What do you do when you’re 19, broke, and need to learn French fast prior to a semester in Paris?
“Au-pairing…?” my friend suggests. A vision floats into my mind: Me, in a straw hat, weaving my way through sun-dappled fields with mountains in the background. Adorable olive-skinned children race ahead. I’m eating ice-cream and carrying a picnic basket. Laughter fills the alpine air.
Fast-forward three months and I’m on a TGV to La Rochelle, trying not to throw up. It is Bastille Day and I haven’t slept, having stayed up all night at one of Paris’s notorious ‘Firemen’s Balls’. As the train tilts through the French countryside, I try to banish from my mind the regret-tinged memories of downing vodka on stage and peeing in an alley, and try to think wholesome and responsible thoughts.
Three punishing hours later I step onto the platform and look around, not really knowing what to do. A sullen-looking girl waves me over. I follow her to where a beautiful woman is waiting with two more girls. She shrieks and kisses me on both cheeks, chattering away in fast French which buzzes angrily around my head. My alcohol-soaked brain hammers at my skull. Smiling enthusiastically, I try not to breathe on her. When we get to the car I try to open the driver’s door. I suspect it’s going to be a long summer.
As it turned out, it was. But it was also terrifying, nerve-racking, eye-opening, and weirdly liberating. I laughed a lot (mainly too loudly, at jokes I didn’t understand), ate a lot, and learned a lot. Particularly about looking after foreign children in someone else’s house, when you yourself are just a clueless idiot. For example:
1) Be overly nice
Even if you don’t have the foggiest idea of what’s happening, smile. Don’t be afraid of making mistakes with the language, whatever it is, and always offer to help with the washing up. When people tell jokes, do the polite thing. When you are woken up at 7am on your ‘day off’ by a four-year-old hitting you in the face with your favourite pair of shoes, don’t kill her. Smile.
2) Give the children what they want (within reason)…
The niceness thing is especially important when it comes to your infant charges. When you are looking after children whose language you don’t fully understand, it’s important they like you (or at least don’t actively hate you). If this means ice-cream before lunch or an extra hour of TV, go with it. You are not there to preach, you are there to keep them alive while the real parents are at work. Also, it means you get to eat ice-cream before lunch too.
3) …But know where to draw the line
Being nice and being a pushover are different. If the little monsters go too far, don’t be afraid to inform the adults (politely, of course). A kid having a tantrum in the supermarket is embarrassing, but not life-threatening. A kid running off in the park and hiding in the forest for an hour while you frantically scream their name and imagine how you will defend yourself in court is dangerous. You need to have authority to keep everyone safe (and sane).
4) Don’t get involved in family business
One of the strangest things about au-pairing is the way you are thrust into the lives of strangers, with whom you will probably spend more time with than you would your own family. The best way to deal with this when things get awkward or heated is pretend to be invisible. If the parents and the kids are arguing, don’t feel the need to contribute your thoughts. If the adults are arguing amongst themselves, discreetly disappear. An urgent and unlikely desire to do the washing up or play with the children is usually a good excuse.
5) If they ask you how many Beatles songs you know, lie
Being British can have its disadvantages. Sitting at the family piano trying to remember the words to ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ as Monsieur Bragard enthusiastically strummed the guitar and family friends tapped their feet expectantly, I wished desperately that I’d pretended to have never heard of the Beatles (or that I was dead). Cultural stereotypes will follow you wherever you’re from… Just smile.
Au-Pairing, Do it!
-Learn a language
-Become a guiding light / memorable nanny to the little ones
-Free room and board
-And once again, travel.
18-26 years old
Minimum 200 hours non-family practical childcare experience
Have completed at least year 10 of high school
No Criminal Record
Willing to spend a year with foreign family
Stand out and get notice eligibility
Diploma of Community Services
Bachelor of Teaching
Bachelor of Education – Early Childhood Education
Things that you’ll most likely experience at all services
Need childcare and character references
Medical Background check
Criminal Background check
Expect to be interviewed by an expert interviewer which will determine your skills and interest (be sure to highlight them during the Q&A).
Photo by chericbaker