Men bring so much to early childhood. Not only gender balance but physical differences, a difference in teaching styles, and some would say add a difference to the dynamics of a teaching team...
But what about terrible, hard to shake stereotypes that have had and will continue to have a significant impact on both men entering early childhood education and those wanting to stay?
I am only going to really address one of those stereotypes but one I think is probably the most important...
Men are potential child rapists...
That might seem pretty harsh and terribly offense but men have to face that very stereotype every day in different kinds of situations. We are constantly forced to walk on proverbial egg shells, is this the day a parent will complain about me giving hugs to their child, am I going to walk into work today and get told I can't change nappies because some parent has taken issue with a man changing nappies, should I bother getting into early childhood when all it sounds like is men being targeted as potential pedophiles?
I have encountered my fair share of discrimination throughout my time as an early childhood teacher, some examples are:
- Men changing nappies goes against company policy.
- Some 'parents' just don't like men hugging their kids.
- I don't want my child having their bottoms wiped by a man.
- I'm sorry, you can't close the centre with another man - It isn't a good look.
- "Josh has just weed on the floor; I'm going to help him get changed." Let Julie do it, remember - it's against policy!
When a man goes for an interview as a teacher in an early childhood centre, he has an invisible label taped to his forehead - Potential child rapist.
When a family comes into a centre for the first time and sees a male teacher with a child on their knee, they see that same invisible label - Potential child rapist.
When a young man looks into or even thinks about looking into early childhood as a career path, all society sees is that disabling label - Potential child rapist.
And why is that? Most maintain that it is because past precedents have been set. In New Zealand in 1993, an early childhood teacher - Peter Ellis was arrested, accused, and convicted in the court of public opinion for sexual abuse on children in his early childhood centre. I won't go into detail but it was largely due to him being a) male and b) presumably homosexual as to the two prominent reasons for his conviction (though his conviction stands still, most of the country remain split over the decision).
"known as the day care sexual abuse hysteria–a moral panic that originated out of California in 1982 and that existed throughout the 1980s. The hysteria, as well as Ellis' conviction, has also been cited as a major cause in the decline in the number of male teachers in New Zealand schools. " (Taken from Wikipedia)
The case for Peter Ellis' conviction as well as those that have happened in other countries leads to a compelling argument that those instances have created a social stigma around men in early childhood right? The old 'few bad eggs' argument proving accurate once again! But what if it's the opposite. What if those prejudices, the societal view of men being potential child rapists have helped convict Peter Ellis as well as other men?
How has the idea that men have the potential to sexually assault children, especially men who choose careers involving working with children developed? My argument would be that it has stemmed from a history in which women have been relegated to staying at home, taking on the role of nurturer while their husbands go off and take care of the family financially. Men have always been looked at as being responsible for the survival of their family and as such needed to be emotionally detached, stoic, powerful, and in control - where taking care of children and being a significant part of their lives means men would have to be emotionally intelligent, sometimes vulnerable, and almost never in control. The nuclear family and the roles it has defined has had an impact past the mother/father family structure that most people think about, but also what it means when people try to cross over those traditional family roles - where the men become the nurturer, the women become the financial source for a family and how society perceives people who choose to take on those non-traditional roles.
Unnatural....unnatural has been a word used synonymously with people crossing those gender boundaries. The LGBTQ community has at times been called unnatural both in the past and in the present. 'Women wanting to climb to the top of the business world have at times been looked at as unnatural. Men wanting to dedicate their lives to working with children or being stay at home dad's.......unnatural. And when people try to make sense of the unnatural, they often jump to extra-ordinary conclusions e.g. He's a fashion designer, he has to be gay. She works in a corporate environment and wears a pantsuit - she has to be a lesbian.....and a bitch. He's a teacher in an early childhood centre? He has to be a pedo!
The problem is that we have largely done nothing to change the perception of men in early childhood and what their 'true intentions' might be. Our sexual depravity the source of parent concerns and management not wanting to lose customers so they inevitably relent, go against equal opportunity employment practices and relinquish the rights of men to be involved in ALL aspects of their roles.
Rights are only useful when they are upheld and fought for, not disregarded the moment it could mean one less enrolment.
So how is it then, after decades of public perception of men in early childhood being driven by this ridiculous comparison between men in ECE and sexual predators can we make progress? The same way gay and lesbian marriages are now legal in 21 countries across the world and more very close to it. The same way women are now climbing those corporate ladders - by turning the unnatural into natural, the abnormal into normal.
All those involved in ECE have to stand resolute in a global proclamation and say...
Men are NOT potential child rapists....
And if parents and family members of children come to you with a complaint about your colleague, your workmate asking for them not to be permitted to change a nappy, or hug a child, or help a wet child change their clothes if they are the closest to them......be brave enough to say - No, they are our equals and just as capable as we are.