By Francis Wardle, Ph.D. - Early Childhood News

The inclusion of men in early childhood programs has garnered considerable attention over the years. This interest is due to three related trends: 1) the lack of men—usually fathers—in the lives of many of our young children, 2) the dearth of men in the early childhood field, and 3) an increased interest in father involvement in early childhood programs. While almost everyone agrees with the need to get men involved in the lives of young children, solutions to this dilemma are few and far between. According to the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), 97 percent of teachers in pre-K programs are women; the same figure was reported in a Center for the Child Care Workforce study (2002). And, according to the National Education Association for Elementary Teachers, only 13 percent of elementary school teachers are men, and these men mostly teach in grades 5 and 6 (Cunningham & Dorsey, 2004). In this article, three related issues that affect this problem will be discussed: the female culture and feminist politics of the early childhood field, what men, both teachers and fathers, really want, and the debate regarding whether men are suited to be good teachers of infants and young children. Specific suggestions for incorporating men and fathers into early childhood programs will also be included.

Female Culture of Early Childhood Education
A great deal has been written about the need to make all-male and all-white professions accessible to everyone (Rothenberg, 2001). Two arguments for this are used: 1) the right of every person to have equal access to the profession and life-style of their choice, and 2) a need to change the culture of all-male, all-white important if the institutions, such as early childhood programs and schools, serve children and people from a variety of racial, ethnic, and gender backgrounds. Cleary, if these arguments exist for all white, male professions, they also do so for all female endeavors. Further, we have ample evidence from other minority groups about the difficulty of functioning within another culture. As Kay Sanders so accurately points out, “They (men) enter a zone of difference when they take early childhood classes and when they are hired to work with young children” (2002, p 45). This cultural conflict can result in men experiencing a sense of difference and isolation on a daily basis.

The field of early childhood is an overwhelmingly female one (Sanders, 2002). How does this create a female culture, beyond the obvious? Some indications are:

When I discovered almost three times as many boys as girls in my Head Start program were labeled with some kind of disability, I conducted a small action research project to determine reasons for this imbalance (Wardle, 1991). I discovered that many of our boys played on the floor, loved active games and activities, preferred the block area and woodwork area, and tended to be rather noisy (Wardle, 2004). However, most of the teachers preferred table-top activities, art, and reading to the children. I also discovered that newly purchased woodwork tables were being used as teacher’s desks and stands for fish aquariums (Wardle, 1991). Kay Sanders recollects that most of the teachers she observed played in the housekeeping area, primarily with girls, and were usually involved in typical housekeeping themes (2002).

Many people in and out of the early childhood field deeply believe that women are naturally predisposed to caring for young children, and men are not (Neugebauer, 1999; Sanders, 2002; Nelson & Sheppard, n.d.; Cunningham & Dorsey, 2004). This belief is because in most cultures, including our own, women have been charged with the responsibility of raising children, both in the home and in collective approaches (Wardle, 2004).

Males bring more play, active movement, entertainment, and rough and tumble play to the way they interact with their own children and the way they interact with children in a program (Fagan, 1996; Parke, 1996; Lamb, 2000). While some female teachers are also very active and physical, many are not (Fagan, 1996). I believe this male approach challenges the way many early childhood programs operate: quiet, sedentary activities that create a minimum of mess (Wardle, 2004).

Early childhood programs are used to working with mothers and not fathers. We have mastered the ability to communicate with the child’s mother (Fagan, 1996). What adds to this reality is that there are far more single-female headed households than male-headed households for a variety of legal and cultural reasons. Further, as already suggested, the significant male in the child’s life may not be the biological father. We are often unsure of how to effectively work with these men. All of these factors make it much easier for program staff to work closely with the child’s mother and simply ignore the father or other significant men in the child’s life.

Women are more comfortable working with women. Also some indication that there is a certain level of tension between men and women exists in early childhood programs due partly to the number of single mothers in our field who resent the lack of support from their own children’s fathers (Fagan, 1996). Sanders suggests that all male early childhood teachers have to defend their choice of a profession to family, friends, and female teachers in their own profession (2002). Clearly, some women teachers have more trouble relating to fathers than to mothers and to male colleagues rather than female colleagues (Neugebaurer, 1999).

The Feminization of Early Childhood
I know a child care director and early childhood educator whose discussions always focus on the inequality between men and women in this society. She clearly believes, as do many, that women and child care are situated below the dominant power of males in a male-controlled, paternalist, white society (Eisenstein, 1982). Later I discovered this director refused to hire any men for her program. Clearly feminists and others who take a structuralist view of our society believe that the control by white men of all our societal institutions, including education (which they view as perpetuating unequal power relationships in society), must be radically changed (Grieshaber & Cannella, 2001). Further, there are many people who believe that the low status and abysmal benefits of the early childhood field are a direct result of it being a women’s profession. It would make little sense for these feminists to support the emergence of men – including white men – in the early childhood field. As a reviewer of one of my articles suggested, “while these ideas are interesting and valid, they are made invalid because they come from a white man.” (It is interesting to note that in a recent series of articles about men in early childhood published in Young Children, it was left to a female African American writer to most clearly articulate the alienation and pressure male early childhood professionals feel [Sanders, 2002]).

This view of institutions in our society reflecting and perpetuating the power structures within our society poses a strange dilemma regarding the early childhood field. As we all know, women dominate the early childhood field—and many of these are women of color. Further, because of the lack of anything close to adequate wages and benefits, many of them are poor.

What Do Men Want?
Clearly, the number one issue for everyone who works in the early childhood field is for all early childhood teachers to receive adequate pay and benefits (Neugebauer, 1999; Sargent, 2002). I believe these should be at least comparable to salaries and benefits of public school teachers. According to Fagan (1996), Cunningham (1998; 1999), Neugebauer (1999), Sanders (2002) and Wardle, (2003), the following items summarize what fathers and teachers want:

Fathers want to be respected as equal partners in raising their children. They also want teachers to talk to them about their children, rather than always deferring to their wives.

Male staff want to be able to work with young children without their motives being questioned and with out being placed under constant scrutiny by administrators, other teachers, and parents for possibly being gay or a pedophile (Fagan, 1996; Neugebauer, 1999; Sargent, 2002). A law enforcement official declared recently after a teacher had been arrested for alleged sexual abuse, “We know these kinds of men find ways to get into positions where they have close contact to young children.” If the early childhood profession supports this societal stereotype, we will never be able to hire and retain men.

Male staff want to be treated equally in everything, including rules, expectations, and personnel policies.

Men want to be around other men. Tokenism has never worked. It does not work in early childhood programs, either.

Men want to have the right to express their beliefs and opinions about various aspects of the profession without being considered aggressive, opinionated, and without being accused of trying to take over the field.

Fathers and other significant men in a child’s life want social activities that include the whole family, as well as opportunities to talk to other fathers.

Men want training that highlights the importance of fathers and men in the lives of children and should not have to listen to presentations about men as being ‘the oppressors and the enemy.’

Fathers and significant men want specific ideas about ways to be engaged and involved with their children.

Male staff want to believe they can have a career in early childhood education, if they so choose.

Male employees don’t want to have to do all the heavy lifting. Ask any man in child care and one of the first complaints will be, “I always have to shovel the snow, take out the trash, and lift the child.”

Fathers want strategies to use to work with teachers in the early childhood program and school when they wish to address a problem. They want strategies that won’t intimidate the teacher or put the teacher on the defensive.

Male staff want to work in a place with good benefits, good working conditions, and a professional approach to child care. Fundamentally, fathers want to be viewed as important people in the lives and education of their children, while male staff want to feel like they belong in the profession and the program.

Can Men Feel Fulfilled in the Early Childhood Profession?
I officially entered the field of early childhood when I decided to get a Ph.D. in early childhood education. I have worked with children, infants through school age, directed a Head Start program, and taught early childhood programs at a local community college. Do I feel professionally fulfilled? Yes. Over the years I have greatly enjoyed working closely with children, parents, teachers, early childhood administrators, and college students. I feel I have grown a great deal professionally in regards to my understanding of what children need, how children learn, the critical importance of family-program collaboration, and the politics of early childhood care and education. I have also developed a deep appreciation of, and understanding for, the difficult task of raising children in today’s society. As I look back over 30 years of working in the field, I deeply believe that men can find personal fulfillment in the field, and can contribute to its development and progress.

No. One of my motivations in choosing an early childhood career was the goal of becoming a leader in the field, particularly a government leader in some capacity. My first opportunity came when I interviewed for the inaugural director of First Impressions, a Colorado early childhood initiative. In that interview I was very surprised to discover that a vast majority of the questions focused on my sexuality and motivations for wanting to work with young children. Needless to say I was not hired; a woman was hired. In fact, all of the initiative’s directors have been female. Now Denver has an Office of Children’s Initiatives, and, yes, all of its directors have been women as well. True, to my knowledge Colorado has not had a female governor, or Denver a female mayor. It seems that, just as society is not ready for female governors, mayors (with a few exceptions) and presidents—we are also not ready for male early childhood professionals.

Meeting the Needs of Men in Early Childhood Programs
There are, of course, many reasons to include men in the lives of young children. Foremost of these is the need for young boys and girls to develop positive relationships with men, and to develop positive views of maleness and masculinity (Cunningham & Dorsey, 2004). The overall positive impact of father involvement in the healthy development of young children has been well documented (MacDonald & Parke, 1984; Lamb, Pleck, & Levine, 1985; Gadsden & Ray, 2002). One way to increase the involvement of men in the lives of their children is to include more fathers, other male relatives, boyfriends, etc., into the early childhood education program (Fagan, 1996). And the best way to attract these men is to make them feel welcome. Research shows that fathers are more likely to become involved with their children when opportunities to do so are provided for them (Cohen, 1993). Ideas to make fathers and other significant men feel welcome in your program include:

  • Provide male and female bathrooms;
  • Have pictures of fathers and male caregivers with young children in the entry hallway, in newsletters sent home, on parent boards, in advertisements, and in staff recruitment materials;
  • Specifically invite men to volunteer when you need volunteers; also ask men to suggest activities they would enjoy being involved in at school, and then solicit their help in developing the activity;
  • Help each family identify a man in the child’s life, be it a biological father, uncle, or friend and work closely with that person (Cunningham & Dorsey, 2004);
  • Train staff on ways to work with fathers and other significant men;
  • Provide parenting activities that are of particular interest to men (Wardle, 2003);
  • Disseminate articles to families that support the many reasons men need to be involved with their children, and ideas of what they can do with their children;
  • Formally and informally recognize the involvement of men in your program. Another way to attract fathers and other significant men to become involved in the program is to have male staff. As a male Head Start director, I had no problem recruiting fathers to help me build several playgrounds, construct a puppet stage for each classroom, teach the children wood-work, and collect wood for the woodwork learning centers. Attracting men to early childhood programs has, however, proved to be very difficult.

Ideas to Make Programs Male Friendly
As Kay Sanders suggests, “If we truly want to include men in the early childhood culture, we must create supports within the early childhood profession that allow male teachers to build a sense of belonging” (2002, p. 46). Paul Sargent adds, “Rather than confining our efforts to changing men, it is apparent that our profession must make some significant changes to the culture of teaching to recruit men and help them enter and remain in the field” (2002, p. 30). This requires a radical change of the culture itself, and it is unethical to attempt to attract men to our field until we make these changes. However, regardless of whether we really want men involved in caring for young children, we cannot ignore the importance of including fathers and other significant men in our programs. The research on the positive impact of father involvement on children’s success is clear and definitive (Gadsden & Ray, 2002). Further, research also suggests that when mothers believe men are capable of nurturing and their involvement is valued, fathers devote more time to being with their infants and young children (Beitel & Parke, 1998). Here are some additional ideas, based on Neugebauer (1999), Sanders (2002), Sargent (2002), Wardle, (2003) and Cunningham & Dorsey, (2004):

Shift the view from biological fathers to fathering – men who nurture children, including but not limited to biological fathers. Reach out and support any man involved with the child. Let families know you expect both parents to be involved in program activities like conferences.

Recruit male staff and volunteers. High schoolers, senior citizens, community volunteers, scouts, and college students needing a practicum for a class or course, all enjoy working with young children.

Inform men about special programs for fathers, such as Boot Camp for New Dads and Conscious Fathering. These can be offered when a new baby enters the family, not just the first child; also when a man enters an existing family through marriage or a relationship with the mother.

Examine your own biases. This applies to everyone in a program or school. A survey by Tom Masters of 200 directors in Ohio (Nelson & Shepard, n.d.) showed that biases toward women staff and against male staff are held by many program directors. Clearly, as leaders of centers, directors set the tone and climate for the program.

Avoid using parents as scapegoats. According to Neugebauer (1999), some directors use the threat of parents withdrawing children or potential child abuse accusations as reasons not to recruit and hire men.

Provide comfort in numbers. Do not settle for hiring one token male. He will soon leave. It’s much easier attracting additional men once there are men on staff.

Publicize your male-friendly environment through articles, newsletters, media, conference presentations, etc. Make a personal appeal, “There needs to be someone who makes the initial gesture of asking a man to work in childcare” (Neugebaurer, 1999, p. 153).

Help men find support outside your program: conferences, male caucuses, informal males in child care support groups, even Internet groups.

Use training materials—books, videos, etc.—that include men routinely caring for children.

Revise all policies and procedures that produce informally and formally different working conditions for men and women. Directly address any informal hidden agendas in the program that communicate a lack of welcome for men and unequal treatment.

Provide ample staff training to explore anti-male bias and teacher and father involvement. Also, provide opportunities for staff—men and women—to explore their own feelings about men in child care, and discuss ways to avoid assigning responsibilities by gender.

Encourage women staff to interact with children in ways they may be less comfortable doing: exploration, rough-and-tumble play, facilitating curiosity, digging in the garden, and working on the workbench and in the block area.

Start a men’s group at the program or school to enable male family members to discuss issues and find support.

While the value of increasing father and significant male involvement in early childhood programs, and recruiting and retaining more male staff, is very clear to everyone, significant barriers exist in these efforts. If programs are serious in their efforts regarding male involvement, they must start by carefully looking at them-selves. Policies and procedures, administrators’ and staff attitudes, and messages given to families must all be reviewed. They must then develop training for staff, recruitment, and retention programs for male teachers, ways to attract male volunteers, and specific approaches to increase father and significant male involvement in the program.

Francis Wardle, Ph.D., teaches for the University of Phoenix (Colorado) and is the executive director for the Center for the Study of Biracial Children. He has published the book with Marta Cruz-Jansen, Meeting the Needs of Multiethnic and Multiracial Children.