3yo we have to go to the car now, and it is cold. She then counts down from 5 to 0 and lifts 3yo now screaming and force her into car. And then complains 3yo was crabby today. Seriously?
If she is ready to do something, she will just “maneuver” the kids instead of giving them the chance/alternative to participate on their own. Ideas?

Taking a Computer Lunch November 15, 2013 at 8:02 am

This babysitter may be fantastic with babies, but having the patience to teach a toddler how to be independent may not be her thing. We had a fantastic Brazilian AP who was perfect with our child with special needs (who will always be a “baby” mentally) and our youngest when he was an infant. In fact, we attempted to sponsor her as an employer because she was so great.

However, as the youngest child became a toddler, she still did everything for him – fed him, dressed him, and picked him up when needed, because it was easier for her to do than stop and help him gain independence. At the age of 4 he still didn’t dress himself. I realized that part of this was cultural and what made her so great with the kids as babies. When she moved on, we had an Austrian AP who had trained as an educator. She was perfect with the child with special needs, and within a month our 4-year-old was feeding himself, getting dressed by himself, and running out the door (of course the one German word he knew was schneller (faster)!).

Because it is so hard to find good childcare, it can be very hard to accept that what is right for one child is absolutely wrong for the other. However, instead of giving it 5 minutes, maybe your babysitter needs to give it 10. “While I get the baby ready, I want you to put your coat on and zip it up. If you’re not ready in 10 minutes, then I will help you so we can get out the door.”

BTW, 3 is just hard. I remember turning to DH and saying, “This must get better or the human race would have died out long ago.”

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