As I meet with the new group of students, I look around the room at the unfamiliar faces and make a mental note of the number of young men. I feel a sense of some excitement, knowing that these young men have chosen to work in child and youth care despite a probable lack of support from the significant men in their own lives. I have heard from male students about discouragement from their fathers, and the teasing they endure from so-called friends. This does not surprise me in a society where people are allocated roles according to gender stereotypes and inequalities. Daily reinforcement of messages such as, “women are illogical” or “only gay men are gentle” coerce people into rigid compartments. These deny individuality and prevent people from exploring their unique potential. As a result of these biases, men who choose to do child and youth care might be viewed with suspicion by some, as though somehow they are not “real men” because they are doing “women's work”. But men who commit themselves to working with children and youth are demonstrating great courage in breaking free of the confines of the macho role expected of them. My hope is that this liberation will be at least as exhilarating for them as it is for me! We desperately need men in child and youth care work, just as we need women as doctors and engineers and judges.
Role models and identity
I recently read a research article about teenage boys being brought up by single mothers. The article discussed the fact that children generally spend far more time with female adults than with male adults. Young children receive care primarily from mothers and female relatives. The majority of teachers are women. Boys reach adolescence often having had quite limited exposure to male role models. Fathers may be absent, or unwilling to engage with children after a day at work ... although somehow, women are expected to be able to work all day, and still be able to take care of the children... because it’s women's work?
All of a sudden, puberty hits, boys start becoming men, and the only way they can identify themselves as being men is by identifying themselves as “not-women”. As such, the norms and values taught and modelled by women are rejected, as though being a man means being uncaring, absent, uninvolved with family, and unable to be kind and gentle and compassionate. These are not the type of men who contribute to the development of other people and society as a whole. These are not the type of men we want to create in our youthful democracy.
We need men in child and youth care work. We need men to serve as strong, positive role models to boys, and to challenge the images of manhood provided by the media. Male child and youth care workers, send a message, not only to boys, but to girls and to society as a whole, that real men care for others. There is no weakness in showing kindness and helping those in pain.
At the same time, it may well be that male child and youth care workers do things differently to female child and youth care workers, or that to some extent, they do different things. Due to a combination of socialisation and biological factors, male child and youth care workers might be more likely, than their female counterparts to play football, to build a tree house, to assist with science homework ... This is not to say that women can’t or shouldn’t do these things, nor that we should exclude male child and youth care workers from duties such as, cooking, or comforting the child who is crying. Males and females may make different contributions in the child and youth care team, just as people from different cultures bring diversity and increase the resources available to that team.
Appreciating the differences
I am not suggesting that we return to the time when residential child and youth care centres employed married women as “housemothers” and their husbands went out to work, and at the end of the day, came home and played “housefather”. In professional child and youth care, it is not necessary to fabricate some kind of nuclear family. In fact, it may well be that in some contexts, it might be quite inappropriate for there to be male child and youth care workers, just as it may not be appropriate to have female child and youth care workers in some programs. But young people at risk need to see how men and women can live and work and be together in equal power relationships without falling into negative, stereotypical behaviour patterns. They need to have opportunities to learn from the experience of male and female adults, since there are certain things that are more familiar, or even unique, to one sex as opposed to the other.
Men play a critical role in professional child and youth care work, and those who come forward and are willing to revolt against rigid gender stereotypes should be applauded and welcomed. The children will benefit, the team will benefit, and ultimately society will benefit.
Hope for the future
As I look around the room at the unfamiliar faces and see the eagerness of young men and women wanting to work with marginalised children, I feel a great sense of hope, a sense that they are doing far more than responding to the needs of a society licking its historical wounds. They are creating something new, a society freer of restrictions based on biology, a society in which human beings, both male and female, are encouraged to be themselves more fully.
This feature: Winfield, J. (2005). One Woman's Thoughts about Male Child and Youth Care Workers. Child and Youth Care. 23(4), p. 27