Bridging the Cultural Divide

Creating a Win-Win for You and Your Nannie or Au Pair

By Vicki de Vries

What began on a happy note with your new au pair has suddenly turned sour. So, what went wrong?
Your new nanny seems comfortable with your child, but her eyes often fill up with tears. Now what should you do?
Your family always celebrates the holidays a certain way. But would your au pair feel comfortable celebrating with you?

cultural-divideWith some exceptions, nannies and au pairs tend to hail from overseas.  And knowing how to head off a crisis with a new au pair or a nanny can help to ensure domestic tranquility and better childcare.

Bal Agrawal of, and Jennifer Yamuder and Barbara Buxbaum, both of whom work for Cultural Care Au Pair in various areas of Westchester County, shared their insights with Inside Chappaqua on bridging the cultural divide.

Communication is the Key
Agrawal pointed out two types of people that come to the USA to work: (1) Younger people in their 20s and 30s who are willing to take risks and who are assertive; (2) People in their 40s and 50s who tend to work just as hard but may be less assertive in their personal style.

The younger group tends to be au pairs, while the older group tends to be nannies, although exceptions abound. Regardless of which age group your nanny or au pair falls into, learning how to communicate with her or him is essential. Even though s/he might speak English, keep in mind that a language barrier still exists. Basically, the advice that works for au pairs applies to nannies. The foundation for a good relationship is communication. That first step to understanding starts when you are interviewing prospective nannies or au pairs. “Be very candid and transparent about your expectations,” said Yamuder, whose family hosted five different au pairs for five years before becoming the Mid-Westchester childcare coordinator for Cultural Care Au Pairs, the largest au pair company in the U.S.

As the host family for an au pair, keep in mind that the U.S. Department of State requires au pairs to take six educational credits while staying in the country.  Guess who needs to make sure yours gets to her weekly class and also attends monthly meetings such as those that Cultural Care Au Pair holds to help au pairs socialize with each other and get updated on pertinent issues?  You!

If you have a nanny, you as the homeowner also need to be sensitive and clear in communicating expectations. Either way, you need to set the tone for your nanny or au pair.  Make her or him (yes, there are male au pairs on occasion) feel comfortable.  With an au pair, “provide a room to live in that’s warm and inviting,” said Buxbaum, and spend time getting to know your nanny or au pair, who may be homesick at first.

Bear in mind that host families also need to follow Department of State guidelines for work schedules and time off from work for their au pairs.  Agrawal, who specializes in placing nannies and housekeepers, focused on the economic gap issues: “They tend to live week to week, so remember to pay them every Friday.”

You Say, “Potato,” and I Say, “Pomme de Terre”
Several areas can easily become sources of irritation at best and hurt feelings at worst.  It pays to “recognize that some cultures encourage sharing of personal matters, while others shy away from such discussion,” explained Agrawal.

The bottom line: Expectations need to be clarified and sometimes finessed. Let’s take your expectations for the ongoing aspects of the childcare itself. Buxbaum pointed out several important areas:

1. Discipline: Are you strict or more relaxed when it comes to disciplining your children? Let your childcare helper know, since s/he might be used to a completely different level of discipline.

2. Entertainment: How much TV or computer use do you want your children to have? Be sure to explain that to your childcare helper.

3. Use of Appliances and Other Equipment: Give your childcare helper orientation on the correct use of equipment she might use.

4. Curfew: Cultures differ when it comes to curfew. Determine your au pair’s curfew, and clearly communicate that to her.

5. Driving a Car: What limitations do you have on the use of your car beyond transporting the children back and forth? Clearly explain them.

6. Phone Calling: Does your childcare worker have a limit on the number of calls s/he makes when working with your children? Clearly spell out your expectations.

7. Drinking: Keep in mind that cultures have different rules about alcohol. Expect your underage au pair or nanny to abide by the drinking laws of the United States.

8. Washing clothes: Different cultures have different expectations about clothing. Make sure you explain yours, and show your au pair how to use the washing machine properly.

9. Hygiene: Not all cultures have the same bathing habits as you and your family. (If you feel uncomfortable broaching the topic, companies like CCAP and LifeWorx can step in and handle it.)

The enrichment that comes when cultures intersect is priceless, and the memories are forever.  Former au pairs still keep in touch with Yamuder and her family, for example.

Does having an au pair or a nanny sound like too much work or responsibility? Not if you realize the impact you and your family can have on your au pair or nanny.  Host families have “a unique opportunity to spread goodwill between different cultures,” said Yamuder, whose two sons enjoyed learning about the various cultures represented by their au pairs over the years.

In fact, “at the end of the year with your au pair, open your heart to your new au pair. And try not to compare the old with the new since they will obviously be different,” said Yamuder. Vive la difference!

Vicki de Vries is a freelance writer/editor/educator living in what she calls “Westchester country.”

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