It’s day one of my third experience of living with a host family as an au pair, and I’ve been thinking a lot about what makes one au pair experience different from another. Having now lived (/worked for) three different families abroad, and lived with another two host families while on language courses, I think the major factor which determines the outcome of the stay is the relationship you have with your host family.
Just as they must learn to treat you as another member of the family – an older daughter, almost – and not just an employee or a guest, you too must treat them as a second family, and not just as hosts or employers. That means doing a few things, even if those things are difficult.
1. Spend free time with the host family – especially the children.
Okay, so you can’t be expected to be on the ball, looking after the kids and playing with them all day. You have time off for a reason and taking time for yourself is an important part of staying sane while abroad alone. But it’s also important to show the family that you’re there for all the parts of daily life, not just when they’re paying you to be there, and it will also help them to get used to you and you to get used to them.
Sometimes this might be giving up your ‘free’ day at the weekend to accompany them to the beach, or to a festival, or to a family member’s house for dinner. Not only does this show you like spending time with them, it will also mean you get a much fuller insight into the country’s culture and the way the family behaves and interacts as a unit.
Other times, it is simply as easy as sitting in the same room as the host family while they watch TV or play on their phones. You can take your own stuff to do, but the fact that you’re doing it in their vicinity instead of holed up in your room means that they get used to your presence and you’re showing that you’re available to chat or help with something even when you don’t have to be. There’s many a time I’ve sat in my room with the door open while I read (great for having privacy but not being isolated at the same time) but I’ve found it’s much more effective to sit in the living room with a book, occasionally looking up and making a comment on whatever is showing on the TV, too.
2. Show a genuine interest in the host family.
This means not just dealing with the daily tasks you’ve been charged with, but going that little bit further to get to know them properly. Ask questions, and encourage them when they talk about their experiences, likes, and dislikes. Reciprocate, and talk about your own experiences. Part of the amazing-ness of being an au pair is the cultural exchange, the comparisons we make with our home country and the host country, and the perspectives we can gain from doing so. But we can only gain that new knowledge by showing a full interest and listening carefully.
It also helps to build a bond of trust and communication between you and the children, meaning they will become more open and comfortable with telling you things in the future. This is especially important when it comes to long stays abroad!
3. Help out in the house as if you were a member of the host family.
Yep, this means chores. If you want to be treated like an almost-daughter, then that means you’re going to have to chip in with your share of the housework, not least because that will earn you some brownie points with the parents, but because it should help you feel more integrated, too.
Ask if you can help with meal prep and clear-up, and once you’ve learnt where things go, try to help automatically. Pick up after the kids if they’re little, but also pick up after yourself. If you’re in for the long haul, you might find you’re integrated as part of a rota, if that’s okay with you.
However, do be careful that you’re not expected to do more than the normal share for a family member. Chipping in doesn’t mean that the family should be expecting you to work as a maid as well as an au pair, so don’t be afraid to bring up any issues with your agency or the family themselves (depending on how the placement was arranged) if you feel you are being treated unfairly.
4. Try icebreaker games and activities.
This will be particularly important in the first few days. Establishing games as a part of each day is a great way to spend time with the kids, get to know them, and practice your languages together.
You could ask them to show you their favourite board/card games, or come up with your own favourites, such as pictionary, ‘guess who’, hide and seek… the options really depend on their age and language abilities, but whatever you choose, you’re bound to end up feeling a little more integrated through play.
Check out some of my favourite game ideas here.
5. Good experiences are based on mutual respect and communication when things go wrong.
At some point in your au pair experience, something might go wrong.
Maybe you miss the last bus back to their town and have to be picked up by the parents (guilty). Maybe the kids throw a wobbly and refuse to do any of the activities the parents asked you to do with them (also guilty). The parents might get back from work tired and grumpy, or the kids might be having an off day, or you might be suffering with homesickness. Mutual respect means that you understand that these things happen, and try to deal with it in a mature and respectful way.
Communicate with the family, and tell the truth if something isn’t quite the way it should be. In return, allow them to express what they need from you, and respect the fact that you might well have several differences in your approaches to things.
Of course, so long as you’re trying your best and don’t get too hung up on the difficult moments – and there will be difficult moments – you’ll be just fine! Every au pair and every family is different, so try to just be as flexible as you can to start with and before long you’ll feel so much more at home.
Have you been au pairing, or worked closely with a family outside your own? Do you have any more tips, or any questions about the experience? Leave them in the comments below!