When your Au Pair meets the Kids’ Needs but not the Parent’s Expectations: Ideas wanted

by cv harquail on June 14, 2011

Kids and parents want different things. Kids want to stay up, parents want to go to sleep. Kids want to make a mess, parents want that mess cleaned up (eventually). Kids get engaged in fun and learning, while parents must take care of safety, nutrition, and other not-quite-as-fun stuff. We have different sets of priorities.

Kids and parents want different things in an Au Pair.

When we parents choose an au pair, we’re usually looking for an au pair whose talents, skills, and interests will work with our kids’ needs. We also look for an au pair whose personal style will fit with our adult preferences.

Although the au pair is “for” the kids, most of the difficulty in an au pair-host parent relationship comes from host parent-au pair misfit. So it makes sense that we parents would use our own criteria when we look for au pairs, and when we work to shape the au pair’s interactions with us and our kids.201106101549.jpg

As one host mom writes,

I’m feeling some tension between what my kids want in an au pair, and what I want in an au pair.

Our new AP has a lively, fun, and positive personality. My kids really seem to like her.

While, I’m glad that my kids are happy with her, I’m beginning to feel a struggle. Compared to our previous au pair, this au pair seems like she’ll need more ‘managing’. She’s not getting the basic life-care things done.

For example, when I get home from work the house that needs straightening, the kids aren’t properly dressed and fed (ie., teeth brushed, healthy snacks), etc. That said, the kids are safe and are having a great time with each other. It may be that our au pair is too much fun and not enough keeping things straight.

And, I am starting to resent it when I find myself playing the ‘not fun’ one– directing the kids what to do, picking up after everyone, and feeling grumpy about how things are going.

How can I balance that I need something more in an au pair with the fact that she’s clearly giving the kids all the fun and (basic) care that they want?


NV Host Mom June 14, 2011 at 7:50 pm

I had this very same issue with a prior au pair. She was fun, energetic, and had a really positive attitude with the kids, which I loved because I know a negative AP can be soooo difficult to manage and live with. But she often didn’t seem to notice the mess she and the kids made while playing or the leftover dishes from lunch. I’d be the one picking up after everyone and making what I thought were obvious comments like, “wow, it looks like you all had a lot of fun today, but now we really need to start cleaning up before I start making dinner” and hoped that’d she would catch on (HM management mistake!), but of course she didn’t and then I’d get even more annoyed the next time it happened. I felt a little crazy, because here was this fun young woman who really seemed to enjoy my kids (and vice versa), but I was really starting to resent playing the ‘bad guy’ role. What made it even harder was the fact that she came across as a very responsible, mature individual, so I didn’t expect this from her. We’ve had other APs who had an air of cluelessness and immaturity about them — e.g., the type that can’t pick up on when you need some alone time or who try to make themselves a sandwich while I’m in the middle of washing the kitchen floor.

After many frustrated instances on my part, I finally just had to spell it out and tell her that while I really love her energy and that she has fun with my kids, I was feeling like the bad guy and felt frustrated at having to clean up after her. I explained that one of my primary reasons for having an au pair was so that many of the child related chores that I would have to spend time doing (putting away clothes, unpacking school backpacks) can be handled by our AP, which allows me to spend more relaxed, fun time with my kids during the limited time that I have with them. Honestly, I think it just didn’t occur to her until I spelled it out. It did require more management on my part, particularly in the beginning, in that I had to have more conversations than I would have thought about what she should do in terms of childcare chores, and I made several lists, but it worked out after that. I absolutely hate and resent having to have those types of conversations with au pairs (and it requires some time on my part to think through what it is that I want to convey), but it was well worth it.

Taking a Computer Lunch June 14, 2011 at 10:34 pm

I state out front in my handbook that my AP is the third adult in the house. I don’t want her to the be the “bad” guy, but I want her to be mature enough to stand firm on the rules. The bottom line for me is that the kids feel more reassured when the basic ground rules are enforced than when it’s a complete free for all. They need boundaries – and they need to have them relaxed from time to time.) Most of my APs have worked or done an extensive internship before they came to the US, so they get the idea of being responsible. I had one that wanted to be a little girl (only bought girl’s clothing), and I made it clear I wasn’t interested in helping her out with that fantasy.

You don’t need to be mean, just firm. NV Host Mom has a good tack – remind the AP why she’s there and that Moms and Dads want fun time, too. (And quite frankly, grab it while you can – you’ll get to the grunting stage soon enough.)

Noelle June 15, 2011 at 7:00 am

NV basically nailed it – this is your time to manage. I have a clone of your AP in my house right now. She leaves the same things undone, she doesn’t pay alot of attention to the host family handbook rules (I’ve found alot of food and trash in her room), and needs the same management. Some days it really feels like I have another immature kid rather than something resembling an adult.

And this has been uncomfortable for me – I don’t appreciate it, I feel like the position isn’t taken seriously, and i don’t like having to nag someone to do their work. But I have had to address the issues, and it has gotten easier for me to do it with practice.

A few concrete ideas: try addressing one issue at a time, even if there are five issues at hand. No one could accuse you of being the bad guy if you are working to correct one thing. Dumping a laundry list on the otherwise pleasant au pair might blow up in your face. Once you have one victory, move onto a new issue. Also, make use of a weekly calendar (my agency includes one for each HF), and write down chores on it that you’ve been expecting to get done. Then, show it to her and ask that she use it as well, so you can see what she’s been doing with the kids during the week, and also ask that she prefill the ongoing chores/scheduled events, etc.

Finally, get comfortable enforcing what you expect to be done, and don’t be shy about expecting your AP to get these things done even if she’s off the clock – they should have been done well before then anyway, and were she more organized, she would have fulfilled her duties during her scheduled time. I know from my own situation, that this isn’t intentional behavior, it’s not disrespect – it’s a matter of being scatterbrained and not very detail oriented. Once she’s had to put in the extra time just to get things done that should have been done on-duty, I think you’ll see an improvement. Good luck, OP.

Calif Mom June 15, 2011 at 10:08 am

Sounds like she is suffering from a lack of “role clarity”. The agencies don’t do us any favors in this regard when they emphasize during Orientation that the au pairs need to work hard at the beginning of their year to establish “fun relationships” with the kids right away; that fun-ness they are so good at developing often comes at the expense of creating good habits around chores. We do need both, and you’re not being selfish or a stick in the mud for insisting on it. Nobody likes to be the bad guy; and AMEN that au pairs are third adults, not teenage babysitters who get to have all the fun and bust out the oreos when the parents drive away for the evening.

Au pairs are here to make our lives easier, not just entertain the kids. My kids don’t get a vote on this. There is plenty of time for them all to have fun WHILE doing the other things. That’s the art of au pairing. The ability to LEAD children is key. Teachers get trash picked up and materials put away in classrooms all the time while still being cool/fun, and au pairs should be able to, too.

I would go beyond handing her a checklist that will sit in her room ignored during the day; I would post it on the fridge.

Also, since summer schedules often shift, now is a good time to call a family meeting and discuss everyone’s responsibilities for the summer and how all their duties might change. If your kids are younger the family meeting may not be useful, but having a meeting with your au pair to acknowledge the new season and your expectations might be good if you’re too uncomfortable having a meeting to address your growing resentment — whether you call a special meeting to discuss this, or couch it as a summer schedule meeting, I strongly suggest sitting down with AP and talking about this! Don’t let it fester! (Do as I say… :-) )

I feel for you; it’s absolutely miserable to come home to a messy house and feel like you’re the only one picking up.

Guess what? That’s NOT your job. There are fun approaches she can take that she can do with the kids (again, depending on their ages).

A winning tactic at our house, going on several years now with our elementary aged kids (it also worked with preschoolers), is the “ACK! Mom and Dad are going to be home from work in an hour Blitz List–Here’s what we need to get done NOW:” Seriously–print out a page like this and stick it on the fridge. Using an absurdly long title and a little humor really gets their attention. And just put a few key things on it, don’t try to fix everything all at once. I totally agree with that advice above.

Our 5:00 Blitz List used to say something like:

1. Find floor in living room. Be able to show it to Mom when she comes home.
2. Kids must not be smelly–showers are a good solution.
3. Mom and Dad won’t cook if there are gross bowls of old, soggy cereal in the sink.

This works in part because I don’t care when the lunch dishes get done as long as I don’t encounter them piled in the sink at 6:00 when I’m launching into making dinner. If the AP and kids choose to load them into the d/w at 5:45, fine with me (as long as we don’t have an ant invasion). These are lessons they all need to learn about managing their work and their time. I give them the list of things to be done, and the deadline, and they do it. If they want help thinking it through, I will happily make suggestions, but the deadlines are key, just like managing folks at work. I have certain expectations that are firm: Kids need to have clean playclothes and underwear to get them through the weekend, for example. Kids must have had their showers before dinner. If kids didn’t have underwear during the weekend, I would send them to ask the au pair to make my point, and I would have HER run a load.

I have a hunch you need to be firmer. Don’t pick up the toys if it makes you feel like an ogre. Here’s a trick that I guarantee you only need to use once or twice a year: warn them ALL–au pair and kids–that you will no longer pick up toys when you come home from work. (For me, it was finding books all over the house, including strewn on the bathroom floor.) If you can’t find the dining table or living room floor or whatever it is that irks you silly when you come home the next day, those items will belong to Mom for a week or two days, or whatever works for you and will feel dramatic to them. Then DO it. We just got a scooter out of the attic where it had to stay for a week b/c it was being ridden around inside the house. Mean? How about dramatic? And way more effective and healthy in the long run than my being frustrated to the point of screaming for having been ignored repeatedly. I can practically guarantee you that both scooters will be parked appropriately for the rest of the summer. Say what you mean, and mean what you say. Finding those appropriate consequences can be tough when you’re just plain honked off, but not impossible. I try to think of them ahead of time so that I don’t just scream when faced with the annoyance, or, worse yet, just suck it up and feed that steaming pile of resentment inside my head.

Progress, not perfection!

Good luck with this one, but I strongly advise to not just keep lumping it. Not good for any of you ultimately.

Taking a Computer Lunch June 15, 2011 at 11:11 pm

Agreed on many points – except in my book the time to have the summer conversation is in April, not the last week of school! In my experience, most APs think of summer as they did last year after school/university (only 1 AP was working full-time for years before she came to our family). I set the tone early, to prepare the AP for the change, even though that first 45-hour week is a shock. (Not only does my AP get the shock of working full time, but she even has to get child from camp to a late afternoon activity – after a full kid summer, she’ll be glad when both kids head to sleep-away camp at the end of her year with us!)

Calif Mom June 16, 2011 at 11:14 am

True enough, and we talk about the summer for weeks before it arrives, too, but better late than not at all! There is still time to use this transition as “cover” for the meeting, rather than having it be a performance management meeting in which she is in Big Trouble.

You can then schedule a “How is Summer Going?” meeting to check in with au pair, and separately, with the kids. We always seem to be overcorrecting for the deficiences of the summer before. This year kid wants minimal scheduled activities (at least for now, but we’ll see what she thinks 2 weeks from now when the pool gets old). I’ve been known to add camps as late as August. Turns out you can usually get them to prorate fees if a buddy is having a great time some place or other. If they would stop growing and changing, this would be SO much easier to manage! :-)

phillymom June 16, 2011 at 1:23 pm

I LOVE your list items! They made me laugh, particularly the one about finding the living room floor. That is a great approach! Thanks for sharing.

Janicke June 15, 2011 at 3:22 pm

I wouldn’t like my chef to use a progressive strategy for telling me how I could improve my work / meet up to his expectations.

When I was an au pair, my host mum did this. One day, she was asking me to remember doing item 1, a week later she started talking about item 2 etc. It made me feel that she’ll never be satisfied, that I’d always do something wrong.

After a while, I asked her (friendly) for a talk and asked her to tell me ALL the things she’d liked to be handled a in a different way. It was great for both of us. She had the possibility to speak frankly about her expectations and I got a clear message what she wants me to do. I wrote down all of her points and asked for some patience. I told her it might be hard to change everything at once, but I will do my best. We agreed to meet again after one week and talk through the enhancements and failures of the week.

But then again, I’m a grown up (about turning 28). I appreciate when my employers are talking frankly about their expectations about my work. It’s an adult way of talking objectively about how things can be improved.

She was a perfectionist and not used to au pairs who had already lived by themselves for some years. She was e.g. annoyed by the way I loaded the dishwasher, the way I was ironing (even though she admitted that she could not see a difference in the result; however, she insisted on a certain ironing methodology) and my chronological order of doing the household chores. (I normally start cleaning a place from one end of the house to another; she thought this was illogical and wanted me to start with the living room which was at the very centre of the house).

And I don’t blame her – in certain areas of life, I am also a perfectionist. And yes, sure, the only right way to conduct those, is MY WAY, haha. It was really more the fact that she was telling me once a week a new thing – I felt like an idiot and thought that this will be continuing throughout the year.

Good luck! And btw, I would also be annoyed by coming home to a messy place.

Noelle June 15, 2011 at 4:40 pm

Janicke, i wish i could have had even just one au pair that responded to that sort of communication maturely.

I think the difference, based on what i read in the original post and what you said, is that what you were hearing was *new*, and I can see how introducing new rules/expectations/etc on a weekly basis would be aggravating. However, what i got from the OP, and it sounds like what i live with, is that she is continually dealing with an AP that isn’t fulfilling her outlined and stated responsibilities and leaving the work for the HM to do. I know I put alot of time and consideration into my own guide book, and i expect it to be followed. So when my AP isn’t performing her responsibilities and needs weekly nags, I consider a more remedial approach to improving her performance to be appropriate. However, YMMV.

Janicke June 16, 2011 at 1:06 pm

Oh, I had loved to get a detailed handbook with clear expectations – and not only rough guidelines. If someone wants their clothes to be folded in a certain way, fine! But I’d like to know this asap – and not after 2 months: wast of time and energy and no one gets the benefits – I am not satisfied of doing a good job, HP loose my working hours; because if nobody tells me, I don’t want to correct the folding in my spare time ;)

But you’re right – if rules / clear expectations exist, I think it’s more than fair to expect that those are lived up to. If the chores are not doable within the working hours, I’d ask for hints; maybe I could do them more effectively. If not, I’d ask for a reduction of my chores. However, this isn’t the OP’s problem.

MommyMia June 16, 2011 at 2:08 pm

Janicke – You sound like a great au pair (I’m guessing you’re German, as many of your organizational traits remind me of my excellent former German AP!) and you would have fit in SO well with our family! I’d just be happy if the clothes – folded any which way, would just be put away regularly in the kids’ drawers after washing, instead of them continually having to search the laundry room for their stuff. And I’ve definitely used the tactic mentioned above of sending them to the AP for clean clothing when there wasn’t any and making the AP wash a load!

Janicke June 17, 2011 at 3:58 pm

Don’t really understand when au pairs (or any adult) don’t put the clothes to the lockers – it takes more time to search for the clothes in the laundry room and normally becoming creased (esp stupid when the clothes are to be ironed – harder to iron them / need to be ironed again).

Especially in the case of au pairs: a simple thing to do in your WORKING TIME. :) Now when I’m living by myself again, I might be too stressed / lacy to fold my clothes properly / put them right away in the locker. But being an au pair is wonderful, because all the boring houshold chores should be done in your working time. Wished I got paid for doing my houshold chores in normal life as well. :) Plus, I always liked to the houshold when I was an au pair; it’s nice and fun to play with the kids, but it’s also great to do some “adult things” whilst listening to the radio or similar. Doing the dishes is a great break from playing with dolls or similar.

I still work as a babysitter and the parents once told me that it’s so nice that I’m so tidy and always empty the dishing machine, doing the laundry or similar even though it’s not part of my duties. Well, for being honestly, my own flat looks worse than their flat because I look upon doing houshold chores in their homes as a small break from my real job –> entertaining their kids. A clear win-win situation. :D

Well yes, I’m originally from Germany, but haven’t lived there for the last 10 years. And my parents flat is certainly not a German stereotype tidy place – even student houses look better than their flat. ;)

anonamomma June 15, 2011 at 3:55 pm

I agree with Calif Mom – a “Summer Schedule” meeting is the way to go to remind everyone of their expections v. their responsibilties. Been there myself

One thing I tried after the meeting was scheduling reminder texts to send to the AP’s cellphone (one or two weekly work really well).

Text 1: (on Thursday mornings) “Hey, I am planning to do some laundry over the weekend so can you make sure all the kids laundry is done by Friday”…. in other words – do the laundry NOW..

Text 2 – (on Monday mornings) “Hey, I got the short straw this week so I get to cook dinner – it would be a great help if you could have the kitchen area completely clear by the time I get home”

I found the reminder texts are a great way of getting the point across without having to actually speak to the AP.

Tips for dealing with tasks not been done:
There are two tactics I have used: (a). one is a soft approach when you get home do a visable scan of the room and say “great day, I see the kids had lots of fun but BEFORE you come off duty could you (put the toys away, finish the dishes, etc) or (b). is a little more direct basically you say “hey I see that (the dishes, the toys, etc) are not done, I’m gonna go read to the kids, take a shower, make dinner (anything!! but works better if you leave the room) while you finish up”. It is important to make it clear that she is still on duty (hours or no hours) until the tasks are complete (within reason).

Good luck and keep us posted on how it goes. :)

OB Mom June 15, 2011 at 6:44 pm

I like that … “texts are a great way of getting the point across without having to actually speak to the AP”
:-) Sounds like you don’t like talking to them, but I know you really mean not wanting to “Nag” them.

I find writing lists in the logbook daily is helpful. * Sweep kitchen * Clean toothpaste off counter in bathroom * Load daily dishes in Dishwasher … etc. Again “telling” without speaking to/nagging them.

Anonamomma June 16, 2011 at 3:33 am

Oh gosh – OB Mom – thank you for that correction – that’s exactly what I mean – to clarify I LOVE talking to my AP about her day, her friends, the kids, etc but – but I hate “nagging” her about the dishes or the laundry :)

Former Aupair June 15, 2011 at 4:32 pm

On my opinion schedule and routine is the best when it comes to kids. I used to have an 4:30 rule at the house and every single day when the big clock in the kitchen showed 4:30, the cleaning would take place in the house and everybody would make sure the house was nice for the parents arrival. It took some time but after a while the kids got it. Is also worked in the morning when I had to manage the tv/breakfast/changing routine. 7:30 kids would wake up and watch tv, 7:55 they would get the “TV pause warning”, 8:00 I would pause the TV, they would eat breakfast, get changed, brush Teeth and “IF” they had time left before the bus arrived, they could watch more TV. Again, it took me sometime but kids seems to love the routine and I avoided a lot of crying/down time!

MommyMia June 16, 2011 at 2:11 pm

Brilliant strateby, Former Aupair! I’m sure the kids were motivated to complete the necessary tasks when they knew a reward would follow after learning this routine. Even little ones who can’t yet judge time accurately can work faster to obtain something fun!

MommyMia June 16, 2011 at 2:11 pm

oops, *strategy*!

aria June 17, 2011 at 4:54 am

I used to use my iPhone timer for EVERYTHING. If someone got a time-out, I would have them watch me set exactly five minutes on the clock, and then as soon as it rang, they knew it was over. My boys loved that timer- I think it sort of made things more concrete. They couldn’t argue with the timer if time-out felt too long, because it was always five minutes, no matter what. In the mornings, I would set the time for anytime between 4-10 minutes and they would have a race to get dressed first. It was like magic, because before, I would have to beg them to get dressed. For teeth brushing, I used the timer. For “five more minutes!” at the park, I would set the timer. Now I’ve moved on but I still see my boys sometimes and they still ask me to set the timer, and so do the other kids I babysit. :)

used to be an AP June 18, 2011 at 11:25 am

I used a timer for such things as well. Had the same effect, especially the minimzing of arguing about how much has past already.

Busy Mom June 17, 2011 at 10:44 am

This has been an enlightening thread. It made me realize that my instructions to our APs are often tactical (e.g., make sure the kids put away their shoes, remind them to practice instruments) and I don’t communicate the big picture about being an extension of the parents/making our life easier/making sure that the parents aren’t the only nags! I’ll definitely use this strategy at next Monday’s summer expectations meeting, which happens to coincide with our AP having only 4 weeks left. I want them to be a productive and fun 4 weeks for everyone!

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