This article by Alvin Snyder was originally published by the USC Center on Public Diplomacy.

Cultural and educational exchange programs are effective public diplomacy tools because they enrich both those who go abroad and the societies they visit.


That good intention may not be the primary motivation behind the au pair childcare program the United States facilitates. This mismanaged program is being exploited and turned into more of a profitable business than cultural experience.

Au pair, French for "on par," means that the young person is on par with the American family. Young women ages 18-26 come from all around the world to care for children, become part of an American family and go to school. Meanwhile, there is an interaction between the international visitor and the hosts where each side stands to benefit from the experience.

When the program was founded in 1986, the U.S. Information Agency supervised it as an Educational and Cultural exchange.

From the beginning, the program lacked supervision and needed stronger regulations.

The biggest complaint from current au pair families is the inadequacy of the government-sanctioned sponsor agencies, which recruit, screen, train and place au pairs with American families.

Tracy Huber of West Milford, N.J., said she is happy with her present au pair, "but had to weed through a nightmare to get to this place." She and other families tried several au pairs "in a short period of time to find a suitable au pair for the children, with no support [from sponsors] once fees are locked in." Another family complained that their children "have seen five very flaky people come and go from our home."

Lisa Thostenson of Inver Grove Heights, Minn., said the same sponsoring agency matched her with three unsuitable au pairs. Although au pairs must be able to drive, "one girl was blind in one eye," said Thostenson, and "unable to drive safely; this was not disclosed." Another refused to watch the children, and not all of them spoke English, in which they are required to be proficient."

My son, who is 8, told [the au pair] he was going to play with his friend in the neighborhood," Thostenson said. "When I noticed he was gone, I asked her where he was and she had no idea…also not a clue when he was planning to return."

Before the USIA was disbanded and control of the au pair program was handed over to the State Department, it attempted to rein in the program by raising the minimum age and shortening the au pair’s childcare workweek as well as requiring them to attend class.

Congress appeared reluctant to consider any changes in the popular program. Additionally, one major au pair-sponsoring agency lobbied against the shorter work week.

The lax laws have allowed the agencies to continue making money on a flawed product. In 1992, 7,287 Western European au pairs came to the United States. Host families paid a fee of $3,500 to the agency separate from the au pair’s weekly wages. At that time, placing au pairs was a $25.5 million business. Today, there are nearly twice as many au pairs per year – 14,000 from all around the world – and the growth is reflected in the sponsors' annual fee – around $6,500. These agencies run a $91 million business and facilitate the largest childcare organization in the country.

Stiffer regulations were adopted after an 18-year old au pair from Britain, part of the U.S.-administered program, was convicted in 1997 of killing an 8-month-old boy in her care, but the Department of State still does not hold agencies accountable for au pairs that do not meet job requirements. Rather, it warns families that "having an international visitor in one’s home, and as part of the family, can be difficult for families and the au pair," and that sponsor organizations cannot guarantee the competency of the au pair. It cautions au pair families "to read the small print of your contract with the sponsor agency."

It seems families only stand for this because of the cost incentive of hiring an au pair over a domestic nanny. Huber, who shared her experiences with other au pair families on the Internet, said, "The reason these programs are so popular is because the lack of affordable childcare is like an epidemic in this country…$24,000 in daycare a year is just not affordable for us."

The annual total cost for an au pair is about $16,000 per year, while a professional nanny can cost about $10,000 more than that. Au pairs are paid a $139.05 weekly stipend by families.

By comparison, "the average compensation for nannies who work a 45-50 hour week is $350-$600 per week," said Kathleen Webb, president of Home Work Solutions, Inc., a professional nanny agency. "There are many $30,000-$50,000 [per year] professional nannies in the upscale urban markets," and this salary excludes the unemployment and social security taxes the family must cover when employing a domestic nanny.

But Myrna Alphonse, a career nanny for 16 years, thinks the cost can be worth the continuity a long-term nanny offers a child; the au pair program is only one year, so families experience frequent turnover.

Today, the au pair workweek remains at a maximum of 45 hours per week, and au pairs from ages 18 to 26 may still participate in the program. They must now complete 6 hours of academic study, and cannot be placed in a home where there is an infant less than three months "unless a parent or other responsible adult is at home." They are also required to receive "at least 8 hours of child safety and 24 hours of child development instruction" before being placed with an American family.

Despite these requirements, the State Department must become even more involved with the oversight of a rapidly growing childcare program. Au pairs should be at least 21 years of age and the agencies must be held accountable for training that right now is poor to non-existent, according to numerous disgruntled au pair families. The State Department should grade sponsors based on surveys of au pair family experiences and post those grades on the government’s au pair Web site. Families can then select the most popular and best-qualified au pair sponsors. And finally, the department must show a strong commitment to making this primarily a cultural exchange program rather than a moneymaking one.

Neither childcare nor American public diplomacy is something the U.S. government needs to scrimp on.


Anonymous said...

Scrimping on childcare = BAD.

So why do so many people do it? Not just with au pairs but with twisted & decrepit nannies?

If it makes you ill to think of spending time alone with your nanny-if that is beneath you- then ask yourself why you are okay with leaving your child with this person.

Anonymous said...

Well said ...
Clearly anyone desiring to hire an aupair needs to be extra cautious and even if hiring a nanny via an agency, the nanny needs to have the credentials and the character to fit in with the family unit. Hiring a ginormous blob from whatever country who doesn't even speak English should not be considered nanny material.

vi said...

stop mixing up au pairs and nannies. i wouldn't leave my yorkshire terrier with an au pair. my nanny is a sizable blob but i trust her with my life.

Anonymous said...

This article is very good at putting across the point of view of parents. As an au-pair I met other young girls that I wouldn't trust with my children (if I had them), however I also met young girls who had been promised a cultural exchange and then been placed with families who expected them to cook meals for the family and take on ever-increasing housekeeping responsibilities too. It is a program that is making the agencies money to the detriment of children being cared for by inexperienced young women and also to the detriment of the au pairs who, often times away from their homes for the first time, are exploited as cheap child care and not as an exchange participant

Anonymous said...

It seems you concur with the article then. It's too bad that some parents are less than hospitable and expect even more for their cheap salary output. It could be a wonderful thing if it operated as conceived. Obviously, it is a rarity when it works as it was intended. Too bad for all involved.

Anonymous said...

Until this program corrects its deficiencies, I would recommend giving it a pass.

Anonymous said...

We have an au pair and also had to switch after the first placement was a disaster. We now have someone who is great, though her English is rudimentary. Anyway, I just wanted to object to the description of the cost. In fact, the au pair program requires $16,000 plus room and board. For most families, there is also the cost of a car and insurance for the au pair. So, more like $24,000.

Sadly, our experience with nannies was not great, and it certainly didn't correspond with the rates they charged. Our most expensive nanny was our worst.

Anyway, given that the cost was almost identical, we opted for the program because we wanted the kids (not babies) to be exposed to another language and culture, and were happy to be able to set hours as we needed them.

Anonymous said...

If you think the cost was almost "identical" then perhaps you got what you paid for in your nannies.

Anonymous said...

Truer words have never been spoken!

You get what you pay for!

Anonymous said...

i'm from australia and will be departing for america next month to work as an au pair with cultural care. i am a qualified childcare worker and i decided to join the au pair program because i love children and love the idea of being apart of an american family and because i get the opportunity to study. i'm a little dissapointed with people saying they wouldn't leave their dog with an au pair. lol especially since i love my dog.

Anonymous said...

It's sad.
But, you go ahead and make a difference. Love the children and care for them. Don't listen to what the others are saying. They don't know you personally. We are Americans. We're spoiled and we tend to be like that. I hope the experience is a great one for you and the family. But, be forewarned, WE ARE SPOILED. And the family may expect more from you than you bargain for. Some of the American families are going to want you to be a nanny, a housekeeper, a teacher, a personal chef and a taxi. Not all but some. And if you are good at it, you're worth a lot more than you're getting. If you don't believe me check the ads, sweetie. You get alot more for a lot less. But, you'd better be good!! Some of us go through nannies like socks!! lol.

Anonymous said...

Good luck to the Australian aupair. I pray you get a good, wholesome family and that your stay is enlightening, enjoyable and peaceful. Cheers.

Anonymous said...

Yes, there are inconsiderate families and less than qualified au pairs, but there are also some marvelous success stories. I know, because we lived one.

We had an au pair through Au Pair in America and it was a wonderful experience all around. Our au pair was a young German woman with substantial preschool teaching experience. SHe was professional, loving, responsible, and frankly the best nanny we ever had. We treated her like a professional as well, respected her time off, never asked her to work extra hours, took her on lots of cultural excursions and travel, kept lines of communication open, etc..

No, she didn't get rich on the $200/week (plus room and board) that we paid, but she actually saved plenty of money for travelling around the US for a month after the year she spent with us; her ENglish improved tremendously; and she broadened her cultural horizons significantly.

We keep in regular touch with her and send each other holiday presents and cards. Last spring, we were able to meet her for a few days in Paris. She is and will always be like part of our extended family. . .If and when she gets married, we will be at that wedding!

If we had not moved to a different city and a smaller home, I would happily have continued with the au pair program.

5 under 5 said...

I just wanted to say that I have 5 kids (crzy I know). We had a n au par who stayed with us 2 years..they can extend for up to 2 years and now we have new Au pair. Maybe we were just fortunate but they have both been great. One from Peru and now from Nicaragua. The new one does not speak a lot of English..but we get by on my spenglish and her fast learning!
She seems to truly love my kids. I think having them live with you gives you more oppertunity to really get to know them.
We are really open with our nannys..let them have girlfriends over, borrow the car (which my husband gives them about 20 hours worth of lessons) and generally join in with the family.
When i realized how poor her English was I hired a Spanish speaking babysitter to come over and help her for a few days. Now they are best friends and hang out at the cafe every night.
It is always scary and fustrating to leave your kids with some one else.
Here in NYC i see all types of nanny's and some barely speak to their little charges. They sit on the edge of the playground and when the kids cry they yell at them or ignore them. It is heartbreaking.
I have a lot of Stay at home mom friends, they tell me how great she is with the kids when they see her at the park or the library. She has no idea who these ladies are so I doubt she puts on an act. I pop in at home all the time..I work part time...and she has Spanish music playing and she is laughing and on the floor playing with the kids. I love this program it makes available reliable kind help for people who otherwise couls never afford any help.

Anonymous said...

Here's my 2 cents worth:

To our utter surprise, our au pair betrayed our trust and used her time in America to find many, many men for sex. She took our car to unauthorized places to meet these men. We found out about all this by accident. She was sent home by the company. When she was fired, she had no idea why meeting men on the internet was inappropriate and dangerous for the children.

I would place a tracking device in the car and monitor the internet and MYSPACE.

toriboomsma said...

As a local childcare coordinator for an au pair service, I know my families have had great success with their au pairs, in fact almost all ask their current au pair to stay the extra year.
Our au pairs are informed of what to expect when the come to the states 7are instructed to tell me if the host family is pushing the limits (i.e. - doing full maid service, etc) I then step in to resolve the matter.
These students come from all over the world to experience America & with a love of children. They have extensive childcare experience, several referances & most of the time, a college degree.
I believe that hosting an au pair is not a "cheap way out" of getting childcare. You are enriching the lives of so many when you welcome an au pair into your home.
Sure, there are ones who don't work out. They are still young, & this may be their first time such a long way from home. But I think most families have had great success, or the program wouldn't still be in place.
Just my 2 cents