Au Pair: Concept and Tips
Au Pair is a chance to try living in a different country, learn a foreign language, and make new friends. In exchange for accommodation, food, and pocket money, you will help your host family take care of their kids.
We've prepared a mini Au Pair guide for you and talked to former au pairs about who this program is designed for, what challenges may arise, and what kind of experiences one should expect to gain there.
What Is Au Pair
Au Pair (from French "au pair" — "on par") is an international cultural exchange program for people from 18 to 30. The idea is that you live abroad in a host family, get to know the culture of the country, and learn the language. The family provides you free board and lodging, as well as pocket money. You, in turn, help them take care of their children, run some errands, and, if agreed, assist with some light housework.
A host family has to have at least one child younger than 18, provide their au pair a separate room, and fulfill their duties throughout the whole period. Participants and families have to have different citizenship.
The program is implemented in many countries, including the US, Canada, China, the UK, France, Germany, and other EU states. The duration period varies from three to twelve months. The length of the stay depends on the participants’ preferences and opportunities, as well as on the country's legislation.
Participants can join language courses during the program to improve their language skills and find new friends. In some countries, such as France, for example, it is a mandatory thing.
Who Is This Program for and What Are the Benefits
Au Pair is a great way to try living in a foreign country before you go there for a really long time to study or work. If you haven't decided on a destination yet, have poor language skills, and have never lived far away from home, this program is a safe and comparatively easy way to make up your mind and go for it.
First, you won't have to think about how to earn money to afford living there and cover your daily expenses. If you find a common language with the family and become friends with them, you will be able to trust them and get their help when settling into the new environment. You'll make friends, find out more about life in the country, and decide whether you are ready to come and stay there for at least a couple of years in the future.
Your Responsibilities as an Au Pair
An au pair takes care of kids in the host family which includes taking them from kindergarten or school, playing with them, taking them to after-school activities, and helping them with their homework. If agreed, an au pair also cooks for the kids, cleans up, and does the grocery shopping.
Au pairs generally work 25-30 hours a week. In the US, participants may have to work up to 45 hours. Participants and their host families usually plan the schedule for the week or month in advance.
An au pair is not a cleaner or nanny. Participants are not obliged to cook for the whole family, keep the house clean, and bear full responsibility for the children. The ideal scenario is that a participant becomes a family member during the program who has their duties and rights.
An au pair is entitled to have one or two days off a week depending on the country. If you've come for a year, you can expect a month off. Families often invite participants to spend a vacation with them at sea or in the mountains, for example.
How to Take Part
The requirements to be an au pair vary from country to country. Among the common ones are:
— you are from 18 to 30 (there are exceptions with some countries and programs);
— you speak English or the native language of the country you go to;
— you love kids and enjoy working with them;
— you don't have your own children (in some countries, you cannot be married to join).
There are a lot of websites and agencies that bring prospective au pairs and host families together. You just fill out an application and then wait for families to contact you.
Host family and participant sign an au pair contract that includes rights and obligations of each party. This document is legally valid and helps avoid problems and misunderstandings between the parties, protecting the interests of everyone involved. Participants will not be able to get a visa without an au pair contract.
If something goes wrong, you can terminate the contract and leave early. Two weeks’ notice to the host family is usually enough. Before you sign the document, make sure it mentions contract termination conditions.
Anna Scop's Personal Experience, @anutkosun
Several years ago, I volunteered for an EVS (European Voluntary Service) project in Poland. I worked in a kindergarten as an assistant and an English teacher. After the project, I decided to live in Norway for a while and went to Trondheim as an au pair.
My host family included a mother, five-year-old twins, and a Lab. My responsibility was to wake the kids up in the morning, make breakfast, take them to kindergarten, and walk the dog. After I was done, I would have my Norwegian language course. Then I was supposed to clean the house, make dinner, and take the kids from the kindergarten before mom came home from work.
I had a small separate room that used to be a walk-in closet before I moved in. My monthly wage was 550 €. Also, the host paid for my language course and covered transport costs to get there or gave me a bike. I could take anything I wanted from the fridge. I had a lot of free time that I spent walking around the city and attending yoga classes.
I only lived with the family for three months and then made up my mind to go home. The problem was that the host kind of saw me as a workforce who would clean, cook, and hang out the laundry anytime she wanted.
Besides, the host mother controlled and criticized every little thing I did. A month after I started, she yelled at me for the first time. Two months later, she was making scenes already. She used to write down my working hours and what I did in a special notebook. I used to call it a “slaveholder's diary”. According to her calculations, I worked less than I was supposed to, which was 30 hours a week.
So, I contacted the Au Pair support network and told the host I wanted to go home. She immediately bought a ticket for me, and I left.
If I had participated in the program right after school, I would definitely have loved it. Now, having freedom and a choice is more important for me. I’m not fond of being bound by a schedule or someone else's mood.
Despite everything, there were good things in this story too. I improved my Norwegian skills during those three months and completed an A2 course. Besides, I had heard a lot about the famous Scandinavian parenting principles, so it was interesting to see with my own eyes what they were all about. Now I work in a kids center in St. Petersburg and have a chance to apply my experience of working with children in practice.
Participation Costs and Pay Amount
Participation in the program is free of charge for au pairs. You won’t have to pay to register on a website and find a host family.
Generally, au pairs cover their travel expenses and visa costs themselves. Some host families offer to support their au pairs by getting them a flight ticket or reimbursing their transport costs. All organizational issues, such as getting a visa, health insurance, and opening a bank account in the host country, are negotiated by the parties beforehand and mentioned in the contract.
Along with food and accommodation, an au pair receives pocket money every month. The amount depends on the country but generally ranges from 200 to 400 € a month.
Sometimes a host family pays for their au pair’s language course. Some make small presents or give a little more money during a vacation.
Oksana Volosevich's Personal Experience
For a long time, I had aspired to live in a foreign country for a while. This is why I registered on AuPair.com. There were many offers from host families, including in Spain, Germany, the UAE, Switzerland, and France. In the end, I picked a family from Italy who I felt most comfortable to communicate with.
My host family lived in a small town called Bormio, located in Lombardy, near the Swiss border. They owned a hotel in a ski resort and had trouble with taking care of their little daughter during the peak season. I was an au pair in their family for only three months because I had come on a tourist visa. However, I know they would have been happy to have me for a whole year because it’s hard to find a person you can trust to take care of your child in a small mountain town.
I spent time from 5 to 9 p.m. or a little later with the girl. I loved the family so much that sometimes I offered extra help, like going for a walk with her during the day, taking her from the nursery, helping in the restaurant, and interpreting for Russian-speaking guests.
I lived in a hotel room with a bathroom, a balcony, and a view over a ski run. I had breakfast together with the guests in the hotel restaurant, while lunch and dinner were the time that I spent with my host family. My pocket money was enough for some everyday expenses.
In my leisure time, I would go to a bar where nice old ladies taught me Italian. By the end of the program, I could use basic phrases and even understand a little bit of what other people said. Besides, one senior lady who was a friend of my host parents would teach me how to sew.
I was lucky to find my perfect family. Our communication was based on understanding, respect, and friendship. After the program, I decided to go to France and found 50 euro in my backpack with a note from my host mom saying "For a great French dinner".
My au pair experience made me seriously consider studying in Italy. Now I know I can learn the language and will be fine living here.
Tips to Become an Au Pair
Think if you are really ready for it. If you don't like kids, feel uncomfortable sharing your personal space with strangers and living with your "boss" under the same roof, being an au pair is not an option for you. Think about what you want to gain as a participant. Is the concept of the program in keeping with your needs, goals, and values?
Be thorough when looking for a family. Look through as many profiles as you can and talk to each candidate at least twice via video call. Don't be shy to ask all the questions you need to be answered. Trust yourself and see how comfortable and relaxed you feel talking to these people. After all, you'll have to live with them for a long time.
Don't hesitate to talk about problems. It makes sense to talk in advance about what the parties would think about a certain conflict and how they see the ways it could be resolved. Discuss how everything will work if you decide to leave before the program ends. Negotiating everything from the get-go will save you time and help you find the right family.