Having worked with host families and au pairs for over 5 years, I have had many opportunities to see wonderful matches where the host family and au pair end up truly caring for each other like family, and I have also seen matches that haven’t been as wonderful. While each match is unique with its own set of pros and cons, there are some common au pair traits that seem to help ensure success.
An interest in children: I know that it has been said that you don’t need a burning love for children in order to be an au pair, but you do need a general interest in them. Potential au pairs whose main concern is what there is to do in the area and how much time they will get off generally don’t get chosen to be the au pair. Families want to know that their au pair has a genuine interest in children and their well-being. Let’s face it; most au pairs are alone, in the house, with the children, all day long. If the sound of a child’s voice grates on your nerves like nails on a chalkboard, then this probably isn’t the right path for you.
This goes for after arrival, too. If an au pair acts interested in the children and their activities when communicating with them before she arrives, but then doesn’t have time for them once she arrives, the family feels deceived and wonders what else the au pair has misled them about.
Truly successful au pairs are the ones who take their job seriously and are invested in the children. They get down on the floor and play trucks, they have tea parties, and they read the kids the same book over and over and over again. In a nutshell, truly successful au pairs are the ones who do the things with the children that the parents would do if they could be home.
Patience: Anyone who thinks that working with children all day is easy, hasn’t ever done it. It takes patience for crying, sticky fingers, messes, crying, toys everywhere, homework battles… oh and crying. Au pairs need to be prepared that most days will be pretty good, but some days will be very hard. Patience on the hard days will be rewarded when the children put their arms around you and tell you how much they love you.
Flexibility: There are certain rules put in place to protect the au pair and host family. It is very important that those rules are followed, but there also needs to be some flexibility. Sometimes schedules change. Sometimes parents are late. Illnesses happen and life is sometimes just crazy. If an occasional bending or breaking of a rule happens, then you need to talk to your host family about it in a casual way. If your host family repeatedly disregards the rules, then that is another issue entirely and should be discussed with your agency.
Interest in the family: Most families really want their au pair to be a part of the family. If the au pair is distant or spends little of her off-duty time with the family, the family feels that she only matched with them to get to come to a new country and not because she wanted to participate in a cultural exchange program. I worked with an au pair once who would go up to her room as soon as her shift was over, and wouldn’t come out for the rest of the evening. The family would ask her if she was hungry for dinner or wanted to do activities and she would decline and then sneak down after everyone was in bed and go find something to eat. Needless to say, this match didn’t work out.
The best matches are the ones where everyone really cares for each other. This is demonstrated when the host family invites the au pair along to different activities or does extra things to help her feel at home, like introducing her customs into their household. I once had a host family who had a traditional German Christmas for their au pair. This helped her feel loved and accepted.
Au pairs show their appreciation by pitching in and helping when it isn’t required. Just because you aren’t on duty doesn’t mean you can’t help with the dishes or play with the kids or attend a child’s recital. Now this doesn’t mean that au pairs should spend all their free time with the family. It is important for them to get out, explore, and meet people. It is very important to find the balance between the two.
Initiative: Families don’t want to have to tell au pairs to do every little thing. If the baby needs changing, the families want the au pair to go change him. If the kids have homework to do, the au pair should make sure that happens on time. If the kids are bored, the family wants the au pair to come up with activities to do. You are in charge during certain hours of the day, so take charge. Make sure the children are well-cared for and engaged and if you are off-duty still be attentive to the children’s needs, like you would as a member of the family.
Maturity: There is a reason that au pairs must be at least 18 years old. Families are not looking to bring another child into their home; they are looking for an adult to help make their lives easier. Successful au pairs are the ones who take responsibility for their needs and happiness. If you have a problem, don’t expect your family to solve it for you. First, you will need to research your options (the internet, your agency and fellow au pairs are good resources for this), come up with some possible solutions, and then go to your host family and discuss with them what will work best. They are there to help you, but not solve your problems for you.
Now, I know I have just focused on what qualities are important for an au pair. There are just as many qualities that are important for host families to have, the most important being dependability, compassion, appreciation, and trust. In my experience, matches that have these qualities are amazing experiences for everyone involved and result in life-long friendships.