by Donald E. Piburn, M.S.Ed - MenTeach - Hawaii

The Velcro Child

I work as a consultant to community preschools that include children with social, emotional, and behavior challenges throughout our State.  Because the goal of my initial visit is to observe typical classroom routines, at first I am purposefully low-key and rather unresponsive toward the children.  One or several children will usually ask if I am somebody’s Daddy, but then there is a distinct deviation in how they react to me dependant on whether there are fathers, fathering figures, or male staff members actively involved in their early childhood programs.

In a two-income society where parents frequently share roles, men are often responsible for bringing children to their early childhood programs.  In early childhood programs that convey a very clear message that male involvement is expected as a natural course in the lives of young children, men’s sense of belonging develops and the number of involved men multiplies.  Where children are use to having men around, to seeing images of nurturing males on classroom walls and in their picture books, to being cared for and nurtured by men, they quickly become disinterested in this boring-by-design outsider, and wander off in search of exchanges with more stimulating peers, adults, or materials.

In contrast, in those early childhood programs whose principal emphasis is on the role of women as the primary caregivers of young children, children’s responses toward an unfamiliar male range from apprehension or suspicion, to curiosity, to an all too noticeable desperate yearning for adult male attention.  A characteristic expression of male deprivation is evidenced by what I have come to call “the Velcro® child.”  I might be going about my work and suddenly discover that I have a child “velcroed” to my leg.  More often than not, these children are from homes with only minimum male involvement in their lives.  They are literally starving for an adult male’s energy.

In “Out of Sight But Not Out of Mind: The Harmful Absence of Men” (Exchange Magazine, 2004, n156; p.p. 42 – 43). Bruce Cunningham and Bernie Dorsey point out that, “While men are often out of child care sites, they are seldom out of the minds of children.”

The authors note that it is not uncommon for children to learn a large portion of what they know about men from television programs and other media sources that typically portray men as bumbling or inadequate caregivers, often as violent and angry, and rarely show men capably nurturing children or managing home life situations.

Many of the challenging behaviors that I am called out to observe are simply acted-out reflections of the distorted realities that purveyors of screen-based technologies have imposed on children’s growth and development.  It is not the children that have behavior disorders, but rather our society.

Given the apparent futility of resisting society’s broad tolerance for stereotyping men, many opt for divisions of labor were fathers adopt other parental roles and male early childhood educators opt out of the classroom.

They become the “drop-off Dads” or “I use to teach” men of this world.  When early childhood programs deny or minimize the important roles of men, children are deprived of the essential developmental and social experiences that gender balance affords.

Cunningham and Dorsey note,  “It is not reassuring that children are being harmed by this.”

Taking their position one step farther, words like “deprived” and “harmed” have no place in professions involving children.

The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) Code of Ethical Conduct, Principal 1.1 charges that “Above all, we shall not harm children.  We shall not participate in practices that are disrespectful, degrading, dangerous, exploitative, intimidating, emotionally damaging, or physically harmful to children.  This principal has precedence over all other in this Code.”

Gender discrepancies are nothing less than a direct affront to the principal imperative in early childhood education.  An acknowledgement of the problem by our professional leadership, coupled with a wholesale and an immediate systems-wide search for solutions, is long over-due.