‘I love the feeling of keeping them safe’ – Men as early childhood development practitioners

Caring men have an important role to play in the development of children. As fathers, grandfathers, brothers, uncles, caregivers and, as explored in this article, ECD practitioners. There is a growing number of men working as Early Childhood Development (ECD) practitioners – challenging and changing norms and perceptions that looking after young children is a “women only” career. In this photo Mgcineni Mapukata reads to his grandchildren on the veranda of his homestead in Amajingqi. Both him and his wife, who is a Nal’ibali Funda Leader, understand the role of early learning and the benefits of a caring, positive role model. Photo by Bart Love, May 2018.

“I’m the one that’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 he was observing me to be sure that his daughter really was okay and safe with me as a male playgroup teacher. In the light of the extreme violence towards women and children in South Africa, it was hard to argue with him.

Where you place your child for care and early learning is one of the most important decisions a parent can make. The people and places that surround a young child influence their cognitive and emotional development for life. This is also likely to 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, including school, tertiary education and even the workplace.

We are all overwhelmed with reports of men’s violence, 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 and girls being socialised to unconsciously accept men’s violence. But where do we find such men?

A few men in positions of care shared their stories with Kwanda Ndoda, Innovation Manager at the DG Murray Trust. Interviews were conducted with men associated with SmartStart, an early learning social franchise with a network of trained and licensed practitioners (SmartStarters) and with Toy Librarians working with the Ntataise Lowveld Trust. Toy Librarians play with children, fix broken toys and avail toys to playgroups and early childhood development (ECD) centres. Their stories offer hope and point to two ways to promote a healthy society. Enhancing gender equality in the workforce is a crucial first step: 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 as evidenced by Senzo, who says: Working here helped me a lot. I can control my temper and my anger.

Barriers to engaging men in ECD

Despite the sound individual and societal reasons for involving men in 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) using violence against children requires careful and effective vetting, and 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 where children feel safe to talk about their experiences, with adults taking children’s reports seriously enough to act.

Changing norms

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 his 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 children in a playful manner. Men typically gravitate to playing with children; working with toys and play presents an opportunity that may be more appealing to men than starting in a more formal educational role.

It’s important to acknowledge that adults’ 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 a ‘Come and Play’ or a parents’ meeting, it saddens me when I see that you will find maybe one or two males there, but it’s a start… It teaches other males… they want to know what we are doing, how are we doing it.

Most of the men spoke about the valuable role they play in a society where fathers are not involved enough in children’s lives. Pastor George aka Papa G says: The reason I like to work with children is that I grew up without a father. I know first-hand that as a boy when you grow up without a father you miss the things that the father could’ve taught you.

‘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. Says Philani: 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.

The 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.[1]  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 to the roles and traits that men can possess. As more enter into the ECD space, the greater chance we have of making it normal for men to be carers, protectors and promoters of gender equality.

Written by Wessel van den Berg and Kwanda Ndoda

Wessel van den Berg is the father of two young children. In his spare time, his curiosity about men and care work has led him to work as a kindergarten teacher, counsellor, researcher and activist. His Twitter handle is @Wespresso.

Kwanda Ndoda is an Innovation Manager at the DGMT in the All Children on Track portfolio.  Formerly a Civil Engineer, he now works in development focusing on education and the well-being of children.

This article was first published in the City Press on 13 October 2019. Find it here.


[1] Kågesten A, Gibbs S, Blum R, Moreau C, Chandra-Mouli V, Herbert A, Amin A (2016). Understanding Factors that Shape Gender Attitudes in Early Adolescence Globally: A Mixed-Methods Systematic Review. PLoS One. Jun 24;11(6):e0157805. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0157805. eCollection 2016


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