Picture this. You’re in a grocery store with your child or a friend’s child. Your child is around 4 years old. You’re looking at something on the shelf and next thing you know, your child is gone. You look up and down the aisle but they are nowhere to be seen. Starting to panic, but not in full-blown panic mode yet, you start looking around the store. All of a sudden you see your child hand in hand with a woman who is walking towards the exit. What goes through your mind? If you are like me, and I suspect most women, you assume that the woman is going to the nearest checkout or customer service desk so an announcement can be made. You breathe a sigh of relief and hustle over to thank the woman.
Now re-read that story but instead of seeing your child walking away with a woman, what if your child was being lead by a man to the exit? Would you have the same sense of relief? Would you assume that he was taking the child to a store employee, or would you would tense up and wonder/worry/fear that he was going to exit the store with your child and do who-knows-what to your child? Be honest. How would you feel?
We are all well aware of how gender stereotypes hurt women and most of us realize the often subtle, negative effects on men. My boyfriend pointed this one out to me, one I had never considered for the simple reason that I am not a man and it never occurred to me. The fact is, parents have been teaching their children to fear men. It may not be intentional and most of us aren’t even aware of it, but if we see a child crying on the street, if a woman is comforting the child, we think nothing of it. But if a man is comforting that child, we wonder. This is something I never ever considered, but it is explained well in this article. My boyfriend has told me that if he saw a child crying on the street or lost in a store, he would walk away. He wouldn’t do anything to help the child. This is not because he is a heartless bastard, it’s because he is terrified of being accused of abusing or hurting the child, or worse, of attempting to kidnap the child.
This tendency of society to assume that men hurt children has been coined “Worst-First” thinking, which basically sums up as suspecting the motives of any man who chooses to work around kids. This is a worldwide epidemic. In Australia, a public pool has banned boys and men from changing in the same changing room. Can you imagine if women couldn’t change with children? The reality is, society still views child-rearing as “women’s work” and men who work with children are, at best, deemed weird and at worst, suspected of harbouring ill-intentions. What are we teaching our children? What are we teaching our men? This sort of “worst-first” thinking is harmful to men, women and most of all, our children. Women will never get significant support in child-rearing until we stop obsessively monitoring male contact with children.
Many of the comments on the article I mentioned above are very thoughtful. This is a problem for men. They see it but women don’t seem to. As one commenter put it,
“The huge effort to integrate women into the world of work is matched by the huge effort to block men’s integration into the world of children.”
How sad is that? Women want help in the household. Feminist are constantly pointing out stats that show that women who work full-time outside the home still end up doing most of the work in the home. But we are blocking men from being fully involved because stay-at-home dads are still given strange looks. It takes a strong man to take his child to the park where there are a dozen women with their children. I don’t like walking into the weight room in the gym that is dominated by men so I certainly can’t blame men for being apprehensive.
I would definitely say that in this respect, feminism is failing men as well as women. We need to make this an issue if we are ever going to expect complete equality. We need to fight our worst-first thinking. Many, if not most, child predators may be men, but they are a small percent and we need to stop suspecting every man. The reality is, children are more likely to be abused by an adult their parents know and perhaps trust. “Stranger danger” has scared a generation of children and instilled in them an innate fear of men. Rather than teaching our children that the gender of a stranger matters, we need to teach them what behaviour to be aware of. We need to stop alienating men from children because all of society suffers when we do that.
I am aware that many women are nervous around men, such as approach one on a street, especially after dark. I am too. I always ready myself. Unfortunately, there are a relatively small percentage of men who don’t respect women. These are the men who rape women and the men who harass them on the streets. As a result, all men are labeled as possible attackers. Should this innate wariness of men apply when it comes to men who are with children? Should we automatically assume that a man working with or helping children is out to harm them? Should men like my boyfriend just suck it up and deal with the reality that women assume men are seeking to harm a child? I don’t think so.
This isn’t just a matter of hurt feelings. Continuing with worst-first thinking hurts women too. Men aren’t often eager to be stay-at-home dad’s, even if financially it makes more sense for them to be, probably because child-rearing is a closed club and admittance is only granted to women. Women must make men more comfortable when it comes to child-rearing, and telling a male child worker that he can’t be in the room when diapers are being changed doesn’t help.
Consider this: Male teachers who sleep with their female students vs. female teachers who sleep with their male students. Instinctively, most people view the female students as victims but the male students less so. Both are victims yet society makes a distinction. This just perpetuates anti-choice crap that women aren’t capable of making decisions for themselves and that the government, which is full of men, needs to make laws to protect women from themselves. Abortion laws are about ‘saving’ women from themselves and this is not far removed from worst-first thinking when it comes to men with children. If women continue to be viewed as the ‘natural’ or ‘appropriate’ child-rearers, we are never going to move forward. We are never going to obtain full equality in the workforce until men achieve full equality in the home. We need to help ourselves by helping men. We need to welcome the ones who want to work with small children and we need to encourage the others to get involved. This is all connected and we need to tackle these “fringe” issues so that we can tackle anti-choice laws.
Talk to the men in your lives and ask them what they would do if they discovered a lost child. I doubt my boyfriend is the only one who would be apprehensive about helping.