How Patriarchy Has a Grip on Early Childhood Care and Education

Cape Town, South Africa, teacher and kids at playschool
As a teacher, father, and advocate, early childhood care and education has been central to who I am since 2003. Over the years, a handful of experiences have helped me understand what it truly means to be a man in the lives of young children. Some have been funny, others worth a casual nod. But far too many have been disconcerting. They lead me to feel like men don’t belong in early childhood care education (ECCE).

On the positive end, I’ve heard comments like, “Wooow, you’re like a unicorn!” More neutral have been variations of, “It’s great to see a man so involved in his students’ lives, they need good male role models.” Or, “I wish more men were like you.” And then there have been, even directed toward me in my role as a father, “Don’t take your daughter to the bathroom, I’ll take her.” Or, “Are you married?…To a woman?” Or, “I don’t trust a man to take care of children.” And, “It’s not natural for men to take care of children.”

These comments stem from the belief that healthy development requires a feminine mother and masculine father in their life, or what Jo Warin (2017) calls “gender balance.”

Gender balance, and its ripple effects are the reason many men feel like they don’t belong in the field of ECCE. They choose not to enter the career field, leave the field early in their career, or experience many of the discomforts I have experienced (Heikkila & Hellman, 2017).

I call for society to recognize that men do belong—as caregivers, teachers, and fathers.

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Reject Heteronormative Beliefs that Men are not Caregivers

In many families, boys are taught to be “masculine,” pursue masculine hobbies and socially engage with others in masculine ways. Both boys and girls often hear some version of intended insult such as, “you throw like a girl.” The underlying message is that girls are weak and incapable; boys are strong and persevere. Any indicator of stereotypical feminine traits observed in a boy is interpreted as a flaw. Masculine traits are praised and celebrated. That mentality sticks with young boys as they grow into young men, becoming the paradigm for normal. There is a near-universal expectation by children and most adults that boys become fathers who are masculine and girls become mothers who are feminine. The shared expectation is gender balance; a symptom of our patriarchal system that inherently grants men power over women.

I argue in favor of an alternative perspective known as “degendering,” in which early childhood professionals are not recognized for their masculine gender role (Martino & Rezai- Rashati, 2012). Instead, men are recognized for the knowledge, skills, and dispositions that make them a valuable piece of the puzzle for high-quality ECCE. Men must be recognized for who they are, not who society wants them to be.

Challenge the Gender Stereotypes in Mainstream Entertainment

Movies, television, and other media are cornerstones to many of societies’ understandings of social conditions and the changing landscape of social constructions such as gender roles (Kord & Krimmel, 2013). Literature has investigated the role of men in television shows (Butsch, 2003; Feasey, 2008; Kord & Krimmer, 2013). Over the past 60 years, the family structures and gender roles in many families who live in the United States have changed. However, television shows have not. In an overwhelming majority of television programs men are paternal, powerful, and less engaged with children than the women. They are given more flexibility to make mistakes. Women are maternal, nurturing, submissive, caregivers, and logical (Butsch, 2003; Kord & Krimmer).

Heteronormative values are not limited to adult programming. Many programs for children implicitly convey similar messages that maintain a gender balance lens rather than a degendering lens. Early childhood professionals and families must challenge the heteronormative values, talk with each other about the messages reinforcing patriarchy and societal beliefs that a healthy child must have a masculine and feminine caregiver rather than simply a loving and supportive one, regardless of gender.

Create a Program Culture Focused on Quality ECCE, Not Gender Balance

Throughout my years in ECCE, I have had the privilege of participating in many programs. I have found clear differences between programs that appear to make men feel welcomed as fathers and professionals and programs that communicate a message that is less inviting. Programs placing the voice of every family at the center of educational decisions and establishing a culture of inclusion, equity and quality care and education tend to be welcoming to men. Programs that are less welcoming establish administrators as the decision makers and establish a culture of accountability and standardization.

A program with strong participation from men recognizes the need for quality before social expectations. The early childhood professionals and administrators expect the participation of all parents. The program provides activities and events that focus on a wide range of activities during the week, in the evening and on the weekends. The early childhood professionals and administrators represent the identities of families in the program. Programs that are welcoming to men communicate a goal of having high-quality ECCE, not a standardization and gender balance.

A program that struggles to include men, or to maintain the consistent employment and participation of men, tend to enforce administrative control. Families’ voices may be considered, but in the end every decision is based on administrative initiatives. The families who participate are often assigned to responsibilities that assist the administrators and initiatives rather than activities centered on enhancing children’s ECCE experience. Most family members, especially fathers, are unrecognized. Programs do not intentionally exclude them, but the program does not offer opportunities for the family members to feel welcomed. Administrators often express their admiration for men on their teaching staff, because it provided “more balanced perspectives.” They praise fathers who are actively involved because they are “good role models.”

Loosen the Grip

There may never be an equal number of men as women in ECCE. However, it can be a field that includes all of the best candidates this country has to offer and receives the participation of all family members regardless of their gender. Society must shift the focus of ECCE, reject patriarchy, break away from gender balance and explore how to degender programs.

We must show families, ECCE professionals and advocates that #MenBelongInECCE.