They’re a cross between an older sibling and a nanny.
An au pair—usually a young woman in her late teens to mid-20s—is a childcare worker from a foreign country who works and lives with a host family. Every country has its own rules for how the program works. In the U.S. most au pairs help with child care; take kids to and from school, activities, or outings; and do light housework, such as preparing your kids’ meals or doing their laundry. The idea is that they become almost a member of your family for one to two years, then either go on to live with another family or return to their native country.
They’re usually a bargain (if you have a spare room)—especially if you have more than one child. In exchange for providing childcare for up to 45 hours a week, you’re required to provide a room and meals and pay at least a small allowance (roughly, minimum wage), plus up to the first $500 toward any coursework the au pair takes while in the country.
The total annual cost if you’re working through an agency (usually the case) ranges from about $7000 to $10,000, but can go higher if you have a child with special needs, for example.
What to look for:
Because you’re hiring someone from a foreign country, you’ll almost certainly have to work through an agency, so make sure you choose one that’s experienced and dependable.
- Key questions to ask:
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- What’s your screening process?
- How much involvement will I have in choosing the person you send us?
- What happens if the person you send us turns out not to be a good fit for our family?
- Exactly what will the au pair do (and what’s off limits)?
- Will our au pair be able to drive?
- Can I request an au pair who speaks a specific language?
- How much training and orientation do you provide to both the au pair and the host family?
- Will I be able to set the hours our au pair works?
More good things to know or do:
- Advantages (compared to most nannies and other child-care options):
- They’re usually less expensive.
- They live in, so there’s no shuttling back and forth.
- They usually have a more flexible schedule.
- Au-pairs provide cultural exchange too. Because many au pairs speak at least one other language in addition to English, having an au pair (or a series of au pairs) take care of your kids can be a great way for them to learn another language.
- They live in, so any personality clashes get exaggerated.
- There’s no long-term continuity, so kids and family have to adjust to someone new every year or two.
- They often come with little childcare experience (which means they’re often a better fit for older kids than for infants or anyone who needs a lot of special care).
- Photo: Jean Tessier/Flickr