Ten ways to make the most of your au pair experience
Marilyn Wilkinson studied German with Politics at the University of Paris VIII from 2011 to 2013. She then spent the final year of her degree interning at a dating agency in Berlin and studying German and Dutch at the University of Vienna in Austria. This is her guide to making the most of life as an au pair and how to avoid common pitfalls!
- 1. Choose the family wisely.
- 2. Know your rights.
- 3. Learn as much as you can about everything.
- 4. Build a circle of friends outside the family.
- 5. Stay healthy.
- 6. Patience is key.
- 7. Be professional.
- 8. Explore the world around you.
- 9. Don’t lose sight of your language learning goals.
- 10. Stay in touch.
Au pairing is an increasingly popular option for those wanting to live abroad and gain an insider’s view of a new language and culture. Free room and board in an exciting location for a few hours babysitting sounds idyllic, but an au pair holds a unique position within the family, being neither a parent, nor a child, or even really a friend. Add language and cultural differences to the mix, it is not overly surprising that difficulties do occasionally arise. Having been an au pair for four families during my 3 years in France, I have experienced the good, the bad and the downright ugly side of au pairing. Here are the top ten tips I wish I had known before starting - they may well have saved me from being homeless after a mere 10 days in Paris!
1. Choose the family wisely.
Although two lovely families welcomed me as one of their own, offering me unique insight into the French mode de vie, one mentally unstable mum nearly fired me for not sharing her dog’s bed! In short, your relationship with your host family will make or break your experience abroad, so it pays to be selective. The economic crisis and lack of graduate jobs have taught us to be grateful for any opportunity, but as far as au pairing is concerned, the demand is actually greater than the supply. Native English-speakers can afford to be particularly picky, so when contacting families, interview them as much as they interview you.
2. Know your rights.
Although au pair literally means “on equal terms”, exploitation does occur. To ensure that you have a rewarding experience with memories you will treasure for years to come, read up on your country’s laws regarding payment and hours: in France, for example, au pair work is limited to 30 hours per week. Furthermore, the Strasbourg Agreement, which has been ratified in 16 European countries, guarantees au pairs at least one day off per week. It is essential to negotiate your working conditions and get them in writing to avoid any nasty surprises.
3. Learn as much as you can about everything.
Au pairing is a cultural exchange, not just babysitting. I au paired in Paris to learn French, but to my surprise also picked up a whole host of other life skills, including French cuisine, organisational competencies, budgeting, compromise and negotiation skills (bribing a three year old with sweets is probably not that different to the business world, after all). French town halls also offer heavily subsidised courses on everything from Computer Science to Chinese to Cookery, so you can easily keep your mind fresh and avoid nappy brain during your time as an au pair.
4. Build a circle of friends outside the family.
It is vital to have your own social life with other young, like-minded people. Events organised by couchsurfing.org or meetup.com are a good place to start, particularly if you live in a major city, and tandems are another fantastic way to make friends while brushing up your language skills. Au pairing need not be lonely: on the contrary, it is an amazing opportunity to make great friends from all over the world.
5. Stay healthy.
The clothes I took with me were two sizes smaller than the ones I brought back! Most au pairs I know gained weight as it is only too tempting to reach for the kids’ sweet draw or join in with the goûter (calorific French afternoon snack). Enjoying the local cuisine is great, comfort eating is not.
6. Patience is key.
As with any job, not every day will be easy. It is normal not to bond with the child(ren) immediately, especially if they are starting a new school year and missing the old au pair. As for the parents, the best way to deal with any potential difference of opinion or cultural clash is communication. Discussion leads to better understanding; everyday frustrations which seem irritating at the time can teach you a lot about the other culture in the long run.
7. Be professional.
Your new home is also a place of work, and if you treat it like a holiday the parents will start to see you as more of a hindrance than a help. Common complaints from parents include not paying enough attention to the children, being late and spending too much time on Facebook (definitely guilty of that one!). Mutual respect is a two way street: if you find little ways to be helpful without being asked, chances are they will be more understanding when you get a last minute party invite.
8. Explore the world around you.
Some au pairs are lucky enough to be invited on holiday with the family, but independently exploring nearby countries and cities can be great fun too. If you are au pairing in Continental Europe, there is nothing stopping you from jumping on a train during your weekend off. Carpooling and Couchsurfing make travel possible even on a tight au pair budget.
9. Don’t lose sight of your language learning goals.
You have your own reasons for wanting to become an au pair, and chances your aim is not to become to next Super Nanny or How Clean Is Your House presenter. The lovely thing about language learning with children is that they make mistakes too so you can learn together, plus you pick up new things while they feel smart for helping you. Try playing the Vocabulary Game to see who knows the most words in each other’s language, and keep track of your progress in a vocabulary diary. Personally, I went from barely conversational to passing my French university entrance exams within 6 months, so if you put the effort in, you can definitely see tangible improvement by the end of the year.
10. Stay in touch.
You never know when you might want a reference from the parents, particularly if you are interested in childcare or teaching as a career. By keeping in contact with your home away from home, you can relive fond memories and will never be short of a free holiday location.