One of the things I cherish about my husband is his abiding concern for young children. When I was still so-not-ready to have babies, all my attention going to being as big in the world as I could possibly be, he was working on a project in the schools to help young children respond creatively to conflict. Then he took a job in a little cooperative nursery school in our neighborhood, steadily building his skills and experience. My attitude about the importance of caring for children was transformed dramatically by the birth of our first, and then our second son. His commitment stayed steady, as he incorporated our children into his own pre-school project, a unique blend of child care, parent groups and social emotional support for the whole family.
Chuck is an enormously popular person in any group of young children. He is wonderful at playing–being silly and energetic, making warm invitations to even the shyest child–and they are drawn to him like bees to honey. One little boy whose father is not in his life just lights up when Chuck comes into the room–there’s no one he’d rather be with. And I’ve watched little girls who have picked up fears of men use his presence to build up their connection and courage.
So I take the whole issue of the involvement of men in child care very personally. Not only do young children need models of nurturing men, but men–of all ages–can benefit enormously from playing that role, and having regular access to all the openness, wonder and creativity that come with it.
A young man just beginning in the field, Richard Levy, co-chair of the Gwynedd Mercy College AEYC chapter, has this to say:
I find each day in early childhood to be an adventure full of unexpected rewards. You never know what a child is going to say or do. In most cases you have to follow the children and center the day on them. With each adventure you find roadblocks and detours, and working with the children to navigate through and overcome those obstacles is what makes our day enjoyable. I feel so privileged each day to have a classroom of children who greet me and ask how I am. I love that they are able to teach me new things and can always bring the best out of someone. I think my favorite thing about early childhood education has to be that children tell it like it is and they never hold anything back.
Though some view teaching as a thankless job, I cannot be more excited to be teaching early childhood. It is so important that we continue to educate others on the importance of early childhood education so that it should not be overlooked. My hope for the future is that I will be able to be as great as my teachers have been to me and that each student will someday remember that I made an impact in their life.
Yet there are two overwhelming barriers to men’s participation in the field of early childhood. One is the fear of abuse. So many women see a man around young children and immediately suspect him of the worst. Of course we are fiercely protective of our children, and there have been men out there who are proven child molesters. It makes sense to screen carefully for that in hiring, and to have a clear eye out for danger signals thereafter. But to damn all men for the sins of a few, to hold tight to a position of “guilty until proven innocent” when innocence is impossible to prove, is a grave disservice to the loving men who have so much to offer–and to the children who need them so much.
The second barrier is money. The early childhood field is notoriously low paid, and benefits are generally terrible. Many teachers move on in search of higher pay when it comes time to support a family. Others can only afford to stay because of a partner who makes more money or can provide the health benefits. I remember a nursery school teacher telling the story of someone seeing her paycheck and commenting that it wasn’t much for two weeks’ work. “That’s for the whole month!” she wailed. For men who are trying to make it professionally–and the pressure on them is intense–a child care worker’s salary just doesn’t cut it.
And things are getting worse. According to the US Bureau of Census Labor Statistics 2011 Current Population Survey, men currently make up only 2.3 percent of preschool and kindergarten instructors, a dip from the pre-recession proportions of 2.7 percent.
As we try to do the best for our little children, let’s remember that the solutions that will be best for them–well-resourced programs that offer high quality to their families and good working conditions to their staff–will be the ones that also encourage participation by our wonderful men.