- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 16, 2001

If an au pair and a host family know what to expect going into the experience, an array of miscommunication can be avoided later.

"It has to be that everyone's expectations are clear," says Paul Christianson, director of Au Pair USA. "Families shouldn't expect a lot of housework and should understand that an au pair is a young person who is going to have the desires and interests of a 20-year-old."

Au pairs, meanwhile, should understand that being an au pair is essentially a full-time child care job for minimum wage, says Ann Douglas, author of the book "The Unofficial Guide to Childcare."

"Some of the au pairs think it is going to be a little bit of child care and a lot of fun," she says. "Those mismatched expectations can ignite some firecrackers."

Talking regularly about expectations and small problems can help smooth things on both sides. Ingrid Constantine, a Reston mother of two who had a South African au pair in her home for one year, says weekly meetings helped her and her husband, as well as their au pair, discuss small matters and criticisms before they could become a big deal.

Other advice from host families:

• Write down everything there is to know about your children and your family in a manual. Having lunch or game suggestions available in print will keep the au pair from having to scramble for ideas or feel as if her hosts are constantly criticizing her.

• Treat her like a member of the family. Susan Gates, a Vienna mother of three who has had au pairs for the past decade, says her family and the young women eat together almost every night. Scott Gerke, also of Vienna, says his family usually offers to take their au pairs on vacations.

"The bottom line is it is supposed to be a cultural experience," he says.

• Set house rules — from drinking to smoking to having friends visit — firmly but without being too restrictive. Talks with the local coordinator and other host families can give parents an idea of what rules are fair.

• Understand that taking care of children all day can be a trying experience and that stress can lead to poor judgment.

"I tell the au pairs, 'If you are at all too stressed, call us and we will come home,'" says Laura Gerke. "We have established that anytime you have a problem, you call us."

• Go with your gut feeling about how well someone will fit into your home. In the typical screening process, families rank characteristics they feel are important. Nonsmoker? Someone who comes from a big family? A good athlete? Use the screening time to get as good an idea as you can via phone and e-mail about someone's personality.

If you eventually are proved wrong about the person you thought would be a good fit, don't take it personally.

"It doesn't mean you are necessarily an inappropriate host family or she is an inappropriate au pair," Mr. Christianson says.

• Au pairs are allowed to work no more than 10 hours a day and 45 hours in a week. You will have a much happier au pair if you respect that rule.

• Remember, au pairs can stay only one year. Twelve months from now will be another adjustment period for the children.

"If you have had a good year, it is hard," Mr. Christianson says. "Very often, it is traumatic when the au pair leaves. My advice is to start familiarizing them with the new au pair right away."

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