An au pair is much more than a babysitter or daycare provider. In addition to providing childcare, au pairs also bring a unique cultural exchange experience to the family.
Host families should know that time spent by au pairs on activities outside their children’s care would not be considered “childcare hours.” This includes social activities like dinner dates and movies.
The History of the Au Pair
In Europe, the au pair was a popular childcare solution. However, social change and rising wages made these workers increasingly difficult to find and afford. After World War II, aspirations for middle-class girls grew to include careers, cultural experiences, and foreign languages.
This led the Department of State to develop the au pair program in 1986 to promote cultural exchange while addressing the need for affordable domestic childcare. Under the authority of the Fulbright-Hays Act, sponsoring organizations were authorized to run au pair programs by granting a select group of young foreign women and men the opportunity to live with American families, providing up to 45 hours per week of child care.
Despite its intentions, the au pair program has faced controversy. In the wake of the Capron case, it became clear that some au pairs and host families did not adhere to Federal regulations and State/local laws.
So, what is the au pair program? The au pair program is a cultural exchange initiative that enables young individuals to live with a host family in a foreign country. It provides childcare assistance while immersing themselves in the host family’s culture.
This created uncertainty for families participating in the program in good faith and attempting to meet all legal requirements. It also left the program vulnerable to additional lawsuits and increased administrative burdens. Ultimately, the au pair program ended up being modified and expanded to address the needs of both au pairs and host families better.
The Au Pair’s Role
Essentially, the Au Pair is a temporary family member who helps the host family with childcare and light housework. They are paid a stipend and provided room and board by the host family for their services. They are typically expected to work 31 or 40 hours each week. Before beginning their Au Pair program, the au pairs and host families must discuss expectations and responsibilities.
A significant part of an au pair’s job is to help the children develop a love for learning by engaging them in daily activities. This could involve reading books with them, playing games, doing crafts, or taking them on nature walks. Au pairs may also help them with homework or completing their school lessons.
Other duties include light housework, such as preparing meals, washing dishes, doing laundry, and vacuuming. However, these tasks should differ from the au pairs’ primary responsibilities. These tasks must be clearly explained in the contract and weekly schedule.
In addition, the au pair is typically expected to take care of the family’s pet(s). Au pairs should be able to maintain their separate room within the home unless it is a “suite” type of arrangement (think “in-law suite”).
The Au Pair’s Responsibilities
Whether caring for kids, doing dishes, or cooking dinner, au pairs are expected to work hard and treat their hosts like family. It’s essential to be clear about each task and for families to include the au pair in all household discussions, especially when establishing expectations.
Host parents should provide au pairs with a typical weekly schedule that includes their duties and hours. It’s also a good idea for families to have any in-kind benefits that they’ll be providing (e.g., cell phone, gym membership, car for personal use) in the contract.
It’s also important to note that the Department of State has established minimum hour requirements that host families must meet. This includes the maximum weekly childcare hours au pairs can perform and guaranteed paid leave for sick and vacation days. If an au pair’s schedule exceeds these limits, the sponsor must adjust her compensation accordingly to bring it back within regulations.
Finally, an au pair must take classes as part of her educational requirement. In that case, the host family must make sure that she can attend these classes and help her with any other conditions associated with her program. The host family should also contribute to the cost of these classes. If the au pair has other obligations outside of her children’s care, such as a job or class-related commitments, she should be clear about these in advance with the sponsor and their local representative.
The Au Pair’s Benefits
Au pairs and host families must discuss the most crucial aspects of the au pair relationship well in advance, including pocket money, working hours, tasks, and recreational activities. Both parties should put themselves in each other’s shoes and understand the expectations of the other before agreeing on what works for them. Setting up a “contract” and having both parties sign it is also a good idea.
While au pairs are not professional childcare providers, they must remember that they are young adults who have come to America to learn about a different culture and language. They want to be a part of your family life, just as you are a part of theirs. As a result, au pairs often become close to their host families and form lasting international relationships that continue long after their year abroad.
While communication can sometimes be challenging at first because of an au pair’s limited English level, you must try to ask your au pair about their day, invite them to family outings and holidays, and offer comfort during periods of homesickness. These actions will help your au pair feel that they are a family member, not just another employee. If you do these things, your au pair will be more likely to stay engaged in their job and more committed to the success of your family’s experience.