Recently a frustrated host mom called to report something that happened with her au pair.  She had told the new au pair to wash the kids’ faces after lunch.  Shortly after she saw that their hands and clothes were covered in mac & cheese. She couldn’t understand why the au pair had only washed the kids’ faces!  What is this?  Is it laziness?  Is it poor English? Is it lack of common sense? What’s going on?

Before we jump to an unhappy conclusion, it’s important to begin by giving the benefit of the doubt.  In my experience, au pairs sometimes take instruction literally, especially in the beginning when language skills are new and au pair and host mom are only beginning to understand the other’s style.  It’s important to be specific and concrete when giving direction. The au pair may be thinking that she doesn’t want to overstep a boundary that in her culture dictates respect for the person in a position of higher power. In the U.S., we welcome initiative, and in this case would have expected the au pair to look beyond the words, “wash the kids’ faces” and include washing hands and changing soiled shirts.

But not everything between people from other countries is about cultural differences, so it’s important to open a conversation, give the au pair permission to use her initiative and make some decisions on her own. It’s important to remember that it generally takes 6-8 weeks for the au pair to adjust to her life with a host family and for both of them to adjust to living together.