Three Degrees Of Care: Sitters, Nannies, Au Pairs
by Michael Kabel
You hear words like nanny and au pair used a lot these days. Are they the same thing, and how are they different from a babysitter? All three jobs perform the same function, but there are important differences in the nature and structure of each that can become confusing.
A babysitter is temporary help, usually watching over the child while the parents are away for a period of up to several hours.
The name "baby-sitter" itself dates to 1937 and comes from the idea of sitting with the infant while the parents are in another room. The work is done only on an as-needed basis. There is a sort of unofficial tradition that babysitters are local high school girls paid by the hour to watch the child.
By comparison, a nanny is a full-time assistant to the parents charged with taking care of all the child's needs. Nannies sometimes live in the family's home, in a private room, depending on the family's circumstances.
The idea of a nanny dates to the 19th Century, when the servant staff of large houses included a woman known as a governess. This woman was placed in charge of caring for the children's every need, including education. Later, they were known as nurses and stayed with a child often throughout childhood, leaving the family's employ only when the child left home. As you might imagine, many governesses and nurses became something of an unofficial family member.
Modern nannies work on either a part- or full-time basis, and can participate in the child's teaching as a tutor or supplement to schoolwork. The nanny may also work to ensure the child's nutritional needs are met, preparing their food and snacks throughout the day.
The role of Au Pair is by far the most complex relationship of the three. The Au Pair is an international student staying with a "host family" in another country for a fixed period of time, usually one of two years.
In the United States, the au pair helps the family with caring for the children while working towards completing her college education. The program is administered by the United States State Department, which approves all applications and refer the au pair and families to one of 12 approved domestic agencies for placement. These agencies oversee the treatment au pairs receive while living with their host family; they also sometimes mediate disputes and disagreements. Recently, the State Department approved a series of extensions for au pairs living in America, and began a summer au pair program as well.
There are strict regulations and standards for hosting an au pair, including a payment schedule, list of conditions including private room and tuition allowances, and guidelines limiting the amount of work families can require their au pair to perform. A fixed workweek of no more than 45 hours is also required, with guaranteed time off.
The term "au pair" is taken from the French phrase meaning "on an equal level." Traditionally, an au pair is a young unmarried woman between the ages of 17 and 30 years of age. In recent years a higher number of men have applied for the au pair programs, both in the United States and Europe.