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!