How should men act around children?

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A normal Sunday afternoon in the park with my wife and our three-year old daughter. Out of the corner of my eye another little girl is swinging from the monkey bars. She’s almost two metres off the ground and is visibly distressed.

My first instinct is to rush to her aid but I stay planted to the ground as I look around anxiously to see if one of her parents is going to help her. If she falls, she’s going to hurt herself, possibly break a limb. But still I don’t step in to help. Fortunately, a female friend stepped in to save the day.

Why didn’t I help her? For the same reason that I’m happy to take my daughter to soccer but not to ballet class. Because I’m a man.

I don’t want to put myself in a position where I could be perceived as predatory or a pervert, or make a child, or it’s parents feel threatened. I’ve internalised this fear so much so that even though I only wanted to help, I would have felt creepy if I’d lifted someone else’s daughter down from the monkey bars.

I know I’m not the only man who feels this way. At a recent playdate my daughter and another little boy were naked, playing with a hose and jumping on the trampoline.

A male friend dropped around to visit and was palpably distressed by the children’s nudity. He said that he didn’t know where to look and he if he looked in the wrong direction a second too long, he feared we’d think he was a creep. It was only when the kids were dressed that he relaxed.

Even men who are employed to look after children have to monitor their own behaviour in ways that would probably never occur to their female colleagues.

On a recent segment on ABC Radio National’s Life Matters show, for example, Centre Coordinator of preschool and kindergarten at Little Shearwater Craig d’Arcy told of a family who wrote on their enrolment form ‘If there is a male at this centre, they’re to have nothing to do with my child’.  

D’Arcy added that if he is changing a child, then a female colleague needs to be at the door to ensure that he doesn’t do anything inappropriate or illegal.

In our society, there’s a rule that it’s not acceptable for men to touch or even look at children that are not their own. While this might seem paranoid, it is  justified. The current enquiry into the Catholic church and other organisations over sex abuse is a stark reminder of the problems of trusting men too much. While only a minority of men are paedophiles, there are enough of them to justify the social convention.

As a father, I sleep better at night knowing that there are social barriers between men and my daughter. Despite the inconvenience and unfair assumption of guilt, I’m glad that male teachers and childcare workers feel compelled to keep their office doors open when dealing with girls.

At the same time, a more nuanced public conversation about men and children would be welcome; one that expanded, even slightly, positive models of men in nurturing roles such as childcare and teaching — without the automatic presumption that they are predators.

Of course, that doesn’t mean taking a laissez-faire attitude to men and children, but it does mean abandoning stereotypes — stereotypes which, as in my experience in the park — can be dangerous.

 

Christopher Scanlon is Associate Dean (Academic) in the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at La Trobe University.

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98 comments

  • I totally agree and understand the same fear Christopher outlines. I work in retail where all people attend. I have to so careful to not ignore children with their parents but not to be too interested either. Society has become a minefield.

    Commenter
    I am male
    Location
    Hampton
    Date and time
    February 28, 2013, 6:58AM
    • I used to feel as the author does but now, rightly or wrongly, I've moved on to another stage. I was recently out when I saw a small kid crossing the road some distance from its parent. For less than a second my initial instinct was to dart over and pull it back, but then I thought "f it: I'll only get in trouble" and continued on my way without even looking back. Fortunately nothing happened. When it's widely reported that even large companies consider me a sex-molester (e.g. airlines with their seating policies) and yet the Sex Discrimination commissioner does absolutely nothing, you can bet that I'll be ignoring any child in danger that isn't related to me.

      Commenter
      Trevor
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      February 28, 2013, 8:22AM
    • I am frightened to talk or even acknowledge children in public that I don't know.
      I would never dream of making any kind of physical contact with a child, even a pat on the head would almost certainly be viewed with deep suspicion.
      It's a weird, twisted culture we have developed where we see all men as potential pedophiles.

      The worst thing about it is not that I am embarrassed and nervous around children, constantly monitoring my behavior and making sure that I acknowledge them as little as possible.
      The worst thing is that we teach children to fear and distrust adult males. Particularly for young males, this is a real concern. Boys in particular need male role models, they need to have strong male authority figures to look up to and model themselves on. They need to learn how to be men.
      But we teach them that all men they are not intimately familiar with already are to be feared.

      Commenter
      Jon
      Date and time
      February 28, 2013, 9:59AM
    • I wonder if those hyping up the danger to children posed by men think that by doing so they make children less safe. Lets face it when women and children are in a dangerous situation it is more likely to be a man who will put his life on the line to rescue them. I have seen this sort of situation with a lost child in a shopping centre. It is highly unlikely for a man to step in. Generally they will point it out to a woman and let her take action, avert their eyes or walk away. I have also one incident were a man did step in only to have the mother (when found) scream abuse at him and accuse him of being a sleaze or worse.

      Commenter
      Bev
      Date and time
      February 28, 2013, 10:14AM
    • "I have also one incident were a man did step in only to have the mother (when found) scream abuse at him and accuse him of being a sleaze or worse."

      @Bev. This happened to me too. At first i though I was in the wrong, even though I was simply helping a lost child. During the shrill and hysterical tirade I received from the Mother, it occurred to me that she was simply directing the anger at herself for losing the child (or, in this case letting the child wander away as she sat in a cafe gossiping with her friends) onto me. When she had finally finished her rant, it was calmly mentioned to her that if she had been paying more attention to where her child was in the first place, this situation would not have occurred. Well, rather than face up to her failings as a Mother she insisted the Police were called. In the end it was a waste of everyone's time. I probably should mention that all the while, I had my 3 young daughters (8,5 & 2) in tow. This seemed to make no difference to the 'outraged' Mother who insisted i was a paedophile.

      Commenter
      A Nam
      Date and time
      February 28, 2013, 11:34AM
  • This makes me sad. One of the things I like about my daughters child care centre is that there are a couple of male teachers on staff. This was reassuring for my daughter who'd had a stay at home Dad since she was 2 months old. Kids need good role models of each gender and its important for us to raise them not to fear one gender because of a minority.

    Commenter
    Edify
    Date and time
    February 28, 2013, 7:37AM
    • There are some really puzzling conclusions at the end of this article; if the writer is all for taking extra precautions even though we're talking about such small numbers, why should this apply exclusively to men? Shouldn't people of both genders take extra steps to ensure openness and accountability when dealing with others' children?

      I do hope those parents who were so rude on their application for child care were told that their application was declined as the centre couldn't meet their unreasonable requests.

      Commenter
      DisDis
      Date and time
      February 28, 2013, 8:06AM
      • this experience of fatherhood is quite sad. being a father is being part of a very special community. how can one fully participate and enjoy parenthood if you are frightened of actively being involved? yes, there are twisted, warped people in our society. we take every precaution we can to protect our kids from them. where kids are involved doors should never be shut, regardless of who or how many people are on either side.
        you can only be responsible and hold your head up for yourself. you know within yourself if you are good person and have done the right thing.
        if you see one of my kids in imminent danger please rush to help them. don't stand about looking for someone else to do your job- your job of being part of the caring, active community of parents and care-givers. when you visit our place, where we regularly have upwards of four little nudists playing on the trampoline or with the water hose/sprinkler, enjoy their spontaneous and lively play, don't limit them by excluding yourself until they are dressed again.
        build resilient children who respect their bodies and the minds and bodies of their peers, who can strongly say 'no', and can always come to you with any concern, knowing they will get a fair hearing and swift action.

        Commenter
        parent 2
        Location
        sydney
        Date and time
        February 28, 2013, 8:12AM
        • Men,
          Be bold in your convictions, show confidence in your actions and these feelings will not signify. It's a sad reflection on you as individuals, not just men, that you did not step up to that child and ask them if they needed help? You are a father, would you want you child to fall or be injured if help was at hand? I would be thankful if another dad stepped in with confidence and helped out.

          Same goes for anyone in distress or needing help, people worry about a liability or a perception that there intentions are bad. If we all stepped up and asked, do you need help or are you OK this place would be better for it.

          I'm a man, a father of two girls under 5 and proud of what I am and what I bring to my family. To parallel being male and paederasty is drawing a long bow, and a presumption that leaves me incredulous at the suggestion

          Commenter
          TD
          Location
          Syd
          Date and time
          February 28, 2013, 8:19AM
          • I'm with you TD. I understant the point the article is making but giving in to it is a bigger problem.

            Professionals like teachers are in a tricky spot with both males and females being under constant scrutiny by fussy parents. But if you are just a member of the public look out for each other!

            Another parent lashing out at you for helping is them just venting their fears of something happening to her kid at you. Try not to take it personally.

            Commenter
            cap'n crunch
            Location
            Melbourne
            Date and time
            February 28, 2013, 11:16AM

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