Au pairs, by definition, come from another country; it’s a
special visa program run partly by the U.S. State Department (DOS), allowing
young people to spend up to two years in the U.S. living with a family and
providing childcare in return for a small salary. (See "Should You Hire a Foreign Au Pair to Care for Your Children?" for a review of the basic program.)
Because of the geographical barriers, host families don’t often get to
meet prospective au pairs in person before making their choice.
Even after the intermediary agency has gone over your
application and preselected likely candidates for you, making your final
choices by reading paperwork and talking over the phone can be a challenging
task. And the stakes are high: The person you choose will be not only taking
care of your children, but living in your house, sitting at your dinner table,
and riding in your car on family vacations.
Some parents choose to fly to the au pair’s country for an
interview; or at least learn how to use Skype or a similar online video chat
program. If you travel, you should be able to arrange with the au pair agency
to meet more than one prospect during your trip.
Some parents even take a trip before signing up with an au
pair agency, meet a young girl that they like, and then contact an agency to
arrange for her to come (referred to as a prematch). The agencies aren’t enthusiastic
about such arrangements, however, because both the au pairs and the parents
tend to regard the agency as a trivial intermediary in the process, which
reduces their authority in carrying out the various arrangements and resolving
any disputes that later arise.
If you cannot arrange a trip to meet au pair candidates in
person, here are some steps for making the most of the materials and screening
methods available to you:
review the agency-provided written materials. The intermediary agency
should give you a packet on each candidate (exactly what is in that packet depends
on the agency). These materials will not tell you everything, but are an
important starting point. For one thing, they can help you develop questions
for when you talk with the candidate. Consider also whether parts of the
written materials leave room for fudging. For example, if the application asks
the au pair to check “yes” or “no” as to whether he or she can drive, anyone
minimally capable of handling a car will probably check “yes” – so you’ll want
to ask followup questions, particularly if the au pair will be driving your
what type of personality you are seeking. You not only want someone who
will be good with your children, but with whom you can comfortably live.
- Have more
than one phone conversation. Many agencies will, in fact, arrange for you
to make phone calls to au pair candidates free of charge. During your first
conversation, make clear that you will not be making a decision during that
call. Start by telling the applicant about your family. Then ask about the basics,
such as her experience with children, motivation, and so forth. Don’t worry
about going over matters that appear to have been covered in the application.
Ask about the candidate’s friends and family and likes and dislikes, to get a
sense of what he or she is like as a person. If you feel good about the conversation,
sleep on it, then develop follow-up questions for the next one. Keep talking
until you are comfortable that you have a good sense of the person and have
resolved any doubts or prickles of intuition. Make sure both you and your
spouse or partner are involved in these conversations, even if it’s not at the
- Write up
and send the candidate your house rules. For example, you might specify no
overnight boyfriends, no having friends visit while you are out of the house,
and no partying all night. If this makes the au pair feel like life is being
overly restricted, it is better if you each make your decision accordingly.
- Talk with
any previous host families. Your best candidate may be someone who is
already in the United States and switching from another host family. Some
arrangements just don’t work out, so don’t automatically assume the problem was
with the au pair. But if it was, you will, of course, want to hear about it. Hopefully,
the agency you have chosen will allow this. In other cases, the au pair might
have been an au pair before, and maxed out her time in the United States on the
visa, then waited for two years, after which the person is allowed to come back
again as an au pair.
For more information, see Nolo’s book, Nannies & Au
Pairs; Hiring In-Home Child Care.