Perceived Threats of Caring Male Teacher
By Nathan Brown
“Nathan Brown is a student of elementary education at Hamline University. He is a future educator who stands against the implementation of postmodern theory into public education and writes about these issues at NateBWriting.weebly.com. He also creates children’s music under the name ‘Captain Cool Kid’, and his first album, “Songs 4 Every1″, is soon to be released on Bandcamp.com.”
From the time I turned seventeen years old, I have worked at a childcare facility as a summer job. It has been among the greatest blessings of my life, and I take great pride in this field of work. As an atypical profession for men to be interested in, it allows me to show children that boys are allowed to have feminine interests, and this does not make them any less of a boy.
However, within this experience, I have also been on the receiving end of many dehumanizing instances of sexism from my female coworkers. These women were not evil people, or necessarily “man-hating”; they were simply acting out what they perceived as the correct thing to do, though this is no excuse for their actions. In this writing, I wish to share some of these experiences. By sharing my stories, I hope to encourage others to share theirs, and to encourage us all to stand up to sexist behavior as it might appear in our own lives, whether the recipient of the behavior is a man or a woman.
At the time of this writing, I am twenty-three years old. I will not be stating the name of the school in which these incidents occurred, because I do not believe that an entire school, or its district, deserves to be brought down for the actions of a few individuals.
On occasion, as our group of children and staff were walking to and from different places, a child would sometimes hold my hand. Similarly, a child who was either glad to see me, or upset and in need of comfort, would sometimes give me a hug. If one of two specific female staff members were present, they would inevitably scold the child for daring to hug me, or hold my hand. This happened many, many times throughout my years working with these particular coworkers. A voice would come from behind us, saying the child’s name in a harsh tone, and demanding that they stop what they are doing, saying something along the lines of “[Name]! That is not okay!“.
One child privately told me about these scoldings, and confided to me that “She said I’m not supposed to give you hugs.” Thankfully, over the course of many summers, these staff members started to gradually give up in their policing of the children’s behavior. Perhaps this was because I had gained their trust, or that they found the process to be futile. Though in spite of this, their wrongful behavior never vanished entirely.
Neither of these women ever talked to me directly about what I was doing wrong. In every scenario, they would pull the child aside and sternly tell them that they couldn’t do what they had just done. Normally, if a staff member was repeatedly making a mistake, another staff member would talk to them directly about what they were doing, and why they should stop doing it. Why these women never told me what I was doing wrong is plainly obvious: I am a man who cares about children, and to them, this is unacceptable; though they would never dare say this out loud.
It is of note that I have a personal principle of never giving a hug to a child- I must always be the recipient of it. I do this to ensure that I am respecting their personal autonomy. It is also of note that, of all of the staff members present at the site, I was the one with by far the least physical relationship with the children, as others would give physical affection to them far more than I ever did. One staff member in particular would playfully refer to one of the younger boys as her “boyfriend”, and would sometimes tickle him and wrap her arms around him. Of course, all of this was meant in a positive, caring way, and given the close relationships that the staff members had with the children, there was nothing inherently wrong with these actions. Though for me, a man, to occasionally perform some of the most basic actions of a caregiver was cause for immediate reprimand.
One particularly hurtful instance occurred when a student made the apparent mistake of calling me her “friend”. This is a word that all of the caregivers at this facility used when talking to the students, and is a relatively common practice among adults who work with children, such as: “Okay friends, let’s line up for the hallway”, or “How are you today, friend?”. It was a word that was especially common at the place in which I worked, as the staff members and children would mutually refer to each other as such.
However, one particular day, when one child referred to me as her friend, a staff member who overheard this turned to her and scolded, “He is not your friend. He is a teacher. Right?”. Her question was first met with silence on the part of the child, and then a reluctant, quiet, “Yes…” in response. My heart sank, and I was left speechless. This was a word that, until this very moment, was loudly and proudly used by virtually everyone at the facility. A word as ubiquitous as “friend” was suddenly and specifically deemed inappropriate, for reasons unstated but eminently clear: Men cannot be friends with children.
It is possible that these women’s actions were not motivated by something as simple as “distrust of men”, per se. It is possible that they would defend their actions on the basis that, though they themselves do not believe there was anything wrong with what I was doing, that they were defending me from society’s own sexism against men in childcare, and preventing an onlooker from “getting the wrong idea”. While this motivation is a distinct possibility, it does not justify their actions, as bowing down to anti-male ideas is not an effective way to combat them.
In another instance, a mother suspected me of having shown pornography to her daughter. One morning before work, I awoke to a message left on my cell phone, saying to “bring your book that you were showing to the kids yesterday”. I did not bring any book to the facility on the previous day, though I had looked at a “Ripley’s Believe It or Not!” book with the children. I figured that this must have been what the message sender was referring to. The book was owned by the childcare facility itself, and not me.
As it turned out, a girl had come home the previous night telling her mother that I had shown her a book with “naked people” in it, and her mother wanted to see the book which we were looking at. Of course, this was not true; the book occasionally featured men without their shirts on, though there was certainly no nudity to speak of. Even if there had been such nudity, this would have been the fault of the childcare facility for owning such a book in the first place, rather than of myself unknowingly opening such a wildly inappropriate book featured on their bookshelf. Had I encountered such nudity, I obviously would have immediately shut the book and reported its content to a higher-up.
As the mother walked into the building to pick up her daughter that day, she was visibly apprehensive towards me. When I greeted her with a “hello”, there was a long silence as she avoided eye contact. She then gave a short, quiet “hi” in response. This woman clearly suspected me of showing her child some sort of pornography, or engaging in similar despicable acts. Thankfully, my boss was able to discuss what had happened with the mother, and the situation was cleared up. Though at the end of the day, I was forced to go through the disturbing experience of being a suspected acting pedophile, and this likely happened because I happen to be a man.
It is true that I cannot know what would have happened in this scenario if I were a woman. Though if the childcare worker in question had had a “Mrs.” in front of their name as opposed to a “Mr.”, it is possible that the mother of this child would have recognized that her daughter had probably misinterpreted something that she had seen or heard at the daycare, as it is remarkably unlikely that a caregiver would ever decide to show pornographic images to a child. The mother still might have asked the facility about what book was read, though a female caregiver likely would have been given the benefit of the doubt, and not had any real suspicion of criminal activity placed upon them. This did not happen, and it is likely because I am a man.
It is difficult to accurately describe the mix of anger and sadness that arises when a child is yelled at for daring to give you a hug, or calling you her friend, or when you are suspected of committing an unspeakably awful crime. It makes you feel like a monster, even though that is something which you know you are not. When a woman calls out a man who works with children for daring to do his job, they are not merely being “bullies”, or “mean”; they are assigning to that man the worst possible motives behind his actions. They are implying that deep down, whoever he presents himself to be is a lie, and his intentions are to commit the worst possible crime that a person can commit.
Of course, we should call out red-flag behavior as we see it. Too often, child sexual abuse occurs because questionable behaviors on the part of an adult are allowed to continue without any intervention. The recognition of these behaviors are imperative in order to build a positive, safe world for children everywhere- though the existence of a man who merely cares about children should not be considered a red flag.
Unspoken Attitudes and Empowering Solutions
Unfortunately, the elephant in the room must be addressed: Yes, statistically, men are far more likely to commit sex crimes against children than women. Though this male overrepresentation is a feature of almost all crimes, and not merely this one subcategory. Just as black men are overrepresented in incidents of criminal activity, this does not justify personal apprehension upon interacting with an individual black man, as we would rightly identify this behavior as racism. The same can be said about men who work with children; though men are overrepresented among abusers, this does not justify acts of sexism against them. Crime data is an extremely poor indicator of who any given person is, and it is for this reason that people must be treated as individuals first, rather than as belonging to a particular identity group. It is our actions that define who we are, and not our immutable characteristics. To the men and women reading this who do not buy into knee-jerk distrust of men in childcare positions within their own lives, I thank you.
It is possible that my experiences are not representative of societal attitudes as a whole, though this is not likely. Given I have had these many experiences from three different women while working at one single place while still at the young age of twenty-three, either one of two things are true: That I have been extremely unlucky in my life circumstances, or that there are a great number of men who work with children who have similar stories.
The existence of Onion articles such as “Desperate Mom Okays Male Babysitter” point to an unspoken societal truth that many parents are simply less trusting of men than women when it comes to childcare- after all, satire always comes from a place of truth. Or, in some cases, adults will state their anti-male preference outright, as did one author in her piece “Why I won’t hire a male nanny”. In this writing, the author spends the first half pontificating about how much she “loves men”, and then spends the other half asserting how she will never hire a male nanny because of criminal statistics. In the piece, she even acknowledges the story of a man who lost his nannying job simply because he happened to be a man, calling it “a terribly sad thing”, but she nonetheless doubles down on her misandry, even as she acknowledges that her stance “sounds sexist”. Though it doesn’t just sound sexist. It is.
I do not claim that this issue is one that is systemic, or that it is one which all women are complicit. This is an issue which must be fought on an individual level, within each of our own daily lives. Thankfully, the vast majority of women that I have worked with have treated me with the same dignity as their female counterparts. Though it is both a failure on the part of myself and the women at the childcare center that any of us failed to call out and reject such blatantly prejudicial behavior as it happened in real time.
So why didn’t I call it out, and stick up for myself? Why didn’t my female coworkers defend me? The answer to both of these questions is that sticking up for others, and yourself, is hard. I myself am someone who would much prefer to avoid conflict than engage in it. Whether you are defending yourself, or defending someone else, it is no small feat to call out wrongful behavior. It is doubly difficult to do so when the person you are confronting is someone who is an otherwise very nice person, whom you do not wish to get into an argument with. Though defending ourselves and others from blatant disrespect is something we nonetheless must do.
While I certainly hope that this has just been my experience, I fear that I am but one of very many who have been wrongly perceived as a threat on the basis of their sex. If you are a man who works in a profession in which you care for children, I encourage you to share your stories, as it is through these stories that positive change can be brought about. I also ask for men and women to speak out against sexism when they see it occuring, whether it is happening to them, or they are the witness of it happening to someone else. Just as forms of sexism against women can occur in male-dominated professions, so too can it occur against men in female-dominated ones. Together, we can combat unjust perceptions about who is “allowed” to care about children, and who is not.