Japan: Should male childcare workers' roles be limited?

The Yomiuri Shimbun - The Japan News

The Yomiuri Shimbun Controversy has arisen over whether male childcare workers at nursery facilities should be in charge of changing the clothes or diapers of girls. The context for this is concern from parents and guardians that such circumstances could lead to the sexual abuse of children. However, there is a shortage of childcare workers, and both male and female childcare workers are expected to play active roles at nursery facilities. We asked a child welfare expert, a parent and childcare provider for their thoughts on the matter.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun March 3, 2017)

Men's presence is valuable in many ways

Shinsuke Yamamoto / Executive director of the Tokyo male childcare workers' liaison group

There are two main reasons why it is meaningful to have male childcare workers at a nursery facility. First of all, it helps children realize that there are both men and women in their living spaces, and lets them experience more diverse value systems. It also lets them experience that it is natural for men to take on childcare duties because they see men helping with day-to-day tasks such as reading picture books and the like.

A childcare worker's gender has little or nothing to do with how they do their work. However, it matters for parents and guardians. Seeing male childcare workers makes it easier for fathers to participate in parents' meetings, for instance, or to ask for advice about raising their children.

I operate a licensed private nursery in Tokyo. Five of my 20 full-time childcare workers are men. I do sometimes hear from the parents or guardians of girls that they feel uneasy letting a man change their daughter's diapers. When that happens, I explain that changing diapers is an important facet of childcare that helps build a relationship of mutual trust and affection between the child and their caretaker. When you change a diaper, you do not just check that the child is healthy; you also watch their facial expressions and communicate with them.

However, many nursery facilities simply relieve a male worker from those sorts of duties the moment a parent or guardian expresses any unease.

There are also people who still believe that a man should not be put in charge of groups of babies who are less than 1 year old, or that men should do "manly" tasks such as physical labor or care activities that involve making the children move around.

I believe it is problematic that such deep-rooted attitudes about gender roles persist in nursery facilities, which are supposed to help everyone play an active role in society, whether they are male or female.

However, it is understandable that parents or guardians feel anxious about how their child is cared for. They cannot see how the childcare workers are treating their children, and they also hear reports about mistreatment or sexual abuse perpetrated by childcare workers.

Nursery facilities should make as much of their inner workings visible as they can, and be proactive in letting parents or guardians know how they approach childcare.

In February, the nursery that I operate published information on its website titled "Policies regarding the prevention of crimes against infants, and implementation of those policies."

We clarified policies such as that we don't have blind spots anywhere in our facility and that whenever growing children begin to show reluctance toward someone of a different sex helping them, we assign their care to someone of the same sex instead. We also make sure our childcare workers and other staff follow these policies.

The recent controversy about male childcare workers revealed that the professional nature of childcare work is not well understood, and that the social position of childcare workers is low.

They are connected to such issues as childcare workers' low wages and the shortage in the number of childcare workers. I feel that such problems cannot be solved simply by having childcare workers or nursery schools put in more effort.

(Yomiuri Shimbun Staff Writer Hitoshi Ono conducted this interview.)

Yamamoto, 40, is the principal of the Wakatake-Kanae Nursery School, a private nursery in Itabashi Ward, Tokyo. He is also the director of the board of the social welfare service corporation Wakatake Kai. He took his current position in 2006. 

More communication can ease anxieties

Chiriko Sakashita / TV personality

My daughter is now in her second year of primary school. I sent her to a nursery facility before her first birthday. There were many male childcare workers at this nursery, and they were often in charge of my daughter's group. That is why I never really felt uncomfortable about the idea of a male childcare worker changing her diapers or clothes, giving her showers or otherwise taking care of her. I felt it was only normal to entrust my daughter to teachers who were, after all, doing this work professionally.

However, I very much understand the feelings of parents or guardians who feel uneasy about this. People are obviously concerned about sexual abuse. I think they also worry about whether the nursery facility understands what makes their children feel embarrassed.

When my daughter was going through potty training, she sometimes did not want to go to the toilet at the nursery. Her class teacher at the time was a man, and I suspect she felt embarrassed about needing the teacher's help after she had been to the toilet.

I remember having similar feelings when I was very young. When we used the swimming pool attached to our kindergarten, we did not wear a bathing suit — we just wore underpants and were naked above the waist. I was only 5, but I really hated it. It is only normal that parents or guardians want childcare workers to use their intuition and know when children feel embarrassed.

I absolutely do not mean to say that nursery facilities do not need male childcare workers. Society has both men and women everywhere, so it is unnatural for nurseries to be female-only spaces. I remember many times when I found it reassuring when male childcare workers were present during some day-to-day operations, events or other occasions.

What is most important is to create a relationship of mutual trust between parents and guardians on the one hand, and the nursery facility on the other. If a nursery is taking steps to prevent sexual abuse and ensure that children's sense of shame and other feelings are taken into account, they should explain that to parents and guardians, and make what they are doing visible. And if a parent or guardian feels uneasy or uncertain about something, they should ask as many questions of their nursery facilities and childcare workers as they need. When my daughter was not even 1 year old, I had some really intense exchanges with the nursery about safety. In the beginning, I felt suspicious about absolutely everything. However, I experienced that talking to the facility directly went a long way toward easing my concerns.

Building a relationship of mutual trust is difficult, but it is important to communicate properly and meet each other halfway.

When it was time for my daughter to leave her nursery, a male childcare worker wrote her a long letter about the ways she had grown. This man never talked very much, but I felt that in his heart, he cared deeply about the children, and I was happy to know that. 

(Yomiuri Shimbun Staff Writer Chikara Shima conducted this interview.)

Sakashita was born in 1976 in Kyoto Prefecture. She made her debut in 1994 and has appeared in commercials, TV drama series and variety shows. She is the mother of an 8-year-old daughter and a 6-year-old son.

Rules for physical contact needed

Haruo Asai / Professor at Rikkyo University

It appears that fears about the sexual abuse of young children are behind the controversy surrounding male childcare workers — there have been incidents involving male childcare workers, although only a few. There have also been instances when female childcare workers have abused male children. As many children spend more time at their nursery facilities than with their families, we have to think hard about how we can ensure their safety.

First of all, it is important that childcare workers receive thorough training about sexual abuse prevention and the human rights of children. Childcare workers must take precautions in situations when they have physical contact with children, such as when they are changing their clothes or diapers or helping them in the swimming pool. These precautions must also be shared with parents and guardians. Childcare facilities must also build a relationship of trust with children, so that those who have been sexually abused feel able to speak up about it.

Most importantly, childcare workers should only have physical contact with children in areas in view of their colleagues. They must also ensure that multiple childcare workers are present in the room at all times. That means not just having multiple people present when diapers or clothes are being changed, but also never taking care of children in separate rooms or alone. Such measures can help prevent abuse.

It is also important to establish rules so that childcare workers who notice a colleague behave or speak inappropriately must immediately report their concerns to a facility head or senior staff member. Those rules must be enforced.

The Japanese word "skinship," which refers to physical contact, sometimes overemphasizes [the importance of] physical contact. It cannot be said that all physical contact between childcare workers and children is bad. It is sometimes necessary and gives children a sense of security.

However, we should make it so that childcare workers need to have a valid explanation for why they have physical contact with a child every time they do so.

Verbal or facial communication can be more important than physical contact. We need to conduct more research about how physical contact works in order to raise the standing of childcare work as a profession.

It is essential to teach children in a way that gives them the strength to say "no" or "stop" when they do not like what is happening. They must be able to raise their voice clearly when they feel uncomfortable about being touched — not just girls, but boys as well. Learning that they should protect themselves and that harming others is wrong is part of their education about human rights.

I essentially see no problem in male childcare workers being in charge of changing the diapers or clothes of girls. However, if there are parents or guardians who are uncomfortable with male childcare workers, I do not believe there is any need to make the few male childcare workers who are out there change clothes or diapers anyway.

On the other hand, the times are changing, and it is now normal for men and women to carry out childcare tasks together — inside the family home and at nurseries. When children see male childcare workers, they can learn that it is natural for fathers to perform childcare tasks at home. We should not exclude male childcare workers.

(Yomiuri Shimbun Staff Writer Tomonori Takenouchi conducted this interview.)

Asai, 65, worked for 12 years as a care worker at a children's foster home in Tokyo, and took his current position in 2002. As an expert in children's welfare, he studies topics such as child abuse and gender education.

Chiba city govt's plan stirs controversy

In January, the city of Chiba settled on a plan to promote the active use of male childcare workers. This plan specified that male childcare workers at all public nursery facilities in the city, like their female colleagues, would be responsible for changing the clothes of girls and helping them to use the toilet. Up until then, some nursery facilities in the city did not let male childcare workers change the clothes of girls. The city received opinions both for and against the plan, and the controversy raged online as well.

The term "hobo," which means "protecting mother," was previously used to refer to childcare workers. But in 1999 it was changed to "hoikushi," meaning a "person who takes care of children," and a national hoikushi qualification was created in 2003. As of April 2016, the number of registered male childcare workers was 63,837, more than triple the 2006 figure. However, men still make up only a very small percentage — 4.61 percent — of all childcare workers.

March 20, 2017

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