Finding an au pair alone vs. with help

One of the questions my husband and I get asked most often by other parents is whether it is better to look for an au pair yourself or trust an agency to help us. In reality, it is possible to find a great au pair both ways, it depends more on your personal situation than anything else. Here’s a few questions to help you figure out which way is right for you at this moment in time.

1- How busy are you?

a) One (or both of us) has time to dedicate to a specific project, particularly if it is only for a short amount of time

b) We are both extremely busy, all the time.

2- Do you know exactly what you are looking for?

a) We have had multiple au pairs stay with us, and know exactly what our family needs and how this fits with the current market.

b) Not really, we are new to this au pair business, we know we want to try it out but don’t yet have a good feel for the market, know how much we need to pay, or have any of the appropriate templates

3- Where do you live?

a) In the center of a large city, in a recognizably cool location.

b) In the outskirts of a large city, or in a smaller town.

4- How comfortable are you communicating in English (and/or other target languages your au pair candidates might speak)

a) Language is not a problem for us, we communicate easily in English and/or other languages

b) I don’t feel that comfortable communicating in English, particularly if I have to write and do a lot of Skype calls.

5- What language are you trying to foster at home?

a) English.

b) Some other language that is not English.

6- How do you feel about conflict resolution?

a) I know how this works. In case of any problems we’ll speak to the au pair, worst case scenario we’ll let her go and start the process again to find a new one.

b) I would like some support during the on-going relationship, including the certainty that somebody will work with me to find me a new au pair in the shortest possible time-frame in case of problems.

7- When do you need the au pair?

a) We are very flexible, not set on any specific dates. When the right person comes along, we’ll work around her availability.

b) We’d like her to start yesterday, if possible, and stay with us during the most coveted months of the year (e.g. summer months, when kids are out of school).

If you’ve answered a) to many or most of those, looks like you’ve got this covered and you’re probably best off looking for the au pair yourself. Remember to let people around you know you’re looking (word of mouth is still one of the best ways to find an au pair), but take advantage also of some of the great platforms out there. I’m partial to because I’ve had some very good experiences with that site, but there are multiple others as well.

If you’ve answered b) to many or most of those questions, working with a trustworthy agency might be the best bet for you this time around. Ask around to find a good agency, and always trust your instinct when you first speak to them. Do they seem knowledgeable? Is it easy to speak to them? Do they respond quickly? If somebody is not responsive in those first conversations, chances are you don’t want to be working with them on something this important.

Remember that some agencies also offer support as part of a DIY pack, a sort of in-between solution that might be worth considering if you’d like some help but want to manage the search yourself.

Good luck for those families still looking for a summer au pair, now’s the time to get to it (I’m actually running late myself this year, that’s my project for this coming weekend)!



All good things…

As the saying goes, all good things must come to an end. and a great au pair relationship is no exception. Whether your au pair has been with you for a few months, six months, or even a year, the day will come, usually between one and two months before her departure, when she will need to start planning the next step in her journey.

Even if you’ve already discussed dates together in the past, the moment she books her return flight is perhaps the inflection point, when her departure becomes real and the countdown starts.

It might be tempting as a host parent to start thinking about how to make the departure as easy as possible for everybody else, but take a minute to acknowledge that it is probably also going to be hard for you. Really hard. If your au pair has been with you for a long time, it might seem a little bit like saying goodbye to a family member.

Now, if the relationship has been a successful one, both parties will probably aim to make the transition as easy as possible for the children, who are the least likely to understand, perhaps, particularly if they have not been through this kind of goodbye before.

There are different philosophies here. I’m a firm believer in being as upfront as possible about the au pair’s departure. Even if the child in question does not quite grasp the concept of time, I think it is useful for the child to get used to the idea that the au pair is going to leave at some point, and to let her express her feelings about it.

Where words are not enough, here are some ideas to help a young child come to terms with the au pair’s departure:

  • Work on a surprise craft project (small, preferably, unless you’re willing to mail it) that the au pair can take home with her.
  • Print a picture of the au pair and the family and have two copies framed, one for the au pair and one for the child.
  • Discuss where the au pair is going to go next. Is she going to university? What is she going to study? Go online and look for pictures of the university together.
  • Plan and throw a good bye party, including everybody’s favorite foods, cake, music…

Planning to keep in touch can also make it easier to say goodbye. Choose a postcard together to write to the au pair, and ask the au pair to send a postcard when she arrives wherever she is heading next. Keep in touch (gently, not obsessively), you never know when you might have the chance to meet up again.

As well as thinking of the child(ren), it is important to think of the au pair, of course, who is approaching a big transition in her life. If she is planning on leaving the country after her stay with your family, she will probably have a list of things to do, people and places she wants to see before she leaves (Valencia? Sevilla? San Sebastián?). Remember that these adventures are part of what being an au pair is about, and help make the end of her stay memorable.

You will probably need to start thinking about a new au pair, such is the nature of hosting au pairs, but take your time and do not rush into a new relationship if you think your children might benefit from a short break before welcoming a new au pair into your home.

When illness strikes

It looks like winter is finally behind us (is it too soon to write these words?) and with it, hopefully, the winter flu season, which  has been particularly brutal this year.

If you’re not used to spending that much time around children, you have no idea what it is like. Children share things you would not imagine. They lick things you don’t want to think about. The hypochondriac in me shivers and reaches for the soap every time I think about it.

If you have a child in the house, and your child spends time with other children (think school), he or she probably spends most of the winter wiping at a runny nose. Which is fine, because children are really quite resilient, but what about the adults in the household? And yes, I’m thinking particularly of the au pair, who might be caught unaware, and who might not be as familiar with the healthcare ecosystem as a local would be.

Let’s face it, going to the doctor, or even to a pharmacy, in a foreign country can seem like a jarring experience, even when you have health insurance, simply because it does not feel exactly the same. You’re far from home, far from your family, you have a cold, and you know exactly what you would ask for in your native country, but here you need to go explain your symptoms in a different language, and hope that the medicine you’re prescribed, which is of course called something completely different, is the right thing.

It can be a frightening experience, no way around this, but it can be made easier in a few ways.

First, prepare in advance. Check insurance coverage with your carrier to understand what is/ is not covered. Learn where the closest doctors and pharmacies are.

Second (or first, if you haven’t done #1), talk to your host parents about it. They might be able to recommend a doctor, or at least guide you in the right direction, and give you the vocabulary to describe your illness.

Third, take the time to heal. You might want to keep going. You’ve got your responsibilities with the children, your friends, you probably want to be out and about exploring. But, remember that by taking the time to rest and to heal, you’re probably minimizing the time before you can go back to doing all those things.

Stay safe in Spain

All au pairs who have stayed with us are adults, but they are young adults (and getting younger each year, ah, no, that’s just me getting older).

Seriously, though. For some, it is their first time living away from home. For others, their first time living in a large city. For most, their first time in Spain.

I don’t want to worry but I can’t help it, so I’ve come up with 3 rules for safety:

  1. Children. This one is simple, when out with the children, 0 distractions. No phone calls except those related to the children. No surprises (we should always know where you are). Holding hands when crossing the road. Important emergency numbers. Things like that.
  2. Things. Things do not matter that much, but some things (passports, credit cards, etc.) are a pain to replace. And, while Madrid is not a particularly unsafe city, it is rife with pickpockets, particularly in the city center. So, some basic awareness and precautions go a long way. Things like, where to carry your belongings (ie. not in an open backpack on your back). Where not to put your phone when you’re eating out (ie. on the table where anybody can run in and grab it). Add in a Chipolo or similar device for the keys, and you minimize the risk a bit further.
  3. Night-time. Madrid is famous for its nightlife, and au pairs (obviously) want to enjoy it. Which makes a lot of sense. But, better safe than sorry, so I ask where you are planning on going, and around when you expect to be coming back (definitely if planning on sleeping out). This, combined with frequent reminders that you can call us anytime, day or night, and we’ll come find you, no questions asked.

So far, so good. Toquemos madera.


If you have a mason jar…

If you have a mason or some kind of glass jar, you have a treasure.

Today I wanted to share an activity designed as an ice breaker, perfect for those first few days with a new au pair or nanny, when the child and the au pair are still feeling shy around each other.

The example is shown in English, but it’s quick to update to other languages with very little effort on the part of the au pair, and the activity can also be calibrated to take into account age and language level.

There’s just something about the physicality of the Q&A jar that really helps loosen kids’ tongues and gets them practicing English!

Please click here for the printable PDF version of this activity.



Why go the bilingual route?

Is it really worth it,
going the bilingual route,
in today’s day and age?

In much of the world, children now learn one or two foreign languages in school. In non-English speaking countries, English is by far the most common foreign language taught. As a result, most children speak English pretty well by the time they leave school. So, in this context, is it still worth making an additional effort to go the bilingual or trilingual route?

I think the answer is a resounding yes.

I work in a global team within a very international company, and so interact in my day to day with people from multiple countries. Most of them speak English very competently, and get along just fine in a professional setting. But, when you encounter someone who is truly bilingual, it shows. These are the people who are free to do their best work, because they are not constantly translating between one language and another in their minds. We could think of this as one of those practical advantages that come from being bilingual.

If you talk to a man in
a language he understands,
that goes to his head. If
you talk to him in his language,
that goes to his heart.”
— Nelson Mandela

But there are also less tangible (though not less important, in my mind), advantages: bilingual people are often able to empathize, or connect with others, in ways monolingual people have trouble doing. This is because you cannot really become bilingual without exposure to another culture, and that exposure allows you to see the world in new and different ways.

These are the cultural or emotional advantages of growing up bilingual, which I think are only going to grow in importance over the coming generations.

Early days… and success!

What is the equivalent
of “love at first sight”
when applied to a new
person in your child’s

The early days with a new aupair are always interesting, in that both parties have so much to learn about one another.

You both presumably have a good feeling about each other, from prior conversations and exchanges. You might have a contract, outlining tasks and responsibilities on both sides. You probably have high hopes that the experience is going to be a success.

But none of those actually prepares you for living together, and so those first days are a bit of a dance. You ask questions, you try to gauge what the other person really likes and when they are simply being polite. You tiptoe a bit to get a feeling for each other’s personal space.

And then, there is that first meeting between the aupair and the child(ren), which can, to tell the truth, be a little nerve-wracking.

Why? Because children are, let’s face it, small bubbles of sincerity. They feel what they feel, in whatever language they feel it in, so anything can happen in that meeting, and, like it or not, that first impression can go a long way to foreshadowing the next few months.

And then it comes, that moment when the au pair smiles, crouches beside your child and says something quietly to them, and you see your young child beam at them and run to their room to bring back some toy to show them. As parents, we release a bit of that breath we’d been holding.

There are still a lot of things to learn about each other, but you suddenly have the feeling it’s all going to work out great.