What is an Au Pair?

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Kids' Work Chicago child care professional holding baby

Most people in the US understand what a nanny is, whether they are a live-in nanny, or if they come in on a certain schedule to mind the children. But an au pair is a unique alternative to even a live-in nanny, and could be a good fit for your family’s needs and interests. Some people use the terms interchangeably, but they are different types of caregivers.

So what’s an au pair?

An au pair is a young visitor to the US, aged 18-26, who comes from overseas on a cultural exchange visa to live with an American family for up to 2 years and helps with childcare and light housework in exchange for food, their own room, and a weekly stipend/“paycheck”. They must be prepared to provide up to 45 hours of childcare per week (but not more than 10 hours per day), and must complete 6 credit hours in designated courses during the program year (host families pay up to $500 toward this). They are required to have one and a half days off a week, and a weekend off per month.

The French term “au pair” means “at par” or equal to, meaning that the relationship is intended to be that of equals, and that they are taken in as a member of the family instead of an employee. They will generally eat with the family and accompany them on the family’s usual activities, outings, and trips, though evenings will typically be more private family time, during which time the au pair may head to their room or go out with friends and immerse themselves in and enjoy experiencing their foreign surroundings.

What are an au pair’s responsibilities?

The au pair’s main duties are taking care of and entertaining the kids, teaching them the au pair’s native language if that is part of the deal, and a combination of child care and light housework duties as pertain to the children (getting the kids up, getting them ready and cooking breakfast for them, tidying up their rooms, doing their laundry, etc.). However, they are not responsible for housework that doesn’t relate to the kids, kids’ rooms, or common living areas.

Au pairs must have completed their secondary school education, have a valid driver’s license and no criminal record, speak English at least proficiently, come to the US through one of the approved agencies, and enter the US on a J-1 visa.

An au pair usually must commit to a full year’s stay in the USA, then generally go back to their home country at the end of the year, however it’s possible that their stay may be extended for another 6, 9, or 12 months. The extended time in the US can be spent with the same family, or they may move to a different family, often located in a different region of the country so the au pair can experience a new area. They can also be an au pair again if they successfully complete the program, then live outside the US for at least 2 years after finishing their initial au pair program.

How does an au pair compare to a nanny?

While a nanny is a professional care giver, usually from your town or country, who cares for children as a career, an au pair may or may not have previous experience caring for children. However, they can only be placed in a family with an infant under 3 months old if a parent/adult caregiver is also home and maintains full responsibility for the infant, and can only be placed in a family with a child under 2 if they have at least 200 hours of experience caring for children under 2.

While both types of caregivers can take care of your kids, the flexibility, economical advantage, and especially the opportunity for a cross-cultural exchange for both your kids and family as well as for another young person from another part of the world, can really make an au pair a good alternative to hiring a regular nanny.

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