Disciplining kids without becoming the fun police.

You don’t want to be known as the fun police but equally you don’t want the kids to take advantage of you by walking all over you and not taking you seriously. So, how do you strike the right balance when it comes to disciplining your host kids? 

Disciplining children can be a controversial topic and often the furthest thing from our mind when we decide to be an au pair. We know that discipline is something that comes with the territory of looking after kids, yet we tell ourselves in those early days “I’ll figure that out when I get there”, if we even think about it at all. 

Until suddenly, you’re there.

Where should I start?

While it is your responsibility to supervise and be a good role model, deciding how to discipline the children is still the responsibility of your host parents. They are the ones who ultimately decide how they would like their children to be raised. So, as a starting point have a conversation about discipline with your host family – ideally, before you decide to work for them. 

Discussing this topic outside the heat of the moment and without the children around allows you to speak openly and calmly about possible scenarios. Even though it might feel a bit awkward to address at first, it will save you heartache in the long run. 

You can start by asking how they would like you to handle a situation where the kids are acting out, and whether they’re okay with you confiscating items or putting the kids in time out. This will shed some light on what they are expecting of you. How can you expect to do a good job if you don’t know where you stand? 

It’s important that you feel you and your host parents are on the same team, and that when a situation arises, they will back your authority rather than undermine your decision-making. If a child wants to phone a parent, will they give you authority to make a decision or will they be available to answer? Trust is naturally built over time, but it’s important to start off on the right foot. 

Top Tips

We promise you don’t have to resign yourself to a crazy-cat-lady future after being the only au pair your host family NEVER liked. It is possible to approach discipline in a way where the kids will still love and respect you. So, once you’ve started the conversation with your host family here are some tips to enjoy a more tantrum-free stay.  

  1. Set limits by creating 3-5 of your own rules that are non-negotiable. This may be that you will not tolerate name-calling or violence. Decide how you will handle each of these situations if and when they happen. Try to frame your rules as positive values, such as showing kindness to each other at all times, but explain in kid-friendly language what the consequences will be if they don’t behave. It can really help to be clear on these before you begin your au pair duties.
  2. Arm yourself with some information. We are not childcare experts, but we do have access to the internet where we can find information from people who are. Take some time to read or sign-up to some parenting and childcare blogs that resonate with you. Do some research to help you feel more empowered. To help you get started, check out the additional resources section at the end of this post. 
  3. Hear them out. Listening is important and trying to figure out exactly what the issue is with a child can solve half the problem. Are they tired or hungry? Let them finish their story before you try helping to solve the problem and look out for any behavior patterns, such as jealously, so that you can address it with your host parents if necessary. 
  4. Focus on reinforcing positive behavior rather than focusing on the negative. Use the power of your attention to reinforce valued behavior. Ignore unwanted behavior that isn’t dangerous. Children often just want our attention and validation, so it can help to keep this in mind. Be specific when you do praise them (Wow, you did a great job making your bed today) so they know exactly what they’ve done to earn the praise. 
  5. Be consistent. Changing your mind or going back on your word can end up reinforcing unwanted behaviour. Therefore, consistency in your words and actions is vital if you want the kids to listen and respect you.  

Get Creative

One of the tricks that really helped me when it came to discipline was to create a scoreboard. Both of the kids I looked after loved Harry Potter so together we took an A4 piece of paper and divided it into four sections for each of the four houses (Gryffindor, Slytherin, Hufflepuff & Ravenclaw). If Harry Potter isn’t their thing, you can easily adapt the theme depending on their interests (e.g. Minion or Frozen etc.) As an added bonus, decorating the scoreboard also makes a great craft idea if you’re looking for an afternoon activity filler.    

The kids then need to choose a team together so that they’re positively motivated to help each other out. The idea is that when they reach a certain amount of points you can do a fun activity together as a reward. For example, weagreed that when we reached 1,000 points, we would have a Harry Potter movie night WITH POPCORN (I know!). The kids would get points for valued behaviour such as making their bed and completing their homework correctly (and within a certain timeframe). If they behaved negatively, I would remove points on the scoreboard. I tried to save this as a last resort. The less you use a tool like this the more power it can have. Usually the idea of losing points was enough.

In order to make it a competition between all teams I cut-up various pieces of paper each with a numbered value written on it (e.g. +20, +1, +50, +5, -40 etc.) I folded these up and put them in a pencil case. Each day the kids would take it in turns to draw a piece of paper randomly that awarded or deducted points for the other teams. This kept the competition close and created a sense of comradery between the kids since they were on the same team, competing against the other teams. Each time they reached the required number of points for a reward activity, we could then start again and come up with a new fun activity to work towards. 

This is just one example of how you can get creative with disciplining your host kids. I’m sure that many of you have come up with your own ideas, tricks and tips along the way. If you have any you’d like to share, please leave them in the comments section below. Maybe there’s someone out there having a desperate au pair day and your idea could be the very thing they need. 

Unfortunately, as far as we know, there’s still no genie that can grant us our secret wish to have kids obey our every command, but as you’ve discovered there are some discipline techniques we can learn and implement as an au pair to make life easier. 

And who knows, now that you’re armed with some tools of your own, maybe your host parents will soon be asking YOU for advice. Now there’s a thought. 

Additional Resources

  • Practical Tips: Healthychildren.org have some great disciplinary tips which they’ve grouped into age categories here
  • Article: Ross Greene, a psychologist behind the theory of “collaborative partnerships”, offers a 3-step method for disciplining kids. It replaces traditional timeouts and the removal of privileges, and replaces them with calm, focused discussion. 

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