For the last month I have been living in San Pedro de Alcántara (a small town on the edge of Marbella), and working with a family here as an au-pair. The idea of being an au-pair had appealed to me for some time before I started, so when I finally got a tempting offer from a family, I said yes with no hesitation. I was so relieved to have found somewhere I liked I didn’t even consider what it was to be an au-pair, and how I might prepare myself for the role. I didn’t so much as google ‘tips for au-pairs’. This, dear readers, was a mistake.
Hence the last four weeks have been something of a baptism of fire for me, struggling through and learning as I go. So I’ve compiled a list of a few things I think every au-pair should think about before they take the (snotty, tantrummy, exhausting) plunge…
The first thing to do before you go is to get as much information as possible about your chosen family and their daily lives. Establish set working hours and weekly pocket money; don’t be shy about asking questions and setting boundaries, as it’ll be very much worth your while in the end. If you’re going to be attempting to teach a language find out exactly how much the children already speak, and how quickly they pick things up. These things are the basics really, which any good au-pairing website will advise you to do (incidentally I used www.aupairworld.com, which I would heartily recommend), but still need time and thought. For tips on how to pick the right family for you, take a look at this, and for advice on what to pack have a gander around here.
2. DON’T STRESS
For the first couple of weeks of my stay here I worried constantly about whether I was doing the right thing. Was I teaching enough English? Was I dealing with difficult moments in the right way? Were the kids learning? Did the family like me? The truth is that au-pairing is not an exact art and involves different things in different situations. The key is to not worry; you have been invited to spend a while with a family, sharing your culture and enjoying theirs. You are not expected to be a professional nanny or teacher, and above all do not need to give yourself stress over what is meant to be an enriching experience for all. If anything is bothering you, you can always bring it up with your host family, and don’t worry about taking your time in figuring things out. If you’re worried about the first meeting with your family visit here for a few ideas on how to get through the first day.
3. REMEMBER CHILDREN HAVE SELECTIVE MEMORIES
It may feel rough having to get strict with kids in those necessary moments, but the great thing with children is that though they may be moody and difficult, or fighting and crying one moment, a few minutes later they’ll be smiling and laughing – seemingly completely unaware of their previous promises that they hate you and never want to be happy again. They will also forget the hundred times their demands are refused, but as soon as you give in will remember it forever, and from then on increase their pestering tenfold… so stand your ground and don’t be phased by tears and grizzling.
4. REMEMBER YOU’RE NOT A PARENT
This sounds like an odd one, but once you’ve spent a lot of time with your host family’s children and grow fond of them, it’s very easy to start feeling responsible for every aspect of their lives. After a while I found myself worrying about whether the children were doing well enough at school, if they were learning to be good people, and what I could to do to improve things. And this is definitely a mindfield au-pairs shouldn’t have to traverse. It may be difficult at times, but you have to bear in mind that after the months you spend with these children, you will leave and carry on with your life. Their parents will have their own prerogatives in their way of bringing up their kids; take a step back and remind yourself that you are not responsible for who they will be in the future.
5. TAKE EVERY OPPORTUNITY TO HAVE FUN
If you’re happy and having a good time, the family will probably be happy too. Try and meet other au-pairs in the area (Facebook groups are a good bet for this), and make sure your free time isn’t eaten up with organising stuff for the kids, or trying to make a good impression with doing housework that isn’t your responsibility. Go out and explore, and benefit from the unique position of living for an extended time in a community different from your own. Also remember kids can tell if you’re not enjoying something; being an au-pair is a brilliant opportunity to be a big kid and do all the things you did when you were younger and secretly still love – building lego, playing with toy cars, finger painting, running around and screaming for no reason, etc. The more genuinely enthusiastic you are about something, the more the kids’ll be into it too, and happy, absorbed children are actually a joy to be around (and don’t have tantrums…).
All this may seem a bit intense and daunting, but really I cannot express how much I have gained from being an au-pair. Though some moments are definitely difficult and testing in a way I’ve not experienced before, living with a native family is such a rewarding way to immerse yourself in a different culture. And it can be a lot of fun. So if you’re thinking about doing it but are hesitating on the threshold, just jump in and give it a go – you won’t regret it!