Frequent questions for Au pairs
Origins of the Au pair system
The first recorded use of the word ‘au pair', which means literally ‘on equal terms' in French, is in 1897 in the Girl's Own Paper. It refers to English girls teaching their language in France in exchange for lessons in French. But soon the emphasis altered, and caring for children became the central duty of au pairs rather than teaching. Since then a great deal of grandiloquent prose and high flown sentiments have been spouted on the subject of au pairing. Describing it as an ideal way to experience a foreign culture from the inside, learn a language, etc. You would almost think that the only motive which families have in taking on an au pair is to help her appreciate their culture and learn their language. In fact it is usually the case of a harassed mother looking for a cheap home help. Between these two contradictory viewpoints, however, there is plenty of scope for successful and satisfying employer/ employee relationships from which both parties benefits on the ways that are intended by the system. The UK began au pair exchanges with Switzerland in the early 1920's then with Austria in 1930. After World War II the number of participating countries and au pairs rose dramatically, so that today there are over 20,000 in Greater London alone. It has been taken up in the USA as well and, more recently in Australia. It is a concept which is capable of shifting and adapting to modern times and of reflecting the attitudes of contemporary society.
Who is Eligible?
The greatest attraction of looking after children for many is that it is one of the easiest ways to fix up work abroad, since the demand is so great. It has been estimated that about half of all women with children in industrialised nations work full or part time. Often the qualifications for being hired by these working mothers are minimal and it is not unusual for young women aged barely 18 who have never worked and who have no experience with children beyond occasional babysitting to be successfully placed in a foreign household. Although agencies and families almost always state that they prefer au pair candidates to have had some practical experience of looking after children, most are prepared to consider anyone with a genuine liking for children, a positive attitude towards domesticity and a reasonably mature character. Most will require at least one reference which simply testifies to your reliability and common sense.
The second great advantage of au pairing over other jobs abroad, is that often it is easier to make your status legal. Work permits are notoriously difficult to get for ‘proper jobs' in most countries of the world, but often exceptions are made for live-in help.
The minimum age can be a problem for school leavers who are not yet 18. The majority of agencies prefer not to accept applications from candidates younger than 18.
What families are looking for
To do the job well you need a sense of humour, the patience of a saint, a liking for children and the ability to leap over toy buildings in a single bound. A love of children is an obvious prerequisite, and will cover up a multitude of sins. But other qualities which parents are looking for include a mature attitude to assuming responsibility. All parents want to feel confident about leaving their children in the care of another person, so they are looking for someone who is sensible, trustworthy, able to assume control, and who will report major mishaps as appropriate.
Families want somebody reliable who will drive carefully, remember to lock up and who will not invite guests indiscriminately into the home. They also expect to be able to trust you, not only with their valuables but with money for shopping, children's treats. Etc. Anny accidental damage in the home should immediately be admitted and an offer to replace it tendered. Most families will have encouraged families to take out liability insurance on their au pair's behalf which should cover major problems.
All parents want a warm, healthy atmosphere in their homes, and are disconcerted by girls who are moody or volatile. A calm approach to life in general and little disasters in particular is what is called for. Live in helpers who are reduced to hysteria by the sight of a spider or the squeak of a mouse won't do their charges any good.
Personal hygiene is just as important as making sure the children are kept clean and tidy. Parents resent it if you don't clean up after yourself, even if it is in your own room or on your day off. A large number of agencies and families absolutely prohibit smoking among their staff. If you are a smoker but serious about au pairing, you might want to consider giving up. It is not good pretending that you never touch cigarettes when you obviously do. Even if you manage to bluff your way into the job, you will be climbing the walls once you start and are not able to smoke freely. If you try to do so secretly, there'll be all sorts of tell-tale signs. Non –smokers have very sensitive noses.
All children have a tendency to be early risers so it helps if you are too. If you are a night hawk by nature, you will have to exercise self- discipline and resign yourself to reorganising your habits and your social life.
Motives for working with children >>