The time period after high school or college can be both exciting and frustrating. When you’re not tied to a career or your own family, you may feel like you want to spread your wings and explore the world. But this may seem impossible for those who, like most, do not have the money or resources to go abroad.
What many don’t realize is there are affordable ways to travel in exchange for fair work; one such option is to become an au pair.
What Is an Au Pair?
An au pair is a single young adult, typically a woman, between the ages of 18 and 26 who travels internationally as part of a cultural exchange program and provides childcare for her host family. Au pairs have the goal of learning more about another culture and improving their skills in a foreign language.
Au pairs live with a host family, and they participate in their regular activities as if they are a member of the family. They provide basic childcare and housekeeping duties in exchange for room and board and a small stipend for fun activities in their new city.
“Au pair” is a French term meaning “on par” or “equal to.” As such, it is important to note that an au pair is not a subservient role, but a familial one.
Why Become an Au Pair?
Becoming an au pair is an ideal option for a young person who wishes to travel but doesn’t have the funds to do so. Some benefits of being an au pair include…
- Weekly or monthly stipend for extracurricular activities and exploring their new city
- Room and board provided, including meals
- Paid vacation time (required by most agencies/countries)
- Educational opportunities to take language and other cultural courses
- Paid airfare (through some au pair agencies)
- Insurance in case of accident or illness
- Improvement of foreign language skills
- Travel opportunities, including vacationing with host family
- Make new friends and meet new people
- Learn more about a new culture through firsthand experience
- Gain valuable international work experience
Benefits for Host Family
Host families typically choose to house au pairs not only because they are an affordable means of childcare, but also because they want to enrich their children’s lives with new cultural experiences. And the best way for host families to get the most out of au pairs is to treat them as part of the family. In other words, this cultural exchange program benefits all parties.
Knowing a foreign language essential skill for people of all ages, and since children are best at acquiring new language skills, many parents want their kids to be familiarized with new languages as early as possible. By talking to the host family’s children in the au pair’s native language, she is providing them with a skill they will carry with them their entire lives.
Food is another way au pairs expose the host family to a new culture. While au pairs are not expected to be professional chefs, they will likely be expected to prepare meals for the children during the day, where they can bring their own cultural flair to the table.
Other ways an au pair can share her culture with her host family is through her self-expression – clothing, taste in music, art and knowledge of history. Through day-to-day interactions, the host family will get to learn more and more about the home country of their au pair.
In fact, the way au pairs and host families are matched up is often by the languages and cultures each desires to learn about. For example, an American au pair who wants to continue her Spanish language studies post-college would make a good match for a host family in Spain who wants their children to learn English.
History of Au Pairs
Au pairs became popular in Europe after WWII, and they served both a financial and educational role. During that time, a surge of middle-class women needed work to support themselves due to the changing economic and social structures.
Upper class girls were able to live off the support of their fathers until they were married. Middle class girls, however, were expected to work any of the few unskilled jobs offered to women at the time. Middle class families typically could not afford to send their daughters off to get a formal education, so girls needed to figure out ways to educate themselves in a world that more and more began to place value on foreign studies and cultural experiences.
At the same time, the number of domestic workers for hire decreased – in part due to increased stigma around being a “servant” – skyrocketing the cost of live-in help. Only upper families could afford domestic labor, and middle class families struggled to find childcare while they worked.
Thus the position of “au pair” was born. The role of an au pair met both the needs of women struggling to find work and middle class families struggling to afford childcare. Unlike domestic servants, au pairs truly were “on par” – they not only lived with their host families, but joined them for meals, vacations and other activities while being provided an allowance.
Today, European counsel recommends contracts between au pairs and host families guaranteeing personal time to study and socialize. Some countries also place limits on the number of hours au pairs can work. Nowadays au pairs can also be male, although the majority remain female.
Duties of an Au Pair
Aside from educating children about a new culture and language, there are certain key duties most au pairs are responsible for, although these can vary slightly country-to-country or household-to-household. During the match-up progress and throughout the first days after meeting, expectations should be set not only by the host family, but also the au pair herself.
Typically au pairs will work no more than 45 hours a week. Au pairs are primarily responsible for childcare during the day while the parents are at work – sort of like a live-in babysitter, but with more autonomy. Some au pairs are knowledgeable in infant care and can assist with feeding, changing and bathing babies either by themselves or while parents are home spending time with their other children. Most au pairs are experienced in caring for multiple children within a variety of age groups.
Other duties au pairs perform to help with childcare include:
- Morning routines such as waking children up, making breakfast and getting them ready for school
- Playing games and doing crafts
- Taking children on outings such as to the park
- Assisting the children with keeping their rooms tidy and their beds made
- Helping with homework (although host families know au pairs are not expected to be subject experts for tutoring)
- Transporting children to and from school and extracurricular activities (while most au pairs are licensed drivers, not all are required to be)
- Evening routines such as bathing, brushing teeth and tucking children into bed
Vacations should be relaxing, but they can also be stressful at times, especially when children are involved. Au pairs typically join families on vacation so they can watch the children while the adults do other activities or relax. However, the same standard applies to au pairs on vacation as at the host’s home: she needs time alone for her studies, socialization and to just unwind.
As stated earlier, au pairs are not expected to be professional chefs. However, part of taking care of children is making sure they are fed. Au pairs can be expected to prepare meals while the parents are away as well as clean up after themselves in the kitchen. Au pairs may also use this as an opportunity to teach older kids essential skills by having them help prep food, cook and clean.
Remember, and au pair is not a maid! However, like any other member of the family, she can and should be expected to help with household chores including hers and the children’s laundry. Host families do not need to do laundry for the whole household, nor should they be expected to clean areas of the house such as the host parents’ bedroom.
In short, an au pair is not expected to perform any more household duties than any other member of the family.
Au Pair vs. Nanny: What’s the Difference?
Below are some other key differences between au pairs and nannies:
- The key differentiation between an au pair and a nanny is that a nanny is treated as an employee while an au pair is treated as a member of the family.
- Au pairs are always international while nannies are often local.
- Au pairs always live with the host family; nannies may or may not.
- Au pairs have age restrictions depending on the country (typically between ages 18 and 26) while nannies come in all ages.
- Au pairs have a maximum number of working hours each week while nannies can work as often as the country’s labor laws permit.
- Au pairs receive small allowances so they can explore the city and participate in extracurricular activities while nannies are paid a salary they use to live off of.
- Au pairs may require an au pair visa while nannies require a separate work permit if they are international.
- Au pair duties are limited to childcare and light household chores while nannies and other domestic caregivers may include housekeeping and cooking duties.
- Au pairs require a commitment period – anywhere between a month and a year of service – while nannies are at-will employees.
- Au pairs are not a financial burden for most families, as many in the middle-class already have spare bedrooms to house them. Nannies must be paid a salary that is at least minimum wage, but often is more.
- Au pairs are unmarried and do not have children, so they rarely have much responsibility outside being an au pair. Nannies may be married and have their own children, meaning they are more likely to need to take personal days off in case of emergency to care for their own child.
- And of course, nannies provide rich cultural experiences for host families. Nannies may bring personal spice to the host’s household, but there is no expectation of cultural exchange though shared experiences.
Becoming an Au Pair
Some of the requirements for being an au pair have already been mentioned, like being between the ages of 18 and 26. However, there are others to keep in mind if you’re thinking about applying for an au pair program:
- You must have some experience caring for children, although you need not be a professional caretaker
- You must actively enjoy spending time with kids
- You must have completed at least high school, though some families may prefer additional certifications
- You must be able to commit to an extended stay abroad (timeline depends on country, host family and au pair program)
- In most cases, you must have a driver’s license
- You must be in good health both physically and mentally
- You must be able to pass a background check
- You must provide both personal and professional references attesting to your character and work ethic
- You must be unmarried and have no children
- You must be able to meet language requirements to communicate with your host family (language requirements depend on country)
- Sometimes, you must be able to pay your own travel expenses to and from the host family’s country
Most countries require au pairs to go through an agency and possess an au pair visa. While there are many options for au pair programs online, you should do your research to ensure you choose an organization that will match you up with the best host family for you.
At Host Family, we take the time to get to know each of our au pairs and hosts on a personal level to ensure the best match for everybody. We also provide services around the globe for those seeking international internships, study abroad opportunities, volunteer programs and more.
Whether you want to become an au pair or host one, visit www.hostfamily.com to meet your perfect match.