10 Interesting Facts About the Etymology of Au Pair

Though they fulfill childcare needs in a similar manner to nannies or babysitters, au pairs are in a classification all their own. Au pairs are similar to foreign exchange students, in the sense that they are part of a formal program that places them with a host family in a foreign country. During their stay, they are expected to complete course work while providing childcare and light housekeeping duties for their host family. Families provide the au pair with a small allowance and are expected to view the au pair as an extension of their family, rather than a hired worker. Here are some of the more interesting facts about the origin of the word and the role of au pairs.

  1. Literal Definition – The literal definition of the French term “au pair” means “on a par,” or “equal to.” This title denotes an au pair’s status as part of the family, and not a paid employee.
  2. Postwar Origins – The role of au pair originated in postwar Europe, in response to the cultural and economic changes that caused traditional systems to become outmoded for middle class families. Rising wages and taxes made the hiring of domestic servants difficult for these families, thus the au pair was born.
  3. Servant Class Revolution – While middle class families were struggling to afford domestic servants, the working class began to eschew the stigma associated with “servant work,” and young girls were aspiring to higher levels of education and experience than pre-war times allowed. The demand that an au pair be viewed as a family member rather than a servant is the result of this major cultural shift.
  4. Integration into the Family – To further cement their status as family extensions rather than servants, custom dictated that au pairs dine with the family at mealtimes, as opposed to in the kitchen with the hired help. Also, they were (and still are) expected to accompany the family on outings and vacations, and to join in family time activities.
  5. Students First, Childcare Providers Second – The governments of both the host country and an au pair’s native country both require that coursework and educational requirements be met during an au pair’s stay. These classes almost always include language courses, as part of the reason most young people become au pairs is to fully immerse themselves in the language and culture of a host country.
  6. Age Limits – Because the au pair system was created as a means for young people to travel and gain experience, almost all countries with au pair systems in place have strict age limits. Some are broader than others, but the limit hovers in the early twenties.
  7. The Concept Far Predates Popularity – Though becoming an au pair wasn’t common before World War II, the concept is referenced in print in the nineteenth century.
  8. Government Limits on Working Hours – In a bid to stay true to the non-servant role that au pairs were always intended to fulfill, many government agencies in host countries have historically limited the hours that au pairs were allowed to spend providing childcare services.
  9. Playing a Role in War Prevention – Some experts contend that the reason the au pair concept has been so closely guarded and protected in European countries since World War II has much to do with the hope that the system would foster cultural understanding between Europeans of different cultures, thus preventing another war of such magnitude.
  10. The Nineteenth Century Au Pair – It was previously mentioned that the concept of acting as an au pair was in place well before it became widely popular; the reasons for becoming an au pair were quite the opposite of the postwar ideals. Nineteenth century au pairs were upper-class Europeans, and the social status of their host families were very carefully investigated. These well-heeled young people traveled to other European countries to learn the language and upper-crust etiquette of other cultures.

For generations of adventurous young people, acting as an au pair has provided them with invaluable experience. This long honored tradition is still one of the best ways to travel the world and spend time living abroad.

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