Quality Childcare: The Missing Element—Men

There is an element lacking at most childcare centers. An element that I believe is fundamental to the development of the “whole child”. That element is male teachers and caregivers.

I have spent the last 20 years in the field of early childhood education. My first six years in the field I worked as an infant, toddler and preschool teacher. In reflecting on my two decades of professional life in an almost exclusively female field, it has made me consider some of the differences between these two cultures; men and women, and how the lack of a male caregiver may impact the child’s development.

I have had many discussions with my women colleagues about this issue. Many of the directors and trainers that I have spoken to who have been in the field for 20 – 30 years mention that there used to be more men around. The reasons vary why they believe it has changed. My first teaching job was in an early intervention program as an infant caregiver. Of the fourteen staff, four were men. While you can still find a very small percentage of male preschool teachers, identifying an infant/toddler program with male caregivers is virtually impossible.

One response that is consistent with most early childhood administrators is, ‘we’ll never get men in the field because they won’t work for such low salaries.’ I do agree that compensation has an impact on how attractive this work is to men, for most men are reared to believe that the primary way they can support their family is financially. This response however is still disturbing to me because it implies that women do not need to earn a decent living. Another comment from directors is that they had been able to hire “a” man but that parents voiced concern, wanting to know if the male caregiver was allowed to take the children out on their own or if they were allowed to change diapers. Encouragingly, the most common response I have heard relating to programs that did employ men, was that the women teachers noticed that the children seemed really connected to the male teacher, that the teacher was very competent, and that it clearly was a positive experience for the children, as well as parents and staff.

So why hasn’t the early childhood profession taken this on as an issue fundamental to our universal goal of high quality group care programs for children? An important part of the answer, I believe, lies in our own experiences (both men and women) concerning who were our primary caregivers when we were children. Who was taking care of our friends? When we went to a park, who was watching the children? Who were our schoolteachers? How did television, magazines and other media forms depict a proper family? The answer was clearly that women run the ship. Mothers, grandmothers, aunts, sisters, women friends, girls. There hasn’t been much room for diversity in this childrearing model. The language of caring for children is completely gender specific. “Mothering”. “Mother-infant bond”. “Maternal Attachment”, even “Earth Mother”. While women are held in high esteem for caring for their children (rarely with reference to fathers) they are also considered the exclusive “cause” of anything that might go wrong, or be perceived to go wrong. Consider the terms “Maternal deprivation” and “Maternal depression.” Major research studies have been conducted on “the impact of maternal employment on children’s development.” Clearly this language speaks to what we believe women with children should really be doing and at the same time, totally negates any impact or role a father may have.

Gender is Culture

In my work as a design consultant I recently visited a preschool program. The director and coordinator brought me to view the classrooms. As she opened the door the children looked up from their table activities. One of the children I made eye contact with, a boy, looked at me with a longing smile. I smiled back. He then left the table, ran over to us and hugged me (not the director or coordinator) intensely. He had never seen me before, I was of a different color, yet he identified with me.

The one experience that a female caregiver cannot provide is that of a male role model. When boys lack the experience of men who are caring and nurturing, the message they receive is that it’s not an important trait for males to have. It is men who commit most of the violence in our society. Men comprise over 90% of the prison population in the US. Because of these early experiences which do not include significant male involvement boys learn very early in life that caring for children is not an activity men engage in. On the other hand, girls learn that caring for children is their exclusive responsibility and that they should not expect men to contribute. How might our society be different if young children’s experience included caring, nurturing men as well as women?

In discussing gender issues in a newspaper interview, feminist author Gloria Steinham stated: “From the point of view of getting rid of gender roles and allowing both women and men to be whole human beings, the single most important thing is that men raise infants and little children as much as women do. The way we get divided into our false notions of masculine and feminine is what we see as children. And, if, as children, whether we’re boys or girls, we’re raised mainly by women, then we deeply believe that only women can be loving, nurturing, flexible, patient, compassionate, all those things one needs to be to raise little children, and that men cannot do that, which is a libel on men. Of course men can do that. On the other end of it, they mainly see men in the world outside the home, or being assertive, aggressive, so they come to believe that women can’t be assertive, achieving, aggressive, intellectual. And that’s how we get our humanity?We’re deprived of our full humanity”. 1

Baby Steps

By sharing the caring we have a wonderful opportunity in childcare to model equitable relationships among men and women and to show children that each of us cares about their well-being. Administrators should actively seek out men as caregivers and teachers. If you are not able to find fully qualified men, you should hire males as assistants and support their professional development so they can eventually become teachers. If this practice proves difficult how about working with a high school and have boys work as volunteers for credit? Do you have a male cook or bus driver for your program? Invite them in the classroom. If leadership is committed to this goal, it is possible to find many ways to get men involved.

Early childhood staff should also reflect on how male friendly they are with fathers, grandfathers, boyfriends and other significant males of the children in their care. When interviewing parents, do you defer to the mother? If the father drops off or picks up the child, do you engage in conversation and make him feel comfortable? Do you encourage fathers to spend time in the classroom? Are there photographs of dads and other men with children? Do they show men changing diapers as well as playing ball with their son?

My hope is that the early childhood profession embraces this challenge and begins to view this issue as fundamental to providing quality care and supporting the development of the “whole child.” If you agree that gender equity means women in the board room and the military then it should also mean supporting hiring practices that promote men as early childhood educators.

Recently I was at home preparing for a training that I was going to conduct for infant/toddler staff. My five year old son Stefan was sitting with me as I was organizing my slides of children in infant and toddler classrooms that I had designed. As we were talking about the children and childcare environments he looked up to me and said; “Daddy, when I’m a grown-up I’m going to do what you do.” That would be wonderful, because it is work worth doing.

1 Marin Independent Journal, 1995

Louis Torelli, M.S.Ed., is a principal in the childcare facility design firm Spaces for Children (415-456-3748).