The Au Pair
For many a family needing child care, an au pair is just the ticket. The term (pronounced “o pare”) is French for “part of the family”, and that’s what the ideal au pair becomes. A friend to children, a help to parents, she or he will visit again and again over the years and may end up hosting a visit for you in her or his own country. And yes, there are far more male au pairs than there are male nannies.
In Europe, working as an au pair is a way to spend holidays in another country with free room and board and spending money. In contrast, the purpose of the U.S. government in authorizing a handful of au pair programs is to make inexpensive child care available to working families. Thus in neither case is it a career, and rarely is the au pair a person with lots of child care experience.
Low cost child care has its plusses and minuses. Under pressure from American child care providers, and in order to ensure a minimum level of care, federal regulations have over the years become stricter. Here are the basics:
- Au pairs can get only one-year visas. Annual replacement means a different au pair each year.
- Au pairs are limited to working 10 hours/day and 45 hours/week, max.
- Since U.S. au pair programs were slipped into law under the rubric of student exchange, families must pay and allow time for some kind of college level American cultural studies
- Each au pair must now have at least 8 hours training in child care. (In contrast, reputable nanny agencies in the U.S. historically require at least a year of full time experience; the minimum at the better agencies is now 2 years.)
- Annual costs to families hiring an au pair approach the cost of employing a “starter nanny” (still with at least a year’s experience, plus checkable references) from an agency. Note that references are not traditionally provided for au pairs in Europe.
- Au pairs are not recommended for infant care; if there is an infant in the host family, one parent must be present at all times, and the au pair must have had 24 additional hours of infant care training.
The U.S. child care community generally recommends au pairs only for care of older children who attend school full time. Critically, at that age the child is independent enough to explain his or her needs to the au pair and to tell parents when needs are not being met. For a family with school-age children, the au pair might run errands for the family during the day, transport the children to and from school, take them to activities, serve them supper, and even baby-sit into the evening without running over the allotted hours.