After Amy Kuras posted this piece about Boy Scouts getting training to be baby sitters, I was surprised to see some of the comments assuming that male caregivers are de facto abuse risks to children. Not only do I think this is a woefully discriminatory way of viewing half the human population, I think there might even be some benefits to male caregivers that female caregivers don’t offer. I propose that it can even be dangerous to exclude boys and men as boys and men from childcare and that using them as caregivers can even help prevent abuse.
First let me address the discrimination aspect. I am sure that many Strollerderby readers have fathers, husbands, brothers and perhaps old-enough-to-baby-sit sons who aren’t abusers and could never be abusers. Of course they do. So I have to scratch my head at the knee-jerk fear some women express about the idea of a male baby sitter. To categorically dismiss all boys and men as potential abusers doesn’t make sense. Yes, statistically, most abusers are “heterosexual” men, but statistically, most abusers are also related to the children they abuse. In fact, some statistics show that one third of sexual molestation is perpetrated by a parent. But I bet most moms don’t refuse to allow their children’s fathers to be alone with their children because of the statistical probability that they will be abusers. It would be ridiculous to use statistics that way, right? Relying on statistical percentages rather than actual knowledge of an individual baby sitter applicant would be similarly foolish.
I think categorically mistrusting male caregivers and categorically trusting female ones is in itself dangerous. Why? Because a false sense of security about a caregiver not being a molester because she’s female could cause a parent to let down her guard about other possible dangers. First of all, there is that 1-10% of sexual abuse (depending on the study you look at) perpetrated by girls and women. Then there are the other dangers to children besides sexual abuse that are more evenly split between male and female caregivers. A frustrated caregiver of either gender might well shake a colicky baby, for example. It’s important to consider many factors in selecting childcare. Assuming a man is an unsafe choice is a blunt selection method and doesn’t seem to indicate the kind of thought that really needs to go into the decision.
I have used two men to provide a significant amount of care for my children. And their legal guardians in the case of their parents’ deaths are their godfathers. One of my caregivers worked half-time on a regular schedule for my family for two years during one of which, he lived with us. He could not have done a better job. The single father of a grown daughter he had raised since his ex-wife left them both when the baby was under two, “Uncle” David was my older daughter’s third parent from the moment she arrived in our home at three days old.
We currently employ a young man to care for our now four-year old and 18-month old daughters slightly less than half-time. He too is beloved by both of my children and plans to work for us throughout the next year or two while he attends a local community college. I am trying to encourage him to go into early childhood education. He would be a gifted preschool or elementary teacher. My only concern for him is the discrimination against men in that field.
My daughters have lesbian moms. They also each have a birth mother, as they are both adopted. Neither of them have men in their lives that meet our family’s definition (or their birth mothers’ definitions) of “father.” Given the statistics, my girls are likely to grow up to be heterosexual women. When they go looking for men with whom to partner, I want them to have a clear sense that men not only can, but should be nurturing, loving and caring. I want them to have a strong expectation of nothing less. And if they happen across men who offer them less, I want them to recognize that quickly and move on. Giving them male caregivers during their tender years is the best way I can think of to imprint these expectations in their psyches.
But it isn’t just faraway romantic benefits I hope male caregivers give my daughters. It’s also prevention of abuse in the present. With a concrete example of the proper boundaries of a loving male baby sitter (or uncle, or grandfather, or godfather–which my daughters also have), my girls might better be able to recognize a breach of those boundaries by a would-be abuser encountered in some other area of their lives. In these early years, I am almost always able to have intimate knowledge of the people into whose care I place my children. As they grow older and go into situations in which I have less opportunity to know the adults in their orbit, I want them to have their own strong sense of what is appropriate and what isn’t. Male caregivers help them develop that sense.
I can understand that parents with their own abuse histories by boys or men might very well decide they simply can’t handle placing their own children in male care. But for those without any immediate knowledge of abuse, I don’t think having heard a story or having had an acquaintance or having read something about a male caregiver abusing a child is a good reason to exclude male caregivers from their children’s lives. To do so is to possibly deny your children a wonderful relationship with a beloved sitter. It’s also to deny boys and men the opportunity to get hands-on experience caring for young children before they become fathers themselves. And isn’t more hands-on fathering what so many moms wish for?
Image: my older daughter with her first manny