Since I often work evenings, I started spending 15 to 30 minutes playing with my son at day care during morning free play. I’d "sample" the girls’ clay cookies, act scared of toy dinosaurs and remember birthdays. When I tossed my son in the air, his friends demanded equal time. I obliged. I felt honored that they really liked me. Occasionally, a child initiated a hug.
I was abruptly summoned to the director’s office and reprimanded for "inappropriately touching the children." I stared, dumbfounded. Specifically, she mentioned reading stories with my son and friends loaded on my lap. A parent exploded when a child mentioned sitting on a man’s lap. I was told not to pick children up, let them sit on my lap or hug them. "We are teaching children their bodies are private," I was told.
Though she neither confirmed nor denied that she suspected I had predatory intentions, I soon noticed I was being watched. One day, I passed the hall bathroom just as two girls emerged. When I stopped to say hello, a woman practically sprinted out of her office, asking if the teachers knew the girls’ whereabouts.
Another day, I was sitting on the floor, when a girl came up behind me and hugged my neck. A teacher rebuked her: "Don’t touch someone else’s daddy!" That night, I found my son, visibly upset, whispering to my wife. When he saw me, he stopped talking. A teacher’s lecture about this "incident" had convinced him his dad and friend had done something shameful. I was aghast. I’m a dad. They see me every day. Our families have socialized. Why is it shameful to touch me?I’ve since learned lots of men are having similar negative experiences in schools, scouts and sports. The recent Wall Street Journal column, "Are we teaching our children to fear men?" elicited hundreds of supportive comments.
I’ve also gotten an earful from angry and bewildered men. One father complained, "Show any interest in children and people think you’re a child molester." A talented day care teacher changed careers because people were uncomfortable seeing a man around children. A scout leader is afraid to let children in his car without a chaperone. A fourth-grade teacher said, "Women can hug kids, but I’ve learned I can only show affection by (playfully) kicking them in the butt." Perhaps not coincidentally, men are much scarcer in elementary education and as volunteers in kids’ activities.
This is tragic. Many kids spend their days surrounded by women (some have no man at home) and are starved for male contact. Yet, we "protect" them by rudely pushing men away—and sending the message, "Don’t trust men."
I was actually asked why I want to talk to other people’s children—a peculiar question, coming from a day care professional. Kids are delightful. But I also wanted the kids to know that men can appreciate them. We can play on the floor and be silly. We can be their friends.
When I was in school, kids were terrified of male teachers, who taught the upper grades and were the disciplinarians. In third grade, I was ordered to report to the disciplinarian after school. By day’s end, I was in tears and practically ill with dread. When I finally had a male teacher, I discovered he was no ogre.
The final straw at day care came when a girl surprised me with a forbidden hug. I didn’t push her away or say touching me is "shameful." Instead, I let her hug me. Instantly, I was back in the director’s office—and, essentially, kicked out.
My wife warned against fighting my expulsion: "If someone makes an accusation, how do you plan to prove you didn’t do it?" I had no good answer. Reluctantly, I stopped spending time in the classroom—and have been more cautious around kids ever since.
While safety is important, good parenting and good education often demand letting children take risks. We put kids at risk of broken bones by installing playground equipment because we want them to develop muscles and confidence. Likewise, there is risk in letting kids develop healthy, nurturing relationships with adults, but the alternative is to suffocate them.
Statistics show most child molesters are men, while women commit most fatal child abuse. Since apparently we’re all potential threats to children, let’s take reasonable precautions, without the hysteria. Kids need men in their lives and men must feel safe enough to give kids more than a "kick in the butt."
Steve Frederick is a dad living in Skokie. E-mail him at Sfrederick35@yahoo.com.