Second only to food as a ‘terrain of struggle’ is the shared family car. While the luckiest of us host families has an extra clunker or not-so-clunker available for the au pair to use as her own, many more host families have their au pair share the family car. And, some host families do not have cars themselves or share a car with an au pair. It runs the gamut, but one thing is true with every host family and every au pair:
Using the Host Family’s car for personal activities is a privilege, not an entitlement.
In situations where you have a family car that you will allow the au pair to use, and addressing situations where she is driving for her personal pleasure (and not to classes or on family business) here are some "best practices".
Be explicit with your au pair about her probable car privileges when you are matching. Tell her exactly what kind of car she’ll get to drive, how often you think it will be available to her, and who will pay for what. Err on the side of underestimating. Why?
No au pair is ever disappointed when she gets to use the car more than she expected. Every au pair is disappointed when her use of the car is more limited than she expected.
Explain to your au pair the way you want ‘permission’ to work. Yes, it can feel awkward to use the word permission….maybe you can come up with a better way to label it. As well as you can determine from past experience or from what other host parents tell you, try to figure out before hand how you want things to work and tell your au pair. In some families, the au pair asks before she takes the car. In other families, the au pair knows she can only use the car if the second car is available, so she won’t even ask unless she sees both in the driveway. In still other families, the au pair can use the car on weeknights but can’t expect to have it every weekend. And so on…
Don’t give your au pair her "own" set of car keys if she is sharing a car with you. This is just a way to invite trouble, because it makes it easier for her to take the car without you two having agreed that she can have the car. Instead, keep one set of car keys in an "official" place, and have all drivers use that same set. Then, as backup, keep a second set in a place your au pair can access if and when she needs to know where they are (like, when you’re commuting to work on the bus, and you reach into your purse for your iPod, and you discover you yes you forgot to put the keys back in the ‘official’ place.)
Start by being explicit about yes or no with the car. Consider having your au pair ask permission verbally, or have her check the calendar (so she doesn’t take the car on the night of your book club), or plan ahead when you both discuss the week’s schedule, or whatever you can come up with.
Start with strict guidelines and limited use . Gradually, as your au pair learns how to drive in your area and in your car, and as your au pair demonstrates good judgment, relax some of these restrictions. it is perfectly OK to have your au pair "earn" additional use of the car. Starting strict and then loosening up helps you sent the message that the car is a privilege not a right. And, it’s easier to let her drive the car farther and farther away from home base than it is to clip her wings after you discovered she was driving 200 miles round trip every Friday to see her boyfriend’s band. (Yes, dear reader, it happened. To me. Hence, the weekly mileage guideline and the limits on distance from the house.)
Give the car a curfew. It can be different from her curfew… just as long as the car is home by 1 am. (Why? #1 When do you think most accidents happen? And, #2, do you want that middle of the night phone call about her hitting the deer and totaling the car, and she hadn’t even been drinking. Again, dear reader…. worse still, she was 90 miles away and my husband had to go get her and the car. At 3 am.)
Have a way to coordinate with your spouse, so that one of you doesn’t say yes if the other one of you needed the car.
You have the right to say no, especially when you are not sure if you need the car yourself. You own the car, you pay the insurance, and you have a right to say no if the au pair requests to use the car but giving it to her is inconvenient for you. That said,
Try hard not to be arbitrary in your decisions . Don’t say no when she asks to use the car when you’re peeved at her because the kids’ laundry *still* isn’t done. You and your au pair will be happier if/when you can get into a pattern so that she can anticipate when she might use the car and when you might not be able to offer it to her.
Hold your au pair accountable for treating the car with care, and hold her accountable for keeping it tidy. Your au pair should always leave the car at least as clean as she found it. And, be realistic about holding the au pair accountable for wear and tear of the car; make a distinction between the effects of sensible use and the effects of abuse.
In families with two cars, don’t habitually offer the nicer car to the au pair. She doesn’t need the car with the CD changer and surround sound, let me tell you. That’s another way to invite trouble, because you’ll care more if the ‘best’ car is damaged than if the second best car is damaged.
There are more best practices in addition to the ones I’ve listed here, so parents chime in with yours. Also, check out the next post, in which advice is offered mom to mom about an au pair driving her host mom wild. [Tomorrow: Advice Wanted: How to manage too much “personal” use of family car ]
Check out these posts about Au Pairs and Cars:
When your Au Pair has a Fender-Bender — Who pays, and what, and how?
After the Car Accident: Advice on what to talk about with your Au Pair
Using the Car: Guidelines
Advice wanted: How to Keep Track of Au Pair’s personal car use?
Want Safe Driving? Forbid your Au Pair to use the cellphone in the car. Period