Tag Archives au-pair

Can I play too?

Yellow bike on a yellow wall
A Yellow bike on a yellow wall in Verona on the way to my new Italian home.

I’m babysitting. I guess that’s the best word for it because if I say I’m an au pair it suggests that I’m doing a lot more than I actually am. Either way, whatever the terminology that you choose to use, this afternoon it’s me and an Italian kid.

It seems we’re surprisingly similar: both independent and introverted. The kid’s got a powerful sense of focus, such that I can imagine most adults envying him. I watch him play with his lego. He follows the instructions with impeccable attention to detail. He rarely makes a mis-step.

What’s clear however, is that he’s going to do this on his own. He was reluctant to let me even open the packet, let alone touch his bricks. But I can understand. When I’m working on a project I often find interference terribly frustrating. I also hate asking for help.

However, when you’re in this position of watching over a kid, and preferably bonding with said kid, you rather want them to play with you. Nobody likes not being wanted as a play companion, least of all the new babysitter who doesn’t speak the language and is reliant on the kid, who knows a handful of English words, to say when he needs anything.

So I spent a good long while in this predicament. I know the pleasure of peace and quiet and time to play alone, but as the responsible adult I want to be responding to something.

The good news was that the kid, who’s terribly polite, didn’t seem to have any objection to me being around. There’s no crying for an absent parent or telling me to go away. If anything, he mostly seemed mildly bemused by me.

To satisfy my need to parent, I found ways to make myself useful. I got him a drink – I don’t want the parents coming home and the kid complaining of a headache. I sliced an apple and gave it to him. He ate it quietly, whilst continuing with his lego. I sat on the sofa and read my book.

And then, a few hours later, he suddenly decided that he wanted attention. The change was remarkable. Suddenly he wanted to go outside and play football with me.

Football? Yes! Something I can do!

The kids don’t have to love you and other thoughts on being an au-pair

Being an Au-PairThe kids don’t have to love you.

They do, typically, become very much attached, but you can’t force it. There’s a certain sense of discipline that’s required. You’re not their best friend, you’re the responsible adult. An overdose of flattery isn’t going to help, nor is allowing them more sweets, TV time or access to a tablet.

Sometimes they are adorable, wanting cuddles and happy to quietly play a game. Then some very short time later, they can be causing a commotion by sticking their tongue out at you when they thought their parents weren’t watching. Tears ensue. You wonder what you did to deserve such a change in character. Where did the nice kid go?

The truth is, you’re a temporary wall between the child and their parents. When things are going good, this is a wall that gives the child a bit of private freedom from their omnipotent gods. When things are not so good, they are going to play bulldozer or try scrambling over the top of you.

Parents love you of course, while they’re enjoying their moment of space. Peace and quiet is a luxury. But when they panic that they no longer have complete control, they act all sorts of unpredictable. Those I’ve lived with have generally been very good at demonstrating their gratitude, but I’ve known numerous au pairs whose families constantly have au pairs, and so feel taken for granted.

The kids, when they love you, see you as theirs, a precious playmate. But when they hate you, you’re a second-rate commander. You’re an adult, but unlike teachers and parents you’ve failed to be omnipotent. Younger kids follow the stance of the older kids. Saying no to their requests can fire you from best friend to evil overlord in an irrational second. You have to not take it personally. These are kids, they lack empathy or perspective. They don’t know if their words and actions will hurt you, but they’re curious. So, guess what, they’re going to do all they can to ignite a reaction. And then, if successful, perhaps they’ll laugh.

But some days, they’ll curl up on the sofa and ask what you’re reading. And they’ll listen as you talk of philosophy in a language they don’t understand. Some days, they’ll take the drawings you do to school, and you’ll realise that their teacher knows your name, as do their friends and their friends’ parents. This sweet child who refused to put their shoes on has told everyone they know about you. Occasionally, when the school gates open, they’ll scream your name and run, leaping at you with a hug disproportionate to their size.

And then, one day, in a final act of betrayal that somehow feels crueller than any middle of the street tantrum a five-year-old could throw, you’ll pack your bags and leave.

Kids