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Instructor Melinda Anderson watches on as Armand Andersen learns first aid during an American Red Cross baby sitter’s course in Fargo last summer. American Red Cross / Special to The Forum

Boys who baby-sit: Gender expectations, fears exist alongside signs of changing attitudes

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FARGO - When Scott Ecker was looking for work as a baby sitter here a few summers ago, his job prospects soured with a common phrase in the local ads: “females only.”

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Then an elementary education major at Minnesota State University Moorhead, he found one post on the university’s student-only website specifically looking for a man – because the kid loved sports.

“It was interesting because I’m not athletic or into sports or anything like that,” said Ecker, who is now finishing up a theater degree from South Dakota State University. “But I think that is a common expectation among male baby sitters, that you’re going to be the stereotypical male figure.”

Ecker got the gig, even though the mother was “definitely kind of surprised” that the Fargo native didn’t share her son’s love of hockey, but said that was his only consistent baby-sitting job here, and he hasn’t been able to find others lately.

“I wouldn’t doubt that there’s some stigma towards that, some fear maybe,” he said. “Some of it might be gender expectations that a woman is a caregiver and a man isn’t.”

There are signs that things are starting to change. Nationally, 9.3 percent of the children and teens enrolled in American Red Cross baby sitter’s courses are now boys – up from 8.7 percent a year ago, and on track to near 11 percent by the end of the busy summer season.

“It started out, we used to have 100 percent girls five or six years ago,” said Dave Teske, service delivery manager for the Red Cross’ Northern Midwest territory, which includes North Dakota and Minnesota. “Now, you see one or two or maybe four boys in the class out of 12 to 14 kids.”

But Teske, who also is an instructor for a Red Cross course in the Minneapolis area, said there’s still an obvious gender divide in these classes. While many of the girls take the training so they can pursue a baby-sitting job, the boys tend to be there “reluctantly” at the order of their parents so they can watch their younger siblings at home.

Gender norms

Catlin Piatz hired her first male baby sitter to give her cousin’s son, then about 13, a chance when no one else would.

She was talking with her cousin one day about her son, 6-month-old Easton, and mentioned she needed to find baby sitters. Her cousin said her own son, Mason, had taken courses and learned first aid, but couldn’t find a job.

“I thought especially since he took all the courses and stuff, why not?” she said. “I know a lot of teenage girls that we’ve had baby-sit never took courses, and I know when I baby-sat when I was a teenager, I never took courses.”

Easton’s young age meant he wouldn’t be much work, Piatz said. Still, she was more than happy with Mason’s job performance as he changed diapers, made bottles and played with the baby.

Piatz hadn’t made an intentional decision to only look for a female baby sitter – she assumed boys wouldn’t want to – and said that’s probably a common thing for local parents, too. In some ways, she said, it’s the same gender separation we notice with lawn care, where it seems almost every teenager asking neighbors if they can get paid to mow their lawns for the summer is a boy, not a girl.

“It’s just kind of too bad, because I’d like to think that we’re getting to a point in our culture where, especially with moms and dads, dads are doing a lot of stuff that moms typically did all the time as far as caring for children,” she said. “It’s too bad that more boys aren’t doing it, because you’d think this helps prepare them for when they’re going to be dads.”

Tyler Hensel, a 21-year-old St. Paul native who has lived in Moorhead for a few years, now works at a day care in Fargo. Still, he said he’s having a hard time finding baby-sitting jobs, mostly because people don’t respond to his ads.

Hensel has an account on Care.com, a website that allows users to post caregiver jobs or create a profile if they’re looking for caregiving work. But he’s only gotten one response on the site, and that person wanted a long-term sitter.

There could be a reason why Hensel and Ecker have had little luck with Care.com – during multiple searches by a Forum reporter, the site by default narrowed the list of results for local caregivers to females only. Male profiles would only come up if the search options were changed to look for men, or if the “any” option under gender was selected.

“There seems to be a stereotype that if it’s a male baby sitter, he probably is a pedophile of some sort,” Hensel said. “That just seems to be how it’s associated, which I strongly feel is incorrect.”

Stereotypes at play?

There might be some gender differences in how a man or woman would baby-sit, Hensel said, though it depends on the case.

Hensel’s dealt with one boy at the day care who might resist instructions from the female employees but will lay right down for a nap if he asks, for example, and said it could be related to how that boy looks at men and women as authority figures.

Teske said he’s noticed that the boys who take the Red Cross course typically are more attentive when he talks about games and physical activities, while girls seem to be more interested in his discussions about crafts and creative activities.

Piatz and her husband have hired several of their teenage nephews to watch Easton in the past year, and she said the boys tend to spend more time playing with their son and doing activities while the girls focus more on crafts and nurturing.

Still, Ecker said not everyone fits into those gender stereotypes.

While the now-23-year-old was taking elementary education courses at MSUM, he said there were “unfortunate” jokes that he was somehow “creepy” for pursuing this line of work, and said the same kind of jokes were common when he had a job at a Toys R Us store.

“I don’t know if women get comments about that, that they’re creepy or they look a certain way or are scary, but I know I’ve gotten that before,” he said, adding that the jokes always came from adults, not kids.

He’s gotten used to being outnumbered by women – in his past studies in the overwhelmingly female elementary education program, and in his current job as a provider of direct care to adults through a business in Fargo.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 5.2 percent of the country’s 1.2 million child care workers over the age of 16 were male in 2013, and just 2.2 percent of the nation’s preschool and kindergarten teachers were men.

In some ways, Ecker said it’s similar to nursing a few decades ago – and while 90.1 percent of registered nurses in 2013 were female, men have become a growing part of that workforce.

The prevalence of male baby sitters might be starting to tick up now, but he said they still have to overcome a cultural message that being a caregiver somehow isn’t normal for guys.

“How many sitcoms do you see where it’s a stay-at-home mom, but there needs to be an explanation for a dad to stay at home?” he said. “There’s a lot of demeaning messages out there, I think, that men who are baby-sitting is not a goal most men should have.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Ryan Johnson at (701) 241-5587

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Ryan Johnson
After four years of covering news for the Grand Forks Herald and The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead, Ryan Johnson has been a features reporter for The Forum's Variety section since 2013. His prior beats included politics, business, city government and higher education. Johnson is a 2008 alumnus of the University of North Dakota. Have a comment to share about a story? Letters to the editor should include author’s name, address and phone number. Generally, letters should be no longer than 250 words. All letters are subject to editing. Send to letters@forumcomm.com
(701) 241-5587
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