What’s the Best Way to Instruct Your Au Pair?

by cv harquail on August 28, 2015

“Blah blah blah blah blah.”

There must be hundreds of Au Pairs out there who can appreciate this FarSide cartoon by Gary Larsen.**

gary-larson-far-side-cartoon-what-we-say-to-dogs-blah-blah-gingerA Host Parent’s constant instruction can quickly become just background noise. Possibly interesting, possibly important, but rarely punctuated by anything that grabs your attention.

And we Host Parents have SO much to say, especially when an Au Pair is new to our family.

“To use the dishwasher, set it on regular unless the dishes are sticky, then use Heavy Duty but only if you take the wineglasses off the top shelf and make sure to put the bottle caps and covers in that little plastic compartment next to the knives, which should ALWAYS be put in ‘point down’. Right? Easy peasy.

When you have a lot to tell your Au Pair and even more to *teach* him or her, the best way is to limit the amount you talk.

Shocking, but true.

The less you say the better.

Use this simple process:

1.  Prioritize the one or two most important things about the situation you’re discussing  (e.g., the knives, which cycle).

2.  Say it once, with words that are two syllables or less.  

“Knife points down.” “Regular Cycle.”

3. Say it in one or two sentences. Sentences with no clauses.  

“Always point the knives down.  Use the regular cycle.”

4. Demonstrate the desired actions.  

Put a knife in the dishwasher, point down.  Close the door and put your index finger on the Regular Cycle button.

Then, mix it up with my own crazy  step 5:  

5. Demonstrate the wrong way. 

Yep, go ahead and put that steak knife point UP. Then demonstrate what it might look like if a hand reached into the dishwasher and got speared by the knife point.

Finally, encourage your Au Pair to take Step 6 him or herself….

6. Have the learner demonstrate the action for the teacher. 

Hand the knife to your Au Pair and watch your Au Pair put it into the dishwasher point …. down.

This strategy of Tell, Show, and Turn It Over works best for Au Pair tasks that can be demonstrated. Obviously.  ( It can be fun, though, to try to demonstrate (act out, mime, etc.) things that seem less demonstrable.)

The 6-Step Process works best when you have a definitive way of doing things.  

If you don’t have a preference for how the knives should go in, that’s fine.  But in most cases, it works best to be definitive.

Why? Because people need to know WHAT to do, not that “something” needs to be done.

Bonus:  Many Au Pair will appreciate knowing how you like things done because they want you to be happy with their work. You actually make it EASIER for them if you have a way of doing things and if you show this to them.

Everything in moderation — Certainly, do make distinctions between things that MUST be done a certain way (e.g., putting a child into the car seat) vs. things where you show them a way but it really isn’t a priority. (Nothing horrible will happen to those dishes from Ikea if your dishwasher is on Heavy Duty for the first three weeks of your Au Pair’s life in your home.)

Have you found any tricks for feeling less like a drone when giving instructions?  



**NOT that any of our au pairs are like new puppies who need to be scolded.


Multitasking Host Mom August 28, 2015 at 11:52 am

CV, these are great tips. I can see how there is so much to take in as an AP that it is hard to remember everything! And knowing what is really important and what I would probably let slide, I probably need to do a better job of differentiating between at first…otherwise I could just see it all running together.

The one thing that helps me when I am giving instructions is having our family handbook open as I am explaining something. As I go over something I keep referring back to the handbook so they know where the information is so if they forget a detail later hopefully they will remember where they can look it up. Plus, since everything is written down it helps me not forget to discuss something important.

Grouchy aupi August 28, 2015 at 1:23 pm

My Gosh. Point 6 can be assumed as offensive.

You’re not treating with a kid. An aupair is a matture, grown-up person who comes to help you in your life. Show her/him how to handle a knife, if necessary but don’t make her/him to repeat after you. That’s very kindergarten.

cv harquail August 30, 2015 at 2:34 pm

GrouchyAP– the example is just an example. You know, to illustrate the steps of the process as simply as possible.

As a professional teacher, I know that there is a great gap between things that people “understand” and things that people are able to “do”.

I don’t care if someone gets a bit huffy if s/he’s asked to show me that s/he can put a child safely into the car seat.

Training isn’t ‘done’ until a person can successfully, reliably DO what they’ve been taught. Hence, step 6 is critical.

exaupair August 30, 2015 at 3:26 pm

Giving clear instructions is OK, however host to make sure they don’t sound like if they thought their AP is a bit slow.
Personally I wouldn’t feel offended if someone left me specific instructions on how to use their washing machine or a dishwasher. I would feel odd if they wanted me to repeat simple tasks over and over or shadow them, because bullet points written down really are enough.

German Au-Pair August 30, 2015 at 6:05 pm

I LOVED being instructed how to use the washing machine. The one my HF had was a hundred times fancier than ours, it had a lot more functions, I had never heard the word detergent before and was appalled that in the US they mostly use unscented detergent (but was so happy about those nice little scented perls).
The dishwasher has big pet peeve potential. My family puts the knives tip up, my HF put it tip down.
As for the repeating an action -probably stupid with basic things like putting knives in the dishwasher but helpful with a thousand-straps car seat.

Also my Hm told me the AP before me didn’t know that you need to remove the cardboard from the bottom of the pizza…as a HM, I probably also wouldn’t assume but make sure.
I know many APs get super upset when HF ask them if they have certain devices in their home country and know how to operate them. And I know this can be especially frustrating when you’re from a country about which people tend to have a lot of stereo types. However, for an American having a garbage disposal is completely normal, whereas my fellow Germans have never even heard of it unless they regularly binge watch American Tv series… I did not know what a canteloupe was because while we occasionally have that in supermarkets, it’s not a common fruit at all (again, I don’t know anyone who knew what it was). So while I get being offended if someone ask you if you know what an apple is (I have witnessed that…cringeworthy), you don’t actually know what is common in other countries until you ask. APs seriously need to chill.

Taking a Computer Lunch August 30, 2015 at 5:25 pm

After AP #1 and her best friend assured me they knew the directions from the pediatrician’s office to our home (20 minutes) and had not arrived 1 1/2 hours later, when I’m not sure about linguistic ability I will ask, “Tell me how you’re getting home,” or “Tell me what I asked you to do today,” or “In which order did I ask you to wash the dishes?” While an AP who has been in my house may feel babied, let me assure you that for a newly arrived AP there is just way too much information to absorb in the first month. While I don’t expect her to remember it, it would be easier to take if she would stop nodding yes instead of saying, “I’m not really sure,” when I ask if she understood my instructions.

FirstTimeHM August 31, 2015 at 5:55 am

It may be kindergarten to repeat an action, but if I think it’s of vital importance to strap in the kids, I’ll have you repeat the action. But I’ll only do that for things that are really important (the car seats or the baby carrier) or simply rather difficult like folding and unfolding the buggy (mine has a few quirks that even puzzle fellow mothers).
For the rest, I will always tell the au pair that all that information in the first week is far too much to remember so please ask if you can’t remember everything. Personally I’d rather explain 3 or 4 times than have the laundry messed up, or have someone afraid of doing the dishes because they don’t know how to do it.

Multitasking Host Mom August 31, 2015 at 11:54 am

Actually, what CV describes is very similar to the way that people are trained in my profession. (I work in a hospital where even a small mistake could potentially harm a patient.) We follow the steps…Discuss/Observe/Perform. A new employee has to be documented as completing each step for every task they have to do as their job. When we are inspected by regulators, they expect to see this train. My coworkers are very educated and smart people, but even they can get distracted, have an off day, etc. and might not full absorb the information being presented to them. By confirming that they can repeat the newly learned task right away shows they got it or if they don’t, gives the trainer the chance to go over it again before incorrect habits are formed.

Rads September 1, 2015 at 9:02 am

You know, I would be very grateful for that kind of clear instructions. The first day of my au pair year, my HM told me to give the kids spag bol. She said the meat sauce was in the fridge and left for work. Googling was not an option during that time and since I am an Indian who has never tried spag bol in my life (didn’t even know what it was), I merrily heated up the meat from the frudge and gave it on a plate to the kids. Of course they asked me: “Where is the pasta!”

German Au-Pair August 28, 2015 at 3:34 pm

Something that just crossed my mind because I have seen it somewhere and ended up asking “where does this live?” when out-of-the-order things were used well into my second year: put an overview of what lives in which cupboard/drawer on the doors in the beginning and maybe move it inside the doors later on. Ask your AP which words she doesn’t understand. I would consider my English fluent and I can discuss genetic engineering with you because that’s the kind of vocab we learn at school. I also understand hundreds of pop culture references due to watching a lot of English TV/movies. But neither school nor TV teaches you about the BBQ tongs or the strainer (I had to look up both words just now AFTER living in the States for almost 2 years!).
If you have those stereo-typical American washing machines and dryers, write down instructions. Even with normal washing machines that might be a good idea. Things like that are super overwheliming especially because there are different options depending on different circumstances.

Taking a Computer Lunch August 29, 2015 at 9:18 pm

I recall the same thing 25 years ago, while stranded alone in France. I could talk to strangers about Andre Gide, but not about how I was broke and stuck on a Sunday night because I no longer had enough francs (that’s how old I am) before leaving for the country in which I intended to study for five months, Ireland.

My current AP is nearly fluent, but not close to being bilingual, because idiomatic American English is still not entirely on her radar. (I’ll stop myself and ask her if she knows the expression. She’s heard it now – but she’s not at the point that she is able to use it.)

German Au-Pair August 30, 2015 at 6:11 pm

I understand puns pretty well by now and get most idiomatic expressions I encounter but household vocab is just so specific and useless when learning English as a foreign language that you just don’t learn it. Also some words are the EXACT translation from German to English but you wouldn’t dare try this because it sounds so stupid. Just the other day I tried to figure out what Luft(air)pumpe (pump) means in English and actually googled it…well.
Other things are almost as close…Koch(cooking)löffel(spoon) is NOT cooking spoon so I asked what that “wodden spoon” is called…my HM was really puzzled by that question :D
I would have loved a pictured guide or something :D

FirstTimeHM August 31, 2015 at 6:18 am

I consider myself fluent in English as well, I work in an international company with people from all over the world and I have to talk in English practically the entire day and that’s no problem at all.
Our former au pair was from the States and was appalled by my extremely bad English, I didn’t know some English words for certain kitchen utensils, didn’t know the word oatmeal (we never eat it) and simply didn’t have all the fine detail on American idiom.
The funniest mistake (to me at least) was that she once used the phrase ‘playing it by ear’. All our kids play a musical instrument and she just started to play the piano so I complimented her on being so musically gifted, such a shame she didn’t have the ability to start piano earlier because playing something back after hearing it once is such a rare ability, especially on a piano…. To make it worse I stressed that she was always welcome to use the family piano and that I would help her find a teacher if she liked.

Schmetterfink September 1, 2015 at 5:29 am

I got that puzzled look from my ESL teacher… when I asked him what Americans called white asparagus. Well, to me “asparagus” is “white asparagus” and what is called “asparagus” in the US is “green asparagus” to me. So if you sent me to buy asparagus… I’d buy the white kind. For all I knew, “white asparagus” could be called anything. I was happy I knew that “asparagus” in the US was generally green.
One of my friends got in trouble with him for calling the “fridge” a “re-fresh”, which was what her host family called it. He said she was wrong. She said, well it’s what they say. That was a fun discussion.

What I found tended to be a problem was that, eventhough my teacher at school taught American Englisch, I often knew the British English terms (taught from school books in grade 5 to 10) only and didn’t know that it was not the same in American English because they had never come up again. I knew what a “dummy” was but I had never heard of the word “pacifier” (plus misheard what my HF called it and thus named it “percy” instead of “paci” until my oldest hostchild corrected me), I knew it was a “nappy”, I hadn’t heard the term “diaper” before coming to the US. School taught me to call it a “colander” but I didn’t know the word “strainer.”

For some reason I do quite well with idiomatic expressions. It might come from reading a lot? I don’t know. It was quite sweet when my (Australian) boss started explaning any idiom, simile, metaphor or analogy to me. He would tell me about remodeling their home “It’s so strange when they are ripping your home’s guts out – I mean when they are tearing everything out – it’s like open heart surgery on your home – I mean…”. It took me a month to make him stop. Even if I wouldn’t naturally use many idiomatic expressions, I understand them.

One problem – I think – is that “fluency” and “proficiency” are not the same. And “native-level fluence” is far from “conversational fluency.” According to definitions native speakers are not necessarily proficient in their native language though they might be fluent. It has to do with language competence. Thankfully, I never enjoyed linguistics and won’t take this further ;)

I think what I am trying to say is that in theory I think that this 6-step process is a great idea. But if you already know that your AP’s language proficiency is quite high, don’t talk to her in two word sentences. If you tell her “Please put the knives point down” and she says “Alright, do you want me to rinse them before putting them in the dishwasher? Do you put all knives into one utensil holder compartment or would you rather I spread them out so that they don’t nest?” take it from there. [My grandma taught me that knives never went into the dishwasher… she also taught me to put them in point up so that the knife-edge is not the bottom part where all the yucky stuff ends up in the utensil holder thingy (by the way – what is it called in English? I have no clue what I’d call it in my native language so can’t even google it).] Some APs come with a quite high language level as well as experience in household duties, you just need to tell them how your family wants it done. Concise instructions, yes. Treating them like an idiot, no.

But I agree, do tell them if you want something done a specific way. This comes from someone who got yelled at (by her non-US HF in Europe) for folding bath towels the wrong way. I didn’t even know you could fold a towel incorrectly. But obviously me folding the bathtowels “wrong” gave my HD an anxiety attack. Tell your AP “DH likes his towels folded like this”, show how, have her repeat, laugh about it together. Tadaaaa. Nobody will die by having to use a towel that wasn’t folded the way they prefer it. Making sure she understands how to buckle the car seat into the car is much more important. If something is of vital importance for you (car seat = yes, towels = uuuuhuh) tell her, show her, have her repeat it, write it down, make her show you again a few days later.

DowntownMom September 1, 2015 at 10:00 pm

That sounds like a ton of work to me! It is significantly less work for the new AP to look into the kitchen cabinets and drawers to find what she needs.

DowntownMom September 1, 2015 at 10:02 pm

My comment was in reference to the labeling…

WestMom August 28, 2015 at 6:13 pm

And don’t overestimate the power of the Post-it notes! I have a few sprinkled on our appliances like one on the microwave reading: ‘No plastic’, and one on the downstairs AC that says: ’73 degrees’.

Au Pair Report Author August 30, 2015 at 12:04 pm

I like WestMom’s suggestion about Post-it notes, but there is a lot to be said for including images in your au pair manual. The multi-step process of showing described in the blog post could be perceived as condescending by some au pairs (especially those with better English), but having a user-friendly reference guide is always helpful for those who are too embarrassed to ask again for instruction about something they have supposedly already learned. You could ask take the Post-it note idea one step further, and laminate instruction sheets with images and tape them near the appliance in question. Of course, creating these guides takes time, but a departing au pair may enjoy creating them for a new au pair.

inNOVA August 31, 2015 at 8:10 pm

This is a lot of excellent information here. I thought I would share a couple more takeaways that I learned when working with international students that apply to au pairs as well:
-avoid idioms in the beginning
-avoid passive voice (even though most au pairs now how the structure works grammatically, this can cause misunderstanding)
-Simple and direct works best, just in a polite way – even if it comes off as a bit brusque to you, unless the au pair has particularly advanced English skills, they will likely not feel the same way.

Mom From the Hood August 31, 2015 at 9:55 pm

I can’t say I don’t have communication challenges with my current Au Pair from Germany, because I really do. However, I don’t know if I really agree with the approach here. I’ve had a mixed bag when it comes to the au pairs we have had. It’s not been about the simplicity of directions. I want to be able to talk to these young women like they have an attention span longer than 7 seconds. Most of the ones we select have a strong, if not primary, command of English.

I think my major communication flaw is a little different, but its a flaw nonetheless. I feel like I am not specific enough and I give the au pairs a certain level of autonomy to “figure things out.” Not like – not teaching them how to run the dishwasher. But basic things. I will specifically say, make sure the kids have a bath. I have not said “Bath times do NOT need to take 45 MINUTES PER KID.” (Why? How does that even happen?). Well, now I guess based on this experience, I know I really have to be THAT specific. I will say, “We will occasionally welcome your friends for dinner.” I do not say, “Please do not whisper at the table in German throughout the course of the dinner.” – Though she did do that before and I did let her know that I thought that was kind of (a lot) rude.

Perhaps we are really saying the same thing in the end but maybe approaching the problem from a different perspective. I feel like there can’t be anything that’s left “open” for interpretation anymore, which I also feel is a shame, because I want a young woman who genuinely enjoys child care to be able to bring a positive energy and influence into our lives. But I can’t handle my current situation and am so, so, SOOOOOO very grateful that it will end soon.

German Au-Pair September 1, 2015 at 8:02 pm

Depending on the children’s age that doesn’t seem that long to me…my kids were old enough to bathe themselves so I don’t know how you handle it…do you let relatively young (4-ish?) children play alone in the bathtub? I know Americans are so much more afraid their child will drown (I was allowed, able and not the only one) to swim across the lake we used to go swimming at all by myself at the age of ten. We were allowed to go swimming at the local indoor pool alone for hours every week (like with no parents even at the facility). And we let our kids play in the bath tub if they want to and will leave them there unsupervised at a certain age (though I’m not sure about the exact age). So while bathing for 45 minutes every day is certainly not reasonable, letting them play for 45 minutes on occasion doesn’t sound super unreasonable to me.
And yes, unfortunately Germans are amongst the nationalities who have a reputation in the AP scene to speak their language in front of others in the most impossible situations. I actually was part of a group work at orientation that had 4 Germans working in German and ignoring the other 3 APs who wanted to participate but were excluded. I was so embarrassed about being able to understand the others. The worst part about being an AP is to make “friends” out of necessity (and because you’re in the same boat) that you usually wouldn’t even look at twice.

Taking a Computer Lunch September 1, 2015 at 9:42 pm

I walked into work today past 2 out of 3 police officers who were glued to their cell phones (irked the hell out of me). So let me imagine a scenario where a bath takes 45 minutes because the AP has walked away and texted – not good! Sure kids may take a bath by themselves as soon as they are able to show that they can really wash their bodies – 4? 5? 6? – depends on the kid – but you have to be able to hear them. I don’t know about you, but I’m deaf when I’m reading. Kids in the tub? Fold laundry or put away clothes nearby – because if they stop talking, then you have to move quickly. On the other hand, the Camel loves, loves, loves being in the water. I’ve been known to let her play for 45 minutes, because it makes her so happy. Child #2, when he was little, had great imaginative play in the tub. If your kids are happy AND the AP really has one ear glued to the sounds coming from the tub, then DON’T knock it! Choose your battles!!

I totally agree – when you invite APs and their friends to the table, speaking a common language is a courtesy. I have no problem in calling APs and their guests on it. (And I also have no problem with them departing from the dining room after the meal so they can go to the AP room and hang out.)

momo4 September 16, 2015 at 2:16 pm

I have found that how specific you need to be varies dramatically from one AP to the next. I am very laid back about how my AP’s do things, and I have found that some AP’s just seem to “get it” and others don’t. A lot of it comes down to a certain degree of natural compatability that is either there, or it isn’t.

When you have an AP who doesn’t naturally tend to do things the way you would, it can feel like a bit of a nightmare, especially if you are someone who doesn’t like to micromanage. And there’s no easy solution, because you cannot tell them exactly how to do every single thing that they may ever have to do, or how to handle every possible situation that may arise. You have to relay on them to do what you consider reasonable.

Bad manners can theoretically be managed, but personality just is what it is.

The bath issue is funny. My kids would happily spend hours playing in the bath, and I happily let them as long as there is no fighting and they are not flooding the bathroom. At worst they will get all wrinkly, and when they get cold they get themselves out of the bath. My boys are 3 and 5, so I just ask that the AP be within ear shot and check on them occasionally so she can hear if they need anything and see if they are getting into trouble.

Female au pair September 9, 2015 at 12:00 am

I agree with steps 1, 3 and 4 but be careful with the others. 5 seems like something that could be confusing if the au pair has a mental-image of you doing something the “wrong” way and then has to remember which one you specifically said to *not* do. My suggestion would be that 1/3/4 are plenty and then give the au pair a chance! They may surprise you. Plus, after telling them the steps, ask them if they have any questions. Also, point out where the steps are written down in your AP manual that they can refer to if necessary. Remember that when YOU first started with that dishwasher, you might have needed some time to figure out the mechanics and the best technique–even with some pointers, cut the AP some slack and wait till they are expected to perform the task themselves. If they don’t do it your preferred way, point it out gently by saying “oh, just a little reminder for the next time you load the washer, it would be great if you could _____” Just like everyone else, many APs learn through repetition–not verbal instructions.

Host Mom in Paradise September 15, 2015 at 9:59 pm

I wish I knew how to do this and other au pair training techniques, conversations, meetings, teambuildings, etc. all while caring for my kid. Single mom means I can’t give the kid to dad; I can’t occupy him with a sibling; and iPads and TV only goes so far before “MAMA YOU HAVE GOT TO SEE THIS.” Not to mention preparing for these activities with things like making up checklists or worksheets and writing or maintaining the handbook.

Discouraged. :( Help!

New to This September 15, 2015 at 11:48 pm

I would offer to babysit for you sometime, but based on your username, I doubt I’m anywhere in your geographic area. :-/ Do you have access to any sort of networks of single parents in your area? Maybe someone with a kid of a similar age would be interested in setting up some playdates that you could take turns supervising… I’m still “new to this” where the whole mom thing is concerned (not just the host mom thing!), but the value of moms’ having each other’s backs has already been pretty deeply impressed upon me.

In any case, I wish you some kind of decent solution. Not having the opportunity to manage somebody who’s caring for your kid sounds frustrating on so many levels…

FirstTimeHM September 16, 2015 at 9:20 am

Try to have a chat with your au pair when your kid is in bed, in the evening. And don’t bother too much with checklists and worksheets, she can make them herself if you need them, or you can make them together.

momo4 September 16, 2015 at 1:54 pm

Host Mom in Paradise-

I’m currently hosting my ninth AP (in 9 years) and I’ve never found checklists or worksheets necessary. I can see how they can be helpful, but they just seem to involve extra work, and with 4 kids I have no interest in generating any more work for myself! I try to keep it as simple as possible. I have also never required my AP to write anything down for me unless they want to, I’m happy to take “verbal” report at the end of the day. If my AP tended to forget details I wanted to know (what time my kid napped or something) then I would have no hesitation to ask them to write it down somewhere.

Here’s what I have found useful:
— A dry erase 7 day calendar. Mine is on the fridge. I write in whatever’s happening for each day of the week, and anything I want the AP to remember for each day. (Playdates, lessons, meetings, appointments, etc.) I include my AP’s work hours each day. This really helps me keep track as well.
–Shared online calendar. I just use the google calendar and give the AP access. This way the AP can easily look ahead to see what days the kids are off school, when I work, holidays, etc.
–Always touch base with the AP at some point when you get home. This may only take a couple minutes, but really ask how her day was as well as how your kid(s) went.

How best to “train” you AP depends on who that AP is, where they are from, how good their English is… Etc. I don’t think there is a one size fits all approach. Every year I see who my AP is as a person, and then I start from there. I don’t know any special techniques, or do any “teambuilding” exercises. I just try to really listen to them and get a feeling for who they are, like I would with any other person.

Most of the training I give my APs is on-the-job with kids around. Solid English skills make it a lot easier, as does having an AP from a country with similar technology to your own (if they use a washing machine at home, it’s a lot easier to explain the whole laundry business). I make a point to take the AP to all my kids’ favorite places to play (with the kids along of course) so she can get comfortable both with the places and with my kids. And as situations come up, kids fighting or whatever, she can see (and we can discuss) how I deal with it.

My handbook does not include explicit instructions about how to do things that I plan to show them how to do when they are here.

All this said, I am a very laid back host mom, and I do not worry about the details of how the AP is actually doing things as long as they are getting done reasonably and my kids are happy and well cared for. If the kids’ laundry is washed, dried and put away, I’m not going to make an issue about how my AP folded the shirts. If the dishes are getting washed clean and put away, I don’t care how she loaded the dishwasher. When I do give explicit instructions about how something must be done, I try to give a clear simple reason for why it must be done that way. (Eg. No wood in the dishwasher because the water makes it split.)

Don’t put too much pressure on yourself to be The Perfect Host Mom. There is no such thing. Every AP-HM relationship is as unique as the parties involved. Follow the rules, and be kind and patient with both your AP and yourself.

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