Promote the generational transfer of caring behaviour, write Wessel van den Berg and Kwanda Ndoda
“I am the one who’s struggling here, not her.”
This was a father’s response to my umpteenth reassurance that his daughter was okay in her new playgroup.
At that moment, she was happily arranging mud cakes on a log under the plum tree.
I realised later that he had been observing me to be sure that his daughter was safe with me as a male playgroup teacher.
In light of the extreme and constant violence towards women and children in South Africa, it was hard to argue with him.
Where parents place their children for care and early learning is one of the most important decisions they can make.
The people and places that surround a young child influence their cognitive and emotional development for life.
This will most likely be the first social space that a child encounters without a parent, and it will shape the child’s engagement with most social institutions in future – school, tertiary education and even the workplace.
We are all overwhelmed with reports about violent men, but if we are to stop the vicious cycles of violence and neglect, young children must be exposed to safe, caring and trustworthy men.
This will reduce the likelihood of boys becoming perpetrators of violence and girls being socialised to unconsciously accept this violence.
But where do we find such men?
A few men – associated with SmartStart, an early learning social franchise with a network of trained and licensed practitioners – in positions of care shared their stories.
Enhancing gender equality in the workforce is a crucial first step because, when men are involved in caregiving professions, it counters the notion that care work is only for women.
Next, we need to promote the intergenerational transfer of caring behaviour.
Recent evidence shows that men have increased oxytocin (the so-called caring hormone) levels when involved in childcare.
Spending time caring for children creates a biological feedback that enables men to be better carers of children.
Barriers to engaging men
Despite the sound individual and societal reasons for involving men in early childhood development (ECD), there are significant barriers to overcome.
It is still unusual for men to be doing what is seen as women’s work.
Senzo recalls: “My friends said: ‘You’re crazy to work with children! What do you think you’re doing?’”
Another hurdle is the risk of violence.
Preventing teachers (of both sexes) from using violence against children requires careful and effective vetting, training and monitoring.
Good practice includes a clear code of conduct, having more than one adult present with children at all times and encouraging a culture in which children feel safe to talk about their experiences, with adults taking children’s reports seriously.
Encouraging more men to become active in ECD requires a systematically implemented and monitored approach.
Balungile appreciated the fact that SmartStart did not recruit for “day mothers”, but for carers.
Some of the parents were not apprehensive in leaving their children with a male carer.
In fact, when they arrived with their children, none of them seemed apprehensive; they came, paid and dropped off the children.
They feel they are leaving the child with the “day father”.
Toy libraries are a good place to get men started, as Bonga mentioned: “Mainly for men, it’s the best way to start. You get to engage with children in a playful manner. Men typically gravitate to playing with children. Working with toys presents an opportunity that may be more appealing to men than starting in a more formal educational role.”
It’s important to acknowledge that an adult’s engagement with children can be gender biased.
A structured gender socialisation programme will allow teachers to better understand gender and socialisation, and acquire a more progressive stance.
Balungile recalls: “My child’s mother had to return to work. It was tough … I would ask women in the neighbourhood to help me change nappies, but, as time went on, I decided this was something I could do myself.”
Some men also help to normalise men’s care work in the surrounding community, as indicated by Bonga: “We can break this barrier of men not being trusted, especially with the young guys who are the fathers of tomorrow. Whenever we have an event or a parents’ meeting, it saddens me when I see that maybe only one or two men are there, but it’s a start. It teaches other men ... they want to know what we are doing; how are we doing it.”
‘I love the feeling of keeping them safe’
The work of investing in ways to get men more engaged in the care of children extends beyond the household, and can be achieved in institutional settings by deliberately focusing on recruiting men as ECD practitioners.
In the context of grotesque violence perpetrated by men against women and children, these men strike a powerful contrast in their earnestness to protect children.
Philani says: “I love the feeling of keeping them safe. They are safe in front of me. I am responsible for shaping these children so that they can live good lives.”
Global evidence shows that short-term interventions to shift cultures of patriarchy have little effect because gender norms are already fixed by early adolescence.
Embedding gender-transformative norms requires a prolonged inter-generational project aimed at shaping new identities for young children and teenagers.
The presence of male ECD practitioners, therefore, not only has the power to shape the lives of the children in their care, it has the potential to reshape subsequent generations – and their attitudes towards the roles and traits that men can possess.
As more men enter the ECD space, we have a greater chance of making it normal for men to be carers, protectors and promoters of gender equality.
Van den Berg is a father. His curiosity about men and care work has led to him working as a preschool teacher, counsellor, researcher and activist.
Ndoda is an innovation manager at strategic investor and public innovator DGMT in the All Children on Track portfolio. Formerly a civil engineer, he now works in development, focusing on education and the wellbeing of children
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