4 crucial steps for arranging the perfect au pair situation

January 15 2015 | Guest post by Whitney Slightham
Nary was there a day that didn’t include a major bike trek, tanning, and staring at the Sea.
Nary was there a day that didn’t include a major bike trek, tanning, and staring at the Sea.

Last spring I jetted off to Catalonia to work as an au pair and learn Spanish. Although many people use websites to screen potential au pair families, this opportunity was set up by one of my best friends. Before she brought it up, I never even considered being a nanny. Me? Kids that don’t speak English? Heck, even kids that DO speak English kind of made me wary. Then, she explained that they vacation at a beach right on the Mediterranean Sea, just an hour outside of Barcelona. She had stayed with my host family’s cousins many times, and had glowing reviews of her experience.

Um… sign me up!

In the end, my experience with my host family wasn’t the best. Now, months later, I look back and see it as a tremendous learning experience. Living with complete strangers, who speak a foreign language and have different cultural practices, boosts your emotional intelligence in huge ways. You learn about yourself, and understand how to sensitively interact with others.

I now have lots of worldly advice on what not to do before living with complete strangers. If I could do it over again, I would, without a doubt, take the following steps to prepare…

Step 1: Research

Most au pairs will find their family through a regulated agency, such as Au Pair World. Using an agency will help ensure your safety and make the arrangement more legitimate. Through these sites, you can make a profile, search countries and host families, and live chat with them. Learn as much as you can about the family and their expectations. Starting the process with extremely open communication is key. Ask them specific questions about pay, detailed responsibilities, precise hours of work, activities and meals.

Think it’s awkward to talk about those things upfront? You can’t imagine how awkward it is when you’ve been living with the family.

Step 2: Develop mutually beneficial terms and conditions

Once you’ve talked to the family, start drawing up a contract. This is crucial. I didn’t have a contract, which, in my naivety, I figured would make things easier. “I’m living on a beach in Spain,” I thought, “What could possibly go wrong?” Evidently, lots of things.

Your Terms and conditions should include:

  • Precise length of stay (Start date and end date)
  • Daily hours (This includes when you are expected to wake up in the morning and greet the family and make breakfast)
  • Payment (How much you will be paid, and when)
  • Childcare and housework duties (Clearly outline what’s expected of you)
  • Meals (Learn more about how many meals you are provided, and outline any dietary restrictions or allergies)
  • Free time (Outline how many hours of free time you have, and when you are expected to be with the family while you’re not working)
  • Sleepovers and weekend trips (If you might want to enjoy the occasional full moon beach party with friends, music and libations galore, you need to make sure that this is okay with your family first.)
  • Accommodation (A description of the living conditions and your room)
  • Emergency contact information (Get this all in writing, just in case)
  • Disciplinary and contract termination contingencies (Create a protocol for addressing misconduct that will keep both you and the family accountable. In the event of dismissal, make sure you have at least 48 hours to change travel arrangements and for the family to find another childcare option)

Step 3: Encourage open communication

When you’re living with strangers, communication is key! You’re responsible for taking care of their children, which is huge. In return, they’re responsible for your general safety and well-being while you navigate life in another country.

If something bothers you, don’t ignore it. It’s easy to crutch on language barriers as an excuse for poor communication, but you need to address uncomfortable situations promptly. Try your best to sensitively explain what happened, and always provide a recommended solution or positive action to rectify the situation. Use a calm voice and try to harness any negative emotions that arise. By opening up to the family, you will help them feel more comfortable about communicating openly and honestly with you. Don’t sweep things under the rug and ignore signs of discomfort.

At the same time, if the family brings up something that worries them, encourage them to elaborate and listen intently. Digest what they’re saying before reacting. Yes, this takes extreme emotional control and maturity. Especially if you inherently disagree with something they’re doing. Stay positive and compassionate, but strong and tactful. Speak up when you need to, and know when it’s best to just sit back, observe the situation, and try to help the kids feel comfortable again later.

Bad experiences are bound to happen when you travel. Regardless of where you are, or who you’re with. Brace yourself for these emotional challenges by practicing calm and clear communication. This, of course, is made easier when the language barrier isn’t as distinct. Which brings me to…

Step 4: Study the language(s)

In my case, I learn languages rapidly when I’m immersed in the culture. Within a month of living somewhere, I’m usually able to speak the new language fluently. Which is why, although I bought Spanish books, I didn’t prioritize learning the language until I landed. Don’t hinge solely on immersion. You need to be able to communicate with the family and children from the get-go. If I was able to clearly speak with the family on day one, it might have made our relationship better and enabled more open communication from the start.

You should also have a clear understanding of different local languages and dialects. In Catalonia, for example, they primarily speak Catalan and almost never learn English. Catalan people can speak Spanish, but, in some areas, the children don’t start learning Spanish until they are teenagers. Even then, the primary language is Catalan. For those who are unfamiliar, Catalonia’s relationship to Spain is a lot like Quebec’s relationship to Canada. They have a deeply separatist mentality and go to great lengths to protect the integrity of their cultural history and language.

In this instance, casually learning Spanish on my Duolingo app before moving to Spain didn’t really help me interact with Catalan children.

The main lesson at play here?

Do as much research as possible. Try to envision your life in this country, and make sure that it’s something that you want to commit to. If you’re like me, and really just want to travel independently, you probably aren’t well suited for the au pair life. Even though I love children and really enjoyed my work every day with them, I know I would have had an amazing, and more profitable, time in Spain if I just consulted full-time, and simply rented an apartment there.

I hope my mistakes have shed some light on the ins and outs of au pairing, and that they might help an intrepid wanderer like yourself prep for life as a niñera. And, if you have any tips to add, please share them!

  1. This is great advice. I haven't ever worked as an au pair, but I have lived abroad teaching English. While traveling in Italy, my partner and I encountered two young American women who were on vacation from some au pair work in France. These two women had found themselves in a strange situation with their au pair work and reported almost feeling trapped (I guess not too trapped to travel, but still) – they had to do a lot more work around the family's house than look after the kids, they weren't getting adequately compensated, and the situation as a whole just didn't sound very good at all. It really made me think about different kinds of unpaid/underpaid labor, even among people who aren't forced (and whom we might read as privileged) but who are nonetheless coerced in various ways.

  2. I really second doing research about your duties and rights, and about the local labour laws regarding au-pairs.

    A Japanese friend of mine came to France to be an au-pair. Turned out the family, even though very friendly, did not respect her privacy and made her work long hours, way longer than French law permits.
    When she told me that, I stepped up, did some research and helped her fix the situation. I was able to do that because it was my country, I knew there had to be labour laws of some kind (France and labour laws- there's always one!), and I could understand said laws.

    Without a local (friend) stepping in, my friend couldn't have escaped her situation because she had no idea there were laws about au-pair working times, and even if she had, she might not have been able to understand them perfectly. Researching before tyou go out there allows you to look for ressources in a comfortable environment, with enough time to get advice from co-aupairs, in dedicated chatrooms, etc. Ask your family about the law, get mutually agreed conditions, and write everything down in a signed agreement.

    3 agree
  3. I was an au par for 17 months, in two (very) different families. Although I researched A LOT, my first family was horrible and treated me as their slave. I learned a lot and got to have an amazing second family – I call them my "French family" and have visited them twice after I left. Both families I found through Au Pair World, but I have to correct you in one thing: it is NOT a regulated agency. It is just a website for families to get in touch with people who want to be au pairs, they don't do any checks on either side, you still have to be very careful. I'd recommend never accepting any offer without seeing the family (and the children!) on a video call.

    3 agree
  4. I was actually an au pair in Germany for a year right after I graduated college. It was the best thing for me. I'd just broken up with my fiance, I'd changed my major to English which meant not having a clear career path, and I had no clue what I wanted with my life. Taking a year off from "real life" was exactly what I needed.

    I found my family online without an agency. We discussed responsibilities, number of children, ages, my room, dietary restrictions (I didn't eat pork or shellfish at the time), and so many more things. I made sure my host mom was okay with my nose piercing and my tattoos. Once I got there, she helped me register with the town and they paid for my German ID. My host family was amazing. We got along so well and those girls were like my own. I did speak German before I went but those first few weeks speaking it made my head hurt.

    I do recommend discussing all these things beforehand. In Germany, a contract is necessary but even if it's not where you live, I highly recommend one. Many of my friends, despite contracts, had issues with their families in regards to hours worked or differing philosophies of parenting. Sometimes you have to bite your tongue and sometimes you do have to be able to speak up. It takes maturity to know when is when. All in all, that year was one of the best of my life. I had experiences I'd never be able to replicate (like spending a month in Paris!) and I met friends I'm still in contact with.

  5. I know this info is from so so long ago but want to share.
    Back in 1990, my sister was an au pair in Texas (American in America). She had a great experience. Se was through an agency, had a "manager" that she could go to if there were problems, and was able to be part of the au pair community down there through the manager. She must have had a contract because at the end of her year they wanted her to stay another 9 months, but she was ready to be home and did not extend her time with that family.
    I would assume that, just like any other kind of endeavor, there are agencies that offer different levels of help. I know if my kid was going to be an au pair, I would want her to have the same type of set up my sister had, with a nearby manager she could get help from.

  6. It's interesting to look at this from the other side! The information applies just as well to someone considering hosting an au pair. I'm currently a host mom, hosting an au pair from Japan to take care of our almost-one-year-old.

    In the U.S. there are only a handful of agencies authorized by the Department of State to issue the visa necessary for an au pair to stay in the country, so there's a bit more support, although from the tales my au pair's friends tell, very few host families follow the rules, especially the ones limiting how many hours an au pair can work in a week, and stipulating that English must be the primary language spoken at home. It's not surprising, given that families often choose an au pair for their flexible schedules and language abilities. We're not perfect, but we do our best and try to make up for misses by being flexible with our au pair, too – holidays off, extra vacation and off-duty use of the car.

    We matched through one of those on-line sites, then went through the application process with the agency our au pair had chosen. The background checks on us were mostly a formality, so please get to know the family as much as you can! One thing we did that was very helpful, because we have such a good relationship with our current au pair, is we let potential au pairs contact her "off-the-record" so they could get an honest impression of our family's style, quirks, and habits.

    The one piece of advice I'd give is to make sure you really are into kids! Especially with the new "EduCare Au Pair" option from some agencies, I see a lot of candidates who are into traveling, making friends and learning new languages, but not everybody is in it for the kids. Maybe it's different with older kids, but for our baby girl, we needed someone who could enthusiastically be silly, sing songs, get messy, read the same simple books over and over, and give hugs, every day.

  7. I grew up with au-pairs. I must have had at least a dozen. One became our closest family friend and she ended up coming back to live with us years later, I consider her my German sister.

    Times it didn't work out were due to homesickness and people doing it for money. If you're in it for the money then you're going to be disappointed.

    2 agree
  8. Ditto on everything that has been said, especially researching local laws regarding foreign workers/au pairs. My best friend au pair'd with a family in Europe (the father was European, the mother was from our hometown), and it went pretty well until the end of the first year – my friend found out that the family had never gotten her work visa or any required permits and she got deported from the country! A similar situation happened to an acquaintance of mine. Make sure you get a copy of all of the required permits/visas before you travel to your new home.

  9. I was an au pair for 6 weeks in Spain in 2010. I didn't have the best of times.
    Firstly, I was having a major depressive episode when I decided I was going away. Lesson learnt- depression doesn't stay at home, it's kind of attached to a person. Being a live-in au pair can be quite isolating so doesn't go hand in hand with being ill.
    Secondly, I had lots of experience of working with children but no experience of educating children. I still don't really think there is a difference but the parents of the children certianly did! The family employed an au pair to help their 7 and 8 year old learn English. Both children loved to play monopoly and would happily play every day, so we played in English (not speaking English was taxed heavily) and would chit chat as well. Parents didn't think this was learning so would interupt and harass the children to sit and read with me in English, which they hated, and so they hated English and at times, hated me. I should have had the balls to defend our daily monopoly games and that it wasn't just me being lazy, but see point 1.

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