Origin of Au Pairs

According to dictionary.com an Au Pair is “a person, usually a young foreign visitor, employed to take care of children, do housework, etc., in exchange for room and board.” The term comes from the French and means “on equal footing” meaning the person, usually a young woman, is living on an equal basis with the host family and caring for the children.

In current childcare terms, an Au Pair is a foreign national between the ages of 18 and 26 who enters the United States on a J-1 Visa through the U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Educational & Cultural Affairs Exchange Visitor Program to provide limited childcare in exchange for room and board and a chance to experience American life.

While many parents look to Au Pairs to provide full-time childcare, this was never the intention of the program. The Au Pair program exists to provide an intercultural opportunity for participants.

Today’s Au Pair program is a far cry from how Au Pairs originally became part of American culture.   Where and how did the Au Pair tradition begin? Here are 8 facts about the origins of Au Pairs.

  1. Middle and upper class families in Europe found a need for child care after WWII and the numbers of domestic servants decreased. Families needed to change how they looked at household help and began commissioning persons from other countries to live with them and help them raise their children.
  2. The need to provide for themselves and the desire to learn a foreign culture increased the number of girls available to care for families and children in post WWII Europe. This made the use of an Au Pair a popular way to care for children, when both parents were working.
  3. The stigma of being considered a servant prevented many post WWII young women from wanting to work in childcare and home care. Having Au Pair status saved them from the stigma of being a servant.
  4. The role of an Au Pair was seen to be one of equality or give-and-take. The Au Pair took care of the home and children while the host family took care of the board and lodging of the Au Pair.
  5. Besides providing room and board for their Au Pair, the host family would also provide her with some spending money or a small salary.
  6. An Au Pair was to be considered a member of the family, and as such, she was to be treated like a member of the family. She would eat with the family; she would attend events and vacations with the family. All in all, she was considered, as her title implied, to be an equal member of the family.
  7. Because of her “family member” status, an Au Pair was not required to wear a uniform like other family servants were required to wear.
  8. The first Au Pairs and families had no agencies or governing bodies to help facilitate placements. Families and young women found each other through word of mouth and through the experiences of others.
  9. In 1986, the Au Pair program officially launched in the United States and the program has been growing ever since.
  10. An Au Pair in the United States receives money towards her education, a weekly stipend, paid vacation and one weekend a month off.

Why Do Individuals Participate in the Au Pair Program?

Why would an individual leave the comfort of their own country and travel across the globe to begin a new life with an unfamiliar family?

  1. To experience American life. Au Pairs come to the United States to be emerged in American culture. Au Pairs get to learn the customs of American life in ways a tourist never would.
  2. To continue their education. While in the States, Au Pairs must enroll in and complete at least 6 credit hours through an approved academic program.
  3. For new experiences. For many, being an Au Pair brings opportunity for adventure in a faraway place with different people and a different culture; new foods, new places and lots of new experiences.
  4. To improve language skills. Living within a culture where you are expected to speak in a language that is not your native tongue can greatly improve a person’s foreign language skills. It can be much more beneficial than taking classes.
  5. Family environment.  Working as an Au Pair has the advantage of living and working in a family environment, a situation that can be preferable for someone working in a foreign country without their own family there to provide friendship and care.
  6. Decent pay.  Au Pairs are paid a stipend, in addition to being provided a private room and three meals per day. Au Pairs are protected under the Fair Labor Standards Act. They receive at least minimum wage, minus the lawful allowance for room and board.
  7. To establish independence.  As an Au Pair, a young person has the opportunity to leave home and family behind and begin to establish her own independence beyond the watchful eyes of her parents. In some countries, such as the Netherlands, simply finding housing to live apart from your parents can be near impossible.
  8. The lack of job opportunities. Some Au Pairs seek out employment in foreign countries because there are so few job opportunities in their homeland. Serving as an Au Pair can be a better job than what is available back home.
  9. For better living conditions. Many Au Pairs feel that they are given the opportunity to live a much higher lifestyle in their employer’s homes than they would have had by staying in their country of origin.
  10. As a way to enter the United States. While Au Pairs are expected to leave once their visas expire, many don’t. In fact some land in the United States and simply never show up to their host family’s homes. For individuals desperate to leave their homeland for good, the Au Pair program may give them that option.

The reasons for becoming an au pair can be as different as the young women who fill these positions. There is usually a combination of reasons that they have chosen to take part in the Au Pair program.