Working with Children – Intertwined with Faith

by Ron Blatz in Manitoba, Canada

My personal story is unavoidably intertwined with my being a part of a faith community. As an Evangelical Christian much of life is seen as the outworking of a God who has a specific purpose for each of us. Our job is to observe the gifts and passions he has placed in us and watch for the open doors that come our way, and then to courageously walk through these doors believing that we can do anything.  All this helps to understand how a Mennonite farm kid from the prairies of Canada could possibly end up in Early Childhood. The first open door for me came when I was reconsidering a move back to Winnipeg, Canada and a friend of mine called and offered my a job in an Early Childhood Program that she had started. With my desire to relocate, this job offer came at just the right time.

You see, as a young farm boy growing up in the sixties I had never even considered an involvement with children. I had never babysat or really had any opportunity to even explore that area of my life.  Child minding was woman’s work where I came from. But now, thanks to a friends offer, I was to receive an opportunity to taste and see the wonderful world of growing children first hand.  I still believe that most young boys don’t have enough opportunities to explore the world of Early Childhood, and this limits their career choices. This is one of the reasons I’m so happy to see that High Schools in many jurisdictions in Canada are making volunteerism a part of the requirements for graduation.  Through this we have seen many young boys seek out our Non Profit centre and this gives us a chance to open their minds to ECE.

After about 2 years of work, (and getting married) and thinking more of the future I decided I could never afford to raise a family on the ECE salary that I was making. I quit my job and went off to school to train as a carpenter.  I know that salary expectations of men in Canada are still generally higher than it is for women and the low wages are one of the biggest obstacles to staying in the field.

Within 2 years of leaving the Centre my friend was again called me and asked me to return to the program and consider training for the management.  She was planning a family and would be leaving for good.  I know now that this too was one of those open doors that God put there for me.

26 years have passed and I have never ever regretted choosing to come back into the world of ECE. I have loved every day of those 26 years and feel so blessed to have been given the chance to live the varied experiences presented by our field. Some of those experiences relate directly to the world of Men in ECE and are as follows:

  • Most of the years were spent as the lone male in a sea of female employees. After some time I got used to it, but have to say that this is still not my wife’s experience. This certainly has added to the challenge of staying in the field but I still feel a strong calling to the work and so accept this a one of the small obstacles.
  • A year ago, the male component of our staff had grown to 12 out of 40. I bragged that perhaps there was not other centre in the world with 12 men. No one has yet proved me wrong. Many ask how I made this happen. My take on this is, that once there was are a few male staff word gets out and other men are referred to our centre. Also having a group of men certainly creates a more accepting environment and a more male friendly environment. We are now down to 7 male staff so you can see the battle for balance never goes away.
  • I’ve seen other centres with male staff put multiple policies in place to protect their men. Policies like restricting male staff from being with children unless a female staff is also in the room, restrictions on taking girls to the bathroom, and restrictions on diapering of young children (not allowed). At our Discovery Centre we have chosen not to feed into that stereotypical view of men as predators, and untrustworthy. We place no restrictions on our staff, male or female. When questioned about this, we speak of the fact that less than 1% (don’t quote me on the figures, but I believe I am accurate on this) of child abuse happens at the hands of paid Child Care staff, and my guess is that only the smallest sliver of that could be attributed to males. We won’t make policies based on those statistics. I think my guys appreciate the vote of confidence. I have had to remind some parents over the years that Discovery Centre is a male friendly workplace and if they as parents don’t want this then they have perhaps chosen the wrong centre. Almost all parents actually really appreciate this part of our program.
  • Men’s play tends to look a bit different from that of females. One Monday morning one of my supervisors came storming into my office convinced that we had hired an absolutely incompetent male assistant and she couldn’t believe he could be so stupid. I sat and listened to her, not knowing what to say, because deep inside I think I may have done the same thing he had just done, but I was scared to admit it. What was his wrongdoing? Well, some weekend visiting children had left behind one of those red paper rolls of “caps” that you put into a toy gun. All boys my age had cap guns that used these noise making “caps” (really just a small amount of some kind of powder under the paper that make a loud “bang” when ignited with an impact. We all used to routinely take these in hand and swiftly slide our finger nails across the surface to set them off. Well Noah, my staff, after finding these caps, asked the children if they knew what it was or what it did. The preschoolers didn’t, so he began to show them how you can make them bang by putting them on the concrete and banging them with a small stone. You see, from my supervisors perspective this was seen as dangerous and stupid. In Noah and my world it is a part of the “adventure” of life and really is nothing short of science in action. I believe men are more wired to take risks and less wired to think safety than most women and this can be a challenge as we learn to work together. To be honest with you, this is the same challenge my wife and I faced as we raised our children. At Discovery we embrace these differences, believing that in a gender balanced work environment we will find a better way to deal with these things.

Play fighting also seems to occur much more with male staff. A little blood on the lip from a fall or stray snow ball required only a bit of snow (we live in Canada) a few seconds and the battle resumes. Kids can learn that they are tougher than they think and that a little bit of blood is not that big of a deal. I’m sure many will disagree but, in a man’s world that’s kind of how it works. I think it’s good for kids to experience the variety of responses that humans give to minor injuries.

  • Nearly 2 years ago Don Piburn greeted me in Montreal Canada at the World Forum (my first one) with an “Expect Male Involvement” pin. I wore it faithfully for nearly a year and was most interested in the reactions (100% positive) of people who read the pin. Since then I have made 250 identical pins and handed them out to over 200 men. These include the Minister of Social Development of Canada (in 2006), the Minister of Family Services and Housing in our province (this is the ministry under which ECE fits), my pastor who shares the same struggles in the kids ministry at church, and many teachers and ECE’s. Don told me that all change is proceeded by an expectation of change, and that is why the pins reads as it does. In sharing with people about the pin I suggest to them that if 1/2 of the children in my centre were “Aboriginal (First Nations or American Indians) I would be under such severe pressure to have aboriginal staff that it would almost be unbelievable. Yet although 1/2 of all the children in group ECE programs in Canada are boys and yet there seems to be no corresponding expectation of finding male staff. The following story reinforces how this expectation is not yet commonplace.
  • About a year ago as we were contemplating some staffing changes it looked for a while like one of our preschool rooms would land up with 3 male staff in it. My Director of Programming ( a female) looked at me and asked, do you think that’s a good idea? There are a lot of girls in the room. In 25 years I have never had this question asked when we settled for all female staff in a room. Seems we don’t expect male involvement but do expect female involvement.

I believe that if my centre was entirely staffed by males, there would be something missing. I could certainly guess at some of what that would be. Conversely I also believe that something is missing if the centre is staffed solely by females. I’m interested in exploring that further. It’s probably not that politically correct but at my age I’m more interested in the dialogue and less concerned about those who are not interested in exploring things beyond their world view. I believe that God wired men and women differently and there are some things that a boy can only get from a man. I’d like to know more about what those things are because somewhere in there we may find even more compelling reasons for us as men to come to the table when it comes to ECE.