I have interviewed some great au pairs recently – people who are really keen to use their childcare skills and go and live the American Dream for a year!
It’s often clear from the moment somebody walks through the door that they are going to be really good at their job. People who arrive looking confident and sound open and friendly impress me straight away. That’s how you’re going to need to be when host families interview you and when you arrive at orientation in New York. That’s how you need to be when you meet your host family for the first time!
So being confident, open and friendly is a good starting point, but there are also other skills you need to be a good au pair. Here’s my list…
- The Fundamentals – first off, an au pair, needs to be someone who enjoys being with children, really enjoys being with children! Children are what the job is all about after all! So let’s agree that that bit is a given.
- Flexible – as an au pair, you become part of another family, not just an employee. You’re going to be working out the best way to do things and get along with your host family, so flexibility is the name of the game.
- A multi-tasker– an au pair is a teacher, a nurse, a friend, a playmate, a guardian and many other things besides. There will be days when you are feeding a baby, breaking up a fight, cooking vegetables, answering the phone and trying to leave for the school run, all at the same time. You’ll need the juggling skills of an octopus.
- A good listener – looking after children can make you laugh out loud, make you think, make you wonder. You might find yourself astonished, shocked, amused, confused and lost for words all in the space of one short conversation. Talking and listening to the children in your care is what builds your relationship. I like this advice: If you listen to their small talk, they will eventually share their big talk with you too, after all, even small talk is big talk when you are a kid.
- Understanding – kids can be quite literal sometimes, you didn’t specify exactly what clothes your five year old should put on when you said ‘go get ready for the park’ and who’s to say that a bathing suit, fairy wings and a spiderman mask isn’t suitable park attire? And nobody said not to put pancakes in the DVD player, did they?
- Creative – you’ve got a wet morning, yoghurt pots, toilet rolls, glue and glitter: junk modeling anyone? Can you make a castle out of cushions? A super hero cape out of a tea towel? You’ll also need a recipe for fairy cakes, flapjacks and smoothies up your sleeve (not literally) and know at least three ways to hide vegetables in pasta sauce.
- Patient – you are going to be repeating yourself lots and lots and lots of times, answering the same questions over and over again and putting away the same things all the time. Most things will take at least three times as long as when you do them on your own. It’s OK, relax, enjoy going at their pace and seeing the world through their eyes.
- Gentle – they’re small and however loud they might get, underneath it all they are delicate and fragile and need cuddles, even the tough guys. However…
- Tough – the advice for new infant school teachers used to be ‘Don’t smile until Christmas’, meaning, go in and show them who’s the boss right from the start, otherwise they will eat you alive. Children need to know that you’re in charge and that you’ve got everything under control…but I think smiling from the start if you’re an au pair is a really good idea…just have a firm stare in your repertoire too.
- Ready to learn – being an au pair in another country is better than being a nanny at home. You’ve got a whole new country and culture to discover and learn about. You’ll find that American kids go by slightly different rules when it comes to manners for example. You, as a Brit always use a knife and fork, say ‘thank you’ a hundred times every time you buy a coffee and you call a toilet a toilet. Your American kids are going to teach you how to eat, behave and talk properly!
- Energetic – you’re going to be really busy looking after your children and probably just as busy when you’re enjoying your time off. You are going to worth your weight in gold to your host family and they will wonder how they ever managed before you arrived. You need to be ‘you on a good day’, as they say, so keep your energy levels up, stay healthy, eat well and sleep well and make the most of every day.