Help is on the Way

The ins and outs of au pairs.

Whether they work outside the home or want some personal time, parents often need a little help. Filling that need for thousands of families each year, au pairs solve three of the biggest childcare challenges: quality, cost and convenience.

What is an Au Pair?

By definition, au pairs are foreigners, 18-26 years of age, who help with children and perform light household duties in return for full board, lodging and pocket money. How is an au pair different from a nanny? While nannies might consider their work to be a long-term career, the primary goals of au pairs are continuing education and participating in cultural exchange. They eat with the family and join in some of the usual family activities, such as outings and weekend trips. Host families treat their au pairs like part of the clan, and there is an underlying layer of trust that goes with that feeling. As Craig, an experienced host dad, confirms: You know you will have coverage for the kids from someone who knows the kids, the house and the family lifestyle. There’s a great sense of security there.

Duties of Au Pairs

As set by the U.S. Department of State, au pairs can legally work 45 hours a week and up to 10 hours per day. They also must have 1.5 consecutive days off each week and one full weekend off every month. However, your family can divide the hours in a way that works best for you. For instance, if you have school-age children, an au pair can get the children ready and drive them to school in the morning, as well as prepare the children’s dinner and help them with homework in the evening. You can also expect the au pair to perform light housework tasks related to the children, such as doing the children’s laundry, ironing their clothes, vacuuming the house and keeping the kitchen clean. Parents are not supposed to ask au pairs to do heavy housekeeping, like washing the windows.

What’s the Cost Involved?

The host family must provide the au pair with a private bedroom in the home, granting personal space to relax at the end of the day. Families hosting au pairs are required to pay pocket money of $195.75 per week and an allowance up to $500 toward the cost of the academic coursework. The contract must last a minimum of one year. During that period, au pairs are entitled to two weeks of paid vacation. In addition to these costs, host families typically pay an au pair agency an application fee and a program fee, which varies from $6,200 to $7,850 depending on the agency used.

How Do Families Apply?

The U.S. Department of State administers au pair programs. Participating families and au pairs must work with one of the currently 14 approved agencies. Each au pair agency is generally committed to finding a well-suited match for your family. You can select an au pair based on criteria such as age, nationality, childcare experience, gender and additional abilities, including swimming or playing piano.

Nowadays, many parents are finding ideal candidates themselves. According to host mom Sara, after using three au pairs selected among an agency’s applicants, her family decided to use a website dedicated to the search process. Sara’s family preferred this as the parents enjoyed posting a profile and screening applicants who were interested in the position. Sara says she also liked that she could search on more criteria that she did not find with her reliance on some agencies.

If a family wants to bring a candidate to the United States to be an au pair, the family must use an agency to do it legally. Agencies usually offer pre-match discounts of $500-$700.

Of course, just as au pairs have to fulfill various requirements, hosts must show a readiness to accept a foreign person and treat the au pair as an equal member of the family. After all, the core meaning of au pair is working together as a pair.