I enjoy working with children, and I'm a man.
By John Putala
For some people that title may not be shocking, but others are incredulous about a man wanting to work with children. Notice the language I used. I could say, “I like working with children” but I could never say “I like children” or, the worst one, “I love children”. I might as well tell people I'm a creep and pedophile and bypass the sinister assumptions.
So first an introduction; I'm a white, middle class, well-educated, man, who looks like your average “manly guy”. I've worked in construction, as a handyman, cook, and do many other hyper-masculine things. However, I got a bachelors and masters degrees in psychology (mostly focusing on family issues), and have worked as a babysitter, preschool teacher, minister, social worker, administrative assistant, and a youth mentor; fields that are usually dominated by women. My whole life I have found myself bumping up against expectations of what it means to be a man.
As a male, there are many assumptions, stereotypes, and prejudices that follow you while you work with children; especially in fields that are predominantly female and are associated with the female gender. Men can bring a lot to these “female” fields, but it can sometimes be an uphill battle as the man has to avoid assumptions and be overly cautious of his actions and words.
Many employers are interested in having males in mostly female fields, although for divergent reasons. Some of that interest is due to inherent diversity, while others may see a male worker as an affirmation of the stereotypes of the male gender (tough, strong, logical, unemotional, hard-working, etc). Some employers may avoid hiring male workers altogether, due to issues like “what would the parents think?”, “a man can't be emotional enough to interact with kids”, and other biases based on the rigid stereotypes of men. Regardless of the reasons to, or not to, hire men, it should be based on the actual skill set and personality of the man applying for the position, not on assumptions of what being male means.
While working with children, a man is subjected to the worst stereotype of them all: that a man who likes children, likes them in a sexual manner. It is immensely appalling that people associate that possibility to any man around children. Impropriety with minors is a horrible and disgusting thing, and people (both male and female) who are found to be abusing the children in their care, should be punished to the fullest extent of the law, and in no way should be allowed to interact with children for the rest of their lives. While statistics showing child abuse rates among men vs. women can be found with varying conclusions, in no way should all men, or all women be associated with such despicable acts.
Much of the continuation of the “male predator” assumptions arises from the biases built in the rigid stereotypes of both men and women. Men are seen as strong leaders, authority figures, aggressive, sexually promiscuous, “take charge” types; while women are seen as emotional, docile, subservient, weak, “be seen and not heard”. These stereotypes perpetuate the idea of men as obnoxious brutes and women as unstable frail creatures. You do not need to look far to see these stereotypes of men and women present in our culture; in our media, in our schools, in our stores, and in our workplaces. Stereotypes do nothing but perpetuate false information about large groups of people, often to the detriment of those groups.
Other assumptions regarding men who work with children arise from other stereotypes regarding men. Single men, men without children, gay men, straight men, men of different races/ethnicities/cultures/religions, etc., can find themselves having their reasons for working with children questioned simply for being who the are. A man already outside the norm will find that stereotype multiplied when he attempts to work with children.
Most of my time working with children I was a single, straight man, with no children. The unspoken question for much of the work I did (and do) was simply “why?”. To that I say why not? I have enjoyed the various jobs I've had (some better than others), and enjoyed the people I interact with. I've had people question my reasons, but not my results, I only want the best for my clients, no matter their age. I've come across many of these stereotypes, and I've noticed the way others perceive the work I do.
Below are just some of the many interesting interactions I've had:
While working at a group home for young girls, I had some co-workers say that the girl I was mentoring only wanted to meet with me since she had a crush on me. Neither I nor the girl understood that assumption; she was getting a lot out of our conversations and I was simply doing the work I was hired to do.
While working at a preschool some parents refused to bring their child to the school due to a man working there.
I had a woman call me a pedophile because I stood near her son.
Many times I've had parents ask me when I was going to get married and have kids of my own.
While working with people with disabilities I had a store clerk make disparaging remarks about my clients, assuming I was not with them.
While working with a female pastor it was assumed I was attempting to take over the church, since why would I be willing to work under a woman.
So these stereotypes regarding men essentially say that men who work with children are at best peculiar, and at worst a danger to those children. Men deserve as much right to work in whatever field they choose to do so as women. As both men and women work more and more in fields traditional held by the opposite sex, assumptions will arise regarding the suitability of those individuals working in those fields. It is important that people should be chosen for a job based on their actual ability to do the requirements of that position, simply that. A male nanny should be as likely a possibility as a female president. In the future, keep your mind open, and judge people by their actions and words, and not by stereotypes. I will continue to work with children and anybody else in the future, and will love those in my care no matter their age, height, weight, gender, sexuality, religion, color, race, ethnicity, culture, ability/disability, etc.