From Head Start to Therapist

by Chuck West in Chicago, IL USA

What factors or career paths lead you to work with infants/toddlers? I was looking for a way to get involved in social service. An opening occurred for the local Head Start program as a volunteer coordinator/in-kind solicitor. I applied, was hired, and found out I loved 4-year-olds. The next year they added 3-year-olds, and I was totally hooked. After almost 2 years, I was at work one day when a psychologist who had done some staff development for us called me and asked, “How would you like to play with kids all day and get paid for it?” The rest is history.

I got my bachelors degree in human development about three years after I started working my second Head Start gig (in Chicago). While there, I was involved in the development of Theraplay, which has become an international entity (3rd International Conference on Theraplay in June in Chicago), got a masters degree in social service administration, and eventually came to own the mental health consulting firm I have worked for since 1974.

How have people influenced your decision to work with infants/toddlers, and do they encourage or discourage you? I have had a number of mentors and at least a few detractors, who motivated me to learn more, try new things, and believe in myself. When I began, I was the only man in the entire Chicago Head Start Program (approximately 6,000 kids, then) who had direct, day-to-day contact with children. I was so rare, that the Chicago Public Schools used to call and ask me to talk to men when they were hired, about how to behave appropriately in a Head Start classroom (If you know me, you’d know what a joke that was. I’ve never been known for good behavior). Of course, being a man wasn’t my only shortcoming. I was also Caucasian, working almost entirely with African-American children, sometimes Hispanics; and our methods require quite a bit of physical contact, as well.

I learned quickly to introduce myself, not just to the children and the classroom folks, but to the principals, the janitors, the kitchen staff, in short, anyone at all who might see me and wonder what the hell I was doing there.

Does your being male introduce different dimensions to the atmosphere of your infants/toddlers program?
 I believe men fascinate small children, because they don’t know as much about us (aren’t as used to our presence?) as they do women. I used to worry about my deep, booming voice, until the psychologist who trained me told me it had a womb-like quality. She even played a recording of the womb she had picked up at an infant-development training session.

I have a full beard, as well, and kids just can’t resist touching it. I play a game with them where I brush my mustache down over my mouth after telling them, I’m going to hide my mouth; see if you can find it. Imagine their surprise when they get close and suddenly my tongue pops out!

What unique contributions can you make as a male professional working with infants/toddlers? I’m not sure my contributions are necessarily unique, but what I believe sets me apart is my ability to engage children in ways that are physical that many of my female coworkers are reluctant to try (giving a child a ride on my shoulders, for example). I have also learned, somewhat to my embarrassment (personal and professional) for I would really rather believe we have traveled beyond this point in our own development, that in this day of enlightenment, men tend to be viewed as authority figures even when we are, in fact, not. I’ve been in case conferences where I was the lowest-ranking staff person present, and outsiders automatically turn to me and address me as if I were in charge.

Of course, there are times, not all of which I resist, when this puts me in a position to advocate for a child that might otherwise have received short shrift.

But this aspect of my professional life is an accidental occurrence, not something I set out to create or exploit.

How might your being a male affect the children’s perceptions of masculine/feminine roles? Much for the same reasons mentioned above, I think kids are quicker to warm up to me than they might be for a strange woman. I tell fathers the easiest way to be admired by everyone in the room is to volunteer a day in the classroom, and that has been my experience without exception. Kids want to show me their new shoes, tell me about their baby sister, their mother’s name, etc. They love to show me how smart they are, etc. But especially they like to sit in my lap while I tell/read them a story.

So many of the children I work with see men only as distant, often violent or at least threatening people with few, if any, positives attached.

I am often the first man with whom they have had a friendly, non-threatening experience. And even if they have a caring man in their life, so often men get caught up in roles that do not allow them to show a nurturing, non-critical example to their kids.

I have had mothers tell me, over the years, that because of me their older sons have learned how to be gentle, how to be good caretakers and polite (read, non-aggressive) toward the female people in their lives.

I’m quite proud of that.

Does your early childhood program have policies on the importance of physical touch, body awareness, and sexuality development, and do you feel they are adequate?
 They’re very uneasy in this area.

I have suspended visits to schools that are especially phobic about it, telling them I would recommend a consultant who was more comfortable sitting in a corner, taking notes, but that’s now how I do what I do.

I’ve been able to overcome most of the negative attitudes by being very open about my intentions and the reasons for what I do.

I point out that we must set examples for appropriate behavior, even with children who have been abused/sexually mistreated, if they are to learn the right things.

Have you noticed that children who received enough nurture and ego development at home have no difficulty saying no if they feel our approach is inappropriate?

My only concession to these fears is that several years ago I stopped taking kids out the classroom for individual sessions unless another adult accompanied me.

If it is not possible for a parent to attend our sessions, then I ask the teacher or principal to appoint someone. If they can’t or won’t, I cancel my appointment until they can meet that request.

If they want the child to receive the service (and they do) they find a way to do it. As a result, I am able to demonstrate first-hand the sort of proactive, nurturing, encouraging and (appropriate) limit-setting the child will need in large doses if s/he is to experience success in her/his learning and social endeavors at school.

Does your early childhood program have policies regarding the changing of children’s diapers or clothes, and do you feel they are adequate? Where necessary, they do have policies, but at least in the pre-school ages, I think they are so cautious that children often are left in unnecessary discomfort while the system kicks in.

As a therapist I routinely used to change diapers on 3-year-old autistic children without giving it a second thought. Of course, this calls for a huge amount of trust and confidence in the person doing it; and these are not automatically present in any program I’m aware of.

They need to be developed over time, tested repeatedly, and proven to work.

Would you promote the recruitment of other males as infant/toddler professionals, and if so, why? Yes! Yes! Yes! It’s the easiest way to ensure that the next generation understands the potential men have for breaking out of the stereotypical roles we either seek out or at least allow ourselves to be pigeonholed into.

I was a single parent of 4 children for 10 years and I dare anyone to say I’m not as nurturing, caring, or capable as anyone else, male or female.

My oldest son, father of two, now, has told me more than once that I taught him how to hold his infant daughter, how to change diapers, prepare bottles, comfort a sick child, etc.

Kids are missing out on half the potential success, often, if they don’t recognize men as caregivers. And men need to know that it’s OK even GREAT for them to put aside traditional (read, competitive, authoritarian, etc.) roles in favor of gentleness, understanding, and nuturing.