A common misconception is that au pair is just a fancier term for a nanny. This isn’t the case, however. Au pair is actually an official term given to a foreign childcare provider who meets certain qualifications that were set out by the United States Information Agency (USIA) in 1986. The Au Pair Program was created as a cultural give-and-take exchange program where young women (typically, though the act doesn’t preclude young men applicants) between 18 and 26 come to the United States and live in and become part of their hosts’ extended family while caring for their little ones. The direct French translation of au pair is “on the par” or “equal” – referring to the au pair’s status as part of the family.
Here are a few things families consider when deciding if an au pair is right for them:
Do They Want Another Family Member?
The basis of the Au Pair Program is to enhance the caregiver’s exposure to the family’s culture, as well as benefit from sharing their background with the children. In fact, the au pair contract specifies that they agree to treat their new hire as they would a family member, including them in family dinners, trips and gatherings or outings. This can tighten the au pair-child/au pair-parent bond, but if the family is more concerned with their privacy or is uncomfortable sharing their space, they will need to think this through before making the commitment.
Au Pairs Don’t Do Windows
Au pairs do not participate in any household duties not directly connected to caring for the child or children. That means there is no “can you pop in that load of laundry” or “I’m running late, would you mind hitting the store and starting dinner” allowed when you host an au pair. Au pairs are also prohibited from working more than 10 hours per day, with a max of 45 hours per week. Families that need someone who can take on housework or work longer hours need to take that into consideration, since the program has restrictions in place regarding legally offering bonuses or overtime on the side if they are in a pinch.
Opting for an au pair could save families over the course of the year compared to the costs of employing a full-time nanny. However, they will need to pay the majority of the annual cost up front to cover placement, airfare and program fees. Although a small weekly stipend is due to the au pair, as well as small costs toward education, the total still falls short of what they may spend for a full-time nanny – especially if they are in need of and legally paying their nanny overtime as required by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Fair Labor Standards Act.
Much as the Banks children pined for Mary Poppins after the wind blew east, families might face similar sadness when their babies or children fall in love with their au pair only to have her 12-month program come to an end. Fortunately, extensions are possible when applied for a full month before the initial expiration and can extend to a maximum of two years’ care. Au pairs must acquire a J1 visa and renew that during the second year, should the family want to travel outside the US during the extension.
Au Pairs Do Their Homework
Another part of the Au Pair Program is the requirement to provide the au pair with post-secondary education while in their home. Helping the au pair enroll in and successfully complete a minimum of six hours of academic credit in a US college level institution means an investment of their time and arranging their schedule to accommodate the schooling. Host families are also required to contribute up to $500 toward those costs. Should a family want to extend the au pair’s time with the family, they need to ensure this schooling requirement is fulfilled before applying in the 11th month. They will also need to repeat the minimum six hours of academic credit during the second year of the au pair’s time with the family.
Since au pairs might not have the early childhood degrees and experience that some domestic nannies carry, parents who want an experienced provider may opt for a nanny instead. As part of applying for a visa, au pairs must have at least 200 hours of documented experience with children (if they plan to care for children under two years of age), however, for some families that may or may not be enough.