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The Ultimate Au Pair Guide
Finding a long-term solution for child care can be tricky for busy families. Depending on your area and the ages of your children, there may be many different options available to you. The key is finding a solution that fits the current and changing needs of your family and your lifestyle.
In-home child care options seem limited to nannies and au pairs. Hiring a nanny or hosting an au pair might be two viable options, but it is important to understand the distinction between the two. On the surface, they seem like the same thing — long-term, live-in child care. In reality, a nanny and an au pair are very different.
What Is An Au Pair?
You probably know what a nanny is but might not be as familiar with the term au pair. Most people who hear the term for the first time think an au pair is just an expensive foreign nanny. While both a nanny and an au pair look after children who are not their own, that is about where the similarity ends.
By definition, an au pair is generally a woman between the ages of 18 and 26 who does not have children of her own and is not married. She embarks on a cultural exchange to improve her foreign language skills and increase her knowledge of various world cultures. Most au pairs choose to participate in the program before/after studying, in hopes to use their new-learned skills and English fluency will benefit them when furthering their studies or in their career.
An au pair lives with a host family and participates in the regular activities of the family as if she were a member. Part of an au pair’s responsibilities is to help look after the children. Through her participation in family activities, an au pair learns about the culture of the host family and practices her use of their language. She also teaches the family about her language and culture.
The History of Au Pairs
Au pairs originally became popular in Europe after World War II where they served a social purpose as well as a financial and educational one. Two areas of need were determined to fit together nicely with au pairs as the solution.
At the time, more and more middle-class girls needed to earn a living for themselves. The economy and social structures were changing, creating a larger middle-class. Upper-class girls were still presumed to marry into money, going from the support of their fathers to the support of their husbands. Middle-class girls, of course, were always expected to work at the few unskilled jobs available to women.
Because their families could not afford their education and support, middle-class girls needed an opportunity to earn their own way. By avoiding a drop in class, their marriage prospects might still push them into the upper-class. The class system in Europe was still intact at the time, although declining.
Meanwhile, following World War II, the supply of domestic servants decreased for a number of reasons and the cost of securing help skyrocketed. It was difficult for many families to find the help they were used to at a price they could afford. Upper-class families were the only ones who could afford to pay the going rate for domestic labor. Middle-class parents struggled to care for their children on their own.
Au pair is a French phrase meaning on par. This newly created position was the answer to the shortage of domestic help. Instead of uniformed servants, au pairs were accepted like members of the family. They were, in fact, on par, hosted by middle-class families of similar background to their own. Unlike domestic servants, au pairs lived with the family and joined them for meals and other activities.
The au pair system was a way for middle-class girls to find a respectable means of supporting themselves. The host family covered their living costs, and they were provided with a small stipend. Middle-class families who could not otherwise afford child care benefited by getting help with child-rearing and cultural education at the same time.
Where Do Au Pairs Come From?
The concept of au pairs started in Europe as a cultural exchange program and filled the need for domestic workers, specifically for child care. Today, au pairs are popular in several countries around the world, including the United States.
To fulfill the cultural exchange, an au pair must come from another country. At EurAupair, we place au pairs from 25 different countries with host families in the US. Our top three countries are Germany, France and South Africa, although we do have many applicants from other areas of the world, including South America and Asia.
Part of the experience of hosting an au pair is learning about her culture, too. The cultural exchange works both ways. While your au pair is improving her English, she could be teaching you and your children to speak her native language. Discussing the differences between your two cultures can be an interesting learning experience, as well.
What Is An Au Pair Expected To Do?
In addition to sharing her culture and language with you and your family, an au pair can be expected to perform certain functions while living as a member of your family. It’s a good idea to agree to a detailed list of expectations before your au pair arrives. These are some of the regular duties of an au pair that you could ask her to do:
- Child care up to 45 hours a week — You can expect your au pair to take care of the children when you are working or away from the house. She is a bit like a live-in babysitter in this respect, but you must plan to give her some time to herself
- Infant care — An au pair can be helpful in feeding, diapering or bathing your infant while you spend time with your other children. She can follow your instructions for infant care and will gladly give you a break when needed. It’s not unusual for an au pair to take care of more than one child at a time, just like you might expect an older child to watch out for others when you are not around
- Traveling companion — Keeping track of multiple children on a family vacation can be stressful. You can count on your au pair to pitch in to help with packing and travel preparations, as well as keeping an eye on the children when you travel together. You could arrange vacation activities your au pair enjoys with the children while you relax
- Kitchen help — Like you might expect of your teen, your au pair can help with the routines of the day, like preparing meals for the children or helping with the dishes. Her participation in such activities is something younger children can eventually model. Your au pair can also assist the children in learning to participate in different tasks in the kitchen
- Laundry assistance — Au pairs are certainly able to do their own laundry and help with the kids’ laundry. Your au pair should not be expected to handle all the laundry herself, but she could be instrumental in assuring your children do their parts, as well
- Light housekeeping — An au pair is not responsible for cleaning the house, but can assist with chores related to the children. Assisting your children with bed-making, for instance, or helping them clean up after themselves is a reasonable expectation.
If you are unsure what to expect from your au pair, keep in mind that she can help with children-related chores and participate in reasonable household chores like any other member of the family. She is there to share experiences and cultural education with the whole family.
Au Pair vs Nanny
Knowing the difference between an au pair and a nanny can help you decide which is the best choice for your family. There are several benefits to hosting an au pair rather than hiring a nanny:
- Culture — The most obvious advantage to an au pair is the cultural exchange. Giving your children the opportunity to experience people from different countries opens their minds and hearts to various possibilities in life. It has many of the same advantages to traveling the world but without the hassle and cost.
- Commitment— Most au pairs require a one year commitment from the host family. While your children are young, that gives you several years to experience au pairs from different cultural and language backgrounds. The length of commitment can coincide with your children’s developmental stages or years in school
- Cost — Most families already have an extra bedroom in their home, so hosting an au pair is not a financial burden. Part of your financial commitment to an au pair is her room and board. The other part is a weekly stipend paid to her so she has spending money for her personal needs, social life, and travel opportunities throughout the year
- Flexibility— Au pairs are unmarried and do not have children of their own. When they come to stay with you, they do not leave behind commitments back home. You don’t always know when one of your children will get sick and need to be picked up from school or when an important meeting will run late, keeping you from relieving the babysitter. An au pair can be as flexible with her schedule as you need her to be. Since she lives with you and follows your family’s schedule while she is there, your au pair can help you with last-minute chores that come up sometimes
- Connections — By hosting an au pair, your family can develop relationships that last forever. You and your children will interact with your au pair, sharing meals, vacations and creating lasting memories. There is no employee-employer separation with an au pair, just people bonding through shared life experiences. Hosting an au pair is a rewarding experience if you understand the expectations. Depending on your family’s situation, you may find some disadvantages to this child care option.
- Living together — An au pair comes from another culture far away to live with your family for a year. Having someone living in your home who has different habits and ideals from you can take some adjustment. An au pair requires a commitment that cannot easily be broken.
When you hire a nanny or other child care provider, you can send her home if she displeases you. The commitment for the au pair program is stronger than this. There is no trial period to see if you like her before she comes to stay for a year.
- Sharing — It takes time and effort to learn about someone’s culture and share your own. Hosting an au pair requires this time and effort. It’s different from hiring a child care provider to whom you have no responsibility other than compensation. When you host an au pair, you have a responsibility to facilitate some sort of extended language learning for her as well as include some cultural education in your activities. You have to be willing to give your au pair time to adjust to her new country, life, and routine, and assist her along the way.
Hosting an au pair is different from hiring a nanny. While there is more expected of you and your family with an au pair, the rewards are greater.
Au Pair Program
It’s not possible to bring an au pair into the US legally without involving an agency designated by the Department of State, so your first contact should be to EurAupair. We are a non-profit organization dedicated to this culturally enriching child care opportunity.
Contact us for more information about hosting an au pair. With 30 years of experience, we can answer all your questions about the au pair program. We provide our families with reliable, affordable and personal service for a rewarding experience with a carefully screened au pair.
Apply with us to host an au pair today.
A new au pair, suited to your children’s personal development needs at the time, can join your family each year. If you and your au pair choose to, you have the possibility of extending your experience together for up to one more year.