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Get paid to travel: become an au pair

Are the long days and temper tantrums worth it for free travel and home comforts? We think so...

Susie Maggie Thorne

Weekend adventures, immersion in a culture and a steady wage. Becoming an au pair abroad allows you to live like a local and really experience a country. Sound ideal? Well it is pretty great, but if you think it's an easy ride, think again. This is not a holiday.

Who can do it?

Anybody who's good with kids; male or female, young or old.
  • Positions can range from a month to two years, so it can be quite a commitment.
  • Previous childcare experience is obviously desirable. This can range from babysitting to community stuff or having your own family!
  • You don't necessarily need a driver's licence. Some families prefer one, some don't need you to drive.

What you'll need...

Adaptability: Just as each au pair is different, so are the families. Working with children is unpredictable and you should be able to play one minute while helping with homework the next.

Energy: This doesn't mean you have to run around like you've had ten espressos before 9am. Children are incredibly intuitive – as well as incredibly sneaky – and they will pick up if you're feeling lack lustre. Everyone has off days but leave it at the metaphorical door.

Confidence: With children, confidence equals authority. If kids see a weakness they'll see how far they can push it. Don't let your fledglings call the shots.

What to expect?

There's usually some sort of schedule in place. Families who have had au pairs before normally have a daily structure set out which makes your life easier.

Day to day, expect to be doing creative activities, playing outside and helping with homework. Try and bring some variety to it to keep them interested. There are websites with good ideas for activities based on age range (my favourite is Fisher Price which has great ideas for kids under ten) and research the area for suitable parks etc.

Often non-English-speaking countries like a native English-speaker to help with language skills.

Weekly hours depend on your chosen country. Australia averages 30 while au pairs who travel to the USA may do as many as 45.

Some families ask for a little bit of housework too but this is minimal. You're there for the children, not as a cleaner.

Set out responsibilities and expected hours beforehand.

How to find the perfect family

The key to success. If you're flexible with destination, it's easier to find the perfect family. Many travellers have a very specific destination in mind before they go and in that case you may have to compromise.

My biggest tip? Make sure there's a mutual respect. Au pair comes from the French “at par” or “equal to” so enforce your status as an equal adult. If the parents don't show you respect, you can be sure that their children won't. Set barriers before you go to make sure your expectations are the same.

It sounds obvious, but make sure the family fits with your lifestyle. There are some things you don't have to compromise on such as religion, sexuality and eating habits ie vegetariansism/veganism, which are non-negotiable. You want to feel safe and comfortable and so do your host family. All parties should be aware of these important things.

Location is key...

Only you can make the most of your location but somewhere with great connections is a plus. Being able to get a train/bus/cycle to the next city can make the difference between a normal weekend and a mini-adventure. You could be in a city, town or countryside so plan accordingly.

Pros:

  • It's cheap – food and board are taken care of.
  • Being a local – explore the country as a native would.
  • Security – a warm bed and running water to go home to. Support from your host family is invaluable when you're feeling lonely/homesick.
  • Get involved – family outings on days off can be the most fun. They know all the best places after all.
  • You're in the deep end – you'll be totally immersed in the culture. There's no better way to experience a country than to get stuck in.

Cons:

  • It's hard work – don't expect to be lounging round the pool while the kids entertain themselves.
  • Your schedule is rarely flexible, especially if set by the parents' working hours.
  • Getting lonely – although your host family should feel like friends if you've picked the right one, it can be hard to meet people. Try and find an au pair network in your area and socialise.



Essential info

Most important – ASK: Consider everything. Make sure you have your own room, days off, set hours, internet access. These parents are giving you full responsibility of their children. They should ask you a million questions to make sure you're perfect and you should do the same. It's a big commitment. Skype so that you can get real reactions to your questions and answers.

Wages: They pay: room and board, everything for the children and family outings. You pay: for your own things in your own time. Wages in America and Australia are at the higher end of the scale whereas Italy pays as little as €70 per week.

Visas: Work visas vary widely depending on where you go and come from. Some countries have working holiday schemes such as Australia and New Zealand while America requires you obtain a J1 visa through a registered agency. Visa laws are strict. Failure to adhere to the conditions of your visa is illegal, so don't do it.

Establish boundaries: Ambiguous 'office hours' can be awkward. It's rarely 9-5 but you should be clear about work and personal time. First time au pairs can get taken advantage of so honesty and boundaries are key.

I wish I'd known before I went...

1. You need to establish authority although it feels counter-intuitive to shout at shout somebody else's children. Every family has their own way of disciplining and continuity's important.

2. What I wanted from the trip. It can make the difference between OK and life-changing.

3. How difficult being a parent is. You'll have tough days but get a good night's sleep. Look forward to pay day, a lie-in and an adventure at the weekend.

4. To organise the day. Wake up with some idea of what you'll do otherwise they children will get restless and you'll feel overwhelmed.

5. That I'd get lonely; language barriers can be hard to get over.

6. Why do they want an au pair? If it's because their children are 'difficult', steer clear. If it's for an extra hand, you don't dictate the day. If it's for sole responsibility while parents are at work, prepare for being left along with the little tykes.

7. One child's bedtime is another child's dinner time. If they say you work until the children's bedtime, establish when this is. Different countries have different customs.

8. It's great experience! Being in a position of responsibility, independence and  adaptability is great experience for future jobs!

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