parenting

How to be a happy host family

This post is the sequel to last week’s post ‘How to find a great au pair’, which took you up to the point where you’ve got some eager young person lined up to join your family in a few months’ time. Here’s what we’ve learned about how to prepare for, and manage, life with an au pair in the house.

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6. Get your act together

I know that every family has their own level of day-to-day scheduling and organisation: some people run their houses with military timing and precision, others view anything like a regular bed time or meal time as akin to life under a fascist dictatorship, and most of us fall somewhere in the middle of the spectrum. And that’s all good when it’s just you and your children, but you will make life immeasurably easier for all involved – you, your children, and your incoming au pair – if you have a bit of a routine in place before they arrive. This is for two reasons: to ensure consistency between your approach and the au pair’s approach when dealing with the kids, so they know that they can expect a similar life on a day to day basis; and to help your au pair to be clear regarding your expectations of her. This is particularly important if your au pair will be left in sole charge while you’re at work or elsewhere.

This obviously doesn’t mean that you need to account for every minute of your children’s day and tell your au pair what should happen at all times – nobody likes a micro-manager. But you should be able to give your au pair a rough idea of the shape of the day, with details like nap times, snack and meal times, etc. And if this isn’t your family’s usual approach, it would be very helpful to get this loose routine in place at least a couple of weeks before your au pair arrives, so the kids are into the swing of it by the time she joins you.

Another ‘get your act together’ point is about how you run your house financially, to mitigate the additional costs of having an au pair in the family. For example, you can totally expect your au pair to be online a lot when they’re not working: they Skype with their families; they bring their Netflix log-in with them… Getting unlimited broadband from the start will ensure that you can manage this cost, and not get any nasty cost-related surprises. Similarly, some host families apparently report that their au pairs eat them out of house and home, but it seems that this is often associated with a lot of snacking (and having been bored at home with small children myself, I can hardly blame them). Obviously, adding another adult to your household will have an impact on your weekly grocery bill, but you can mitigate this by abandoning the habit of buying expensive snack foods – and if there are no store-bought biscuits in the house, ‘baking with the kids’ can be a nice, regular au pair activity.

Some costs will crop up once your au pair is already in the house (we had one experience where our power bills soared, but we soon realised that our au pair at the time was dressing for warm weather and just cranking up the heater accordingly), and you just have to address them as they occur (we decided a maximum temperature for the thermostat, and suggested putting on a jumper and some socks). Being a host parent requires you to occasionally deal with slightly awkward conversations, but I figure that it’s good training for when my own children are older.

You also need to plan for somebody suitable to be at home during your au pair’s first few days, so they and the kids have time to get used to each other. This also gives your au pair a good opportunity to see you in action as a parent, and learn through observation as you deal with your children in all sorts of moods and situations.

I must admit that I haven’t actually been the ‘somebody suitable’ for the last two au pairs’ arrival, because uni has prevented me from being at home. My mother-in-law was here when Pauline started, and showed her the ropes, and we had a week’s cross-over between Pauline and Lena (and paid both au pairs for that week, obviously), so Pauline could show Lena what she needed to know. Having somebody else do it doesn’t substitute a parent taking an active interest in what’s going on, though – you just have to find time for crucial conversations at the start and end of the day. As I mentioned in my post about finding au pairs, we’ve also tended to have our new arrivals spend a few days with us before their orientation (we’ve done this with everybody but Pauline, who’d been on the orientation already, and Lena, who arrived and went straight to orientation the following day), and that also provided a chance for them to learn what was going on.

7. Write good notes

Every family has its idiosyncrasies, customs, and little habits, and every house works in its own way, both figuratively and literally. While you can try to remember everything you need to tell your au pair in the first couple of days of her life with you, that doesn’t always work: life will be busy, she might be nervous, she might be trying to rapidly adjust to speaking and thinking in English, and she might not really have a clue what you’re on about when you’re explaining the settings on the washing machine. It is FAR easier to write some good introductory notes, and give them to your au pair within a day or two of their arrival. It enables you to set out what you really need them to know in order to fit in well (like saving long showers for the evening, for example, rather than taking them when you and your partner are trying to get ready in the morning rush), and provides them with a reference to refer back to later. I also include some basic information regarding the kids’ current interests and quirks, as well as an outline of their routine (as per my previous suggestion). And this document is a good place to include information about the kids’ regular activities, such as kindy and playgroups.

Similar to the family profile you have to write if you use an agency to recruit your au pair, preparing the introductory notes can feel like an effort first time round, but if you save it online you can just edit it for each new au pair, rather than starting from scratch every time.

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8. Do unto others

As far as I’m concerned this is one of the most important elements of being a host family. It’s also one of the things that host families muck up most frequently, judging by the hair-raising tales I’ve heard from my au pairs regarding the experiences of other au pairs they’ve met. Here are three of the worst examples I can remember being told:

One au pair was sleeping on a thin foam mattress on the floor for several months, because her bed was broken and her host family didn’t want to spend any money to replace it. To my knowledge, this was never sorted out.

Another au pair was driving her host family’s car in the course of her work, and had a crash. The host family then told her that the car was uninsured, and that she was personally liable for the $10,000 repair bill (remember, this is somebody earning around $200 a week after tax). In this case, the au pair sought advice from the Citizens’ Advice Bureau, and I think she might have received some help from an au pair agency (even though she wasn’t placed through them), and wasn’t held liable for the expense in the end. But imagine being that poor girl, and having that kind of stress to deal with!

And yet another au pair, who was 18 and away from home for the first time, was left alone in the host family’s house for Christmas, because they went to Fiji for the holiday period and didn’t want to take her with them. This girl was our au pair Julie’s closest friend in New Zealand, so we invited her to spend Christmas with us. She also came away on holiday with Julie and us a few weeks later. And I’m certainly not saying that au pairs must always be included on foreign holidays (sadly, we can’t afford to take our au pairs when we go abroad), there’s a big difference between taking a mid-year holiday and leaving your au pair behind to house-sit, or go travelling around the country themselves in your absence, and leaving them behind on a major holiday, with no thought about what they’ll do and who they’ll spend time with.

Put simply: please don’t ever forget that your au pair is somebody else’s child. Treat them at all times in exactly the same way you’d want your precious child to be treated if, when they’re 18 or 19, they decide that they’d like to travel to the other side of the world. They are NOT second-hand members of your family: while they’re with you, they’re a part of your family. If you can’t grasp this basic premise, please don’t get an au pair.

And yes: of course there are terrible au pairs who take advantage of their host families, refuse to do what they’ve been employed to do, or are just foolish or negligent – but I’d hope that any host family would start from the point where they believe that their au pair is a good and decent person, and behave accordingly. And even if they turn out to be ‘not a good fit for your family’ (which is how we described the demise of our disastrous third au pair to our children), you still have an obligation to treat them decently, and with respect. No, it wasn’t much fun to have that au pair continue to live in our house for the two weeks’ notice, particularly given that she wouldn’t accept the reasons why we had made our decision, but the alternative would have been to turn her out on the street, and there was no way we’d do that.

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9. Work as ‘Team Grownup’

You (and your partner, if you have one) are the Team Leaders of your family. Your au pair is a very important team member. Teams only work well if everybody is striving towards the same goals, so please make life easier for all concerned: don’t give your children any cause to believe that they don’t have to listen to their au pair when she asks them to do something. Children are pretty good at trying to divide and conquer as they get older (thankfully ours aren’t quite at that stage yet…), and it’s up to the grownups to prevent that from happening.

If your au pair has had sufficient guidance about how you deal with things like behavioural problems, and has also been able to observe you in action with your kids, she should be able to uphold your standards and deal with things in the same way. If you discover that there are major – and potentially problematic – deviations in the approach, you’ll need to address these with her. However, unless it’s potentially life-threatening at that particular moment, try to save those conversations for when the little ears of the household aren’t listening. If the au pair deals with things slightly differently from you, stop to think about whether it really matters. If it isn’t going to cause any great long-term problems, chalk it up to the rich variety offered by life: try very hard not to correct or contradict her in front of the kids. Certain types of kids will quickly pounce on opportunities to correct an au pair themselves, and that mustn’t be allowed.

As is the case when two parents are raising children together, you MUST present a united front with your au pair. In particular, stamp out any childish rudeness or cheekiness immediately. We had to do this recently ourselves: I was working on an assignment in our spare room, and I heard young Hattiekins shouting at Lena, our new au pair, after being asked to do something. I could hear Lena trying to reason with her, but Hattie was having none of it, and headed towards my shut door. I heard her outside it, so after 30 seconds I opened it and scooped her up, and carried her back upstairs. Hattie was delighted, thinking that she was getting a lovely cuddle out of the experience, but her illusions were shattered when I carried her straight to her room and put her in a time out, reminding her that it is totally unacceptable to shout at anybody, and grownups in particular. I then told Lena, in Hattie’s earshot, that any further instances like that were to be an instant time-out, with no exceptions. That’s what I’d do if Hattie spoke to me like that, and the same rules apply. To my knowledge, Hattie hasn’t shouted at Lena again.

Also, try to put your parental ego to one side if your au pair strikes upon some great strategy for dealing with a child-related issue. They spend a lot of time with your kids, so they might well be the ones to come up with a great solution, and you’ll just shoot yourself in the foot if you can’t see the wisdom of taking their lead occasionally. I know that my niece, Katie, who was an au pair in Hamburg last year, was pretty frustrated when she devised ways to deal with her host family’s children’s poor manners, but the parents refused to follow suit (even though they acknowledged that her approach was a good and effective one).

One last thing: it’s important to acknowledge that your children may take time to adjust to a new au pair, and that it’s your job to smooth the way. Including the au pair on fun weekend outings is a good way to help with this (although au pairs often end up with very busy weekend social lives, which neatly takes care of the whole ‘will we ever have any time to ourselves without our au pair’ questions: yes, you will!), but some kids still need time to get used to a new face, and how long this takes will depend on the individual child’s age, developmental stage, and personality. Joe has always adjusted to new people quickly, but last year, when Hattie was two, she was very unsure with anybody unfamiliar, and took ages to make new friends with grownups. Poor Nikita, our au pair at the time, had to be endlessly patient as Hattie tolerated her purely on a functional basis, with no affection, for at least two months (which is a bloody long time when you’re dealing with little kids). However, by the end of her time with us Nikita was officially deemed to be Hattie’s best friend in the whole wide world. We didn’t rush Hattie (no forcing her to give Nikita a kiss or cuddle good night, for example – and FYI, please don’t ever force your kids to give ANYBODY kisses or cuddles, at any point, as it’s an awful thing to do, even if the grownup on the receiving end has hurt feelings about it), and we made sure that Nikita realised that it was no personal reflection on her. Luckily for us, Hattie is much more relaxed and easier in that respect these days.

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10. Banish guilt

Finally, please don’t entertain any thoughts of guilt about leaving your child with an au pair. Your kids will be fine. They will have the comforts of home and the reassuring familiarity of their routine, but they’ll also have the added dimension of a young, fun, energetic person who has time and inclination to tackle arts and crafts projects, bake on a regular basis, jump on the trampoline with them, walk to the playground every day… to be honest, I am fully aware that my children have far more fun with an au pair in their life than they would if it was just boring old Mummy at home 24/7, because – unlike Lena, for example – I can’t draw amazing scenes for them to colour in, or do the 101 other exciting and stimulating activities that they’ve experienced on a regular basis since we started having au pairs. They’re lucky! Also, being left at home with an au pair provides a ‘baby steps’ way to quell separation anxiety in small children, as they’re with somebody who is homely and familiar, but not Mummy – so, when they start kindy or any other sessional care, the shock isn’t so terrible. My two were OK to be left at kindy on their second day there, and I have no doubt that they’re so chilled about it precisely because they know that Mummy always comes back.

And banish other forms of guilt, too – like any guilt that your children will prefer their au pair over you. They won’t. Unless you’re an abusive monster parent, you will always be the most brilliant creature in your children’s eyes (until they become teenagers, apparently, and then you’ll be a total dickhead). Every single day, when I come home, my kids react like it’s the Second Coming. It’s wonderful to know that they’re both having great fun without me, and are delighted to see me. It’s the best of both worlds for all concerned.

The bonds that you and  your children form with your au pairs can last forever. Nikita travelled by train from her home in The Netherlands to visit us at my in-laws’ house in France a couple of months ago, and Joe, in particular, was thrilled to see her. I fully predict that our kids will do a grand ‘Au Pair Tour of Europe’ one day!

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