Working as an au-pair is what many consider a rite of passage amongst millennials. Living with a family in a foreign country and looking after their children seems like a suitably big enough step from babysitting as a young teen. Learning a language or experiencing a new culture in a distant land is completely alluring – it really is no shock that au-pairing is a popular part of many young people’s gap years. The mixture of success and horror stories only add to the draw; promising excitement in the risks of the unknown. The following paragraphs contain what I have learnt from my first (incredible) host family.
Although different families may have varying ideas on how they wish an au-pair to fit in to their family, my first host family welcomed me in to an ‘older sister’ style role. This meant whilst I was an employee, working felt more like contributing to a family household – especially as the boy I was caring for was 12 years old and slightly more independent. My first piece of advice would be to ask families during the interview stage how they see an au pair ideally fitting into their lives. It is important that you both idealise a similar style of role, else one party could feel overwhelmed or isolated. For me, the ‘older sister’ role was exactly what I needed on my first long trip away from home. It allowed me to still feel part of a family environment, have a support network and make meaningful new friendships. Before the interviewing stage, I would evaluate this by considering what you are looking to get out of au-pairing and how comfortable you expect to feel away from home.
Secondly, as obvious as this sounds, your host family are just a normal family. In past jobs alongside my studies, seeing my boss in public was the equivalent of seeing teachers out shopping. Au-pairing is unique in that you are living under the same roof as your employers, meaning you see all the typical family dynamics. Miscommunications will happen, plans will change and at least one person will lose something in the morning when they’re running late. Because of the difference in the usual boundaries, the best way to handle any difficult situation is openly and honestly. Any altercations or issues cannot be discussed from the comforting distance of an email when you live in a host’s family home! This is why communication is vital for both parties in order to both enjoy the duration of the au-pair’s stay. A benefit of au-pairing is that these skills quickly develop – I personally found my confidence massively improved after only a month. You will undoubtedly develop a strength for problem solving, an ability to compromise and overall better communication skills during your experience.
Linking into the topic of communication, is the necessity of being on the same page as the parents when it comes to your interactions with the children. Don’t skip over questions you have out of a fear of awkwardness. Consistency is immensely important for a healthy child’s upbringing and any boundaries the children have in place should be maintained. I would make sure to ask questions such as: “Are there any boundaries around behaviour or routine that I should be aware of? How would you prefer me to deal with a situation where *insert child’s name* is not listening? For example, do you have a ‘timeout’ system?” It is also equally as important to be aware of some suitable rewards for good behaviour that are approved by your host parents – such as extra time to bike ride or a favourite snack.
To get my first placement, I used the free au-pair networking site Aupairworld. This suited me as it was a low-cost alternative to the more expensive agencies who found placements for you. Although you have no external support once you arrive or depart for the job, I found it relatively easy to undergo the interview process and arrange the finer details without the need of paid assistance. I would advise that you have some emergency money set aside (enough to cover a month’s accommodation, food and spending) if you opt to proceed without an agency though – as if finding another placement at short notice you will have no financial support.
My final piece of advice would be that the most valuable thing you can offer to ‘your’ children is time and attention. Spending quality time with them or helping them with tasks such as homework is undoubtedly the best way to build a bond. Be creative when thinking up activities that they might enjoy and show a genuine interest in their school days or hobbies. The better your relationship is with the children the more enjoyable your placement will be.