WAUWATOSA, WIS. — When Peter Horn tells male friends about his career as a full-time child-care provider, their first response is something like: "That's so cool." But as the reality of his work sinks in, he says with a laugh, they often add in amazement, "Man, I don't know how you can do that - seven kids!"
For nearly six years, Mr. Horn has been the sole teacher and caregiver at Little Village Day Care, located in the cheerful gray bungalow he shares with his wife, Lynn, their two young children, a parrot, and two zebra finches. From 7 a.m. to 5 p.m., his days involve a marathon of story books and games, diapers and naps, meals and hugs for seven infants and preschoolers.
"I love it," Horn says with genuine enthusiasm as he gently lifts baby Sam Aspinwall out of a playpen. "It's a great job."
Yet Horn remains a statistical anomaly. Despite media images praising the caring male of the 1990s, men are still nearly invisible in the burgeoning child-care field. They account for only 3 percent of staff members in day-care centers and just 1 percent of family day-care providers, according to the Center for the Child Care Workforce in Washington.
"Our culture as a culture doesn't appreciate men in child care," says Marcy Whitebook, co-director of the center. "Unfortunately, the underlying current is that real men don't take care of children."
That attitude is only one obstacle. Low wages - a problem for women as well - rule out child-care careers for many men. Some also complain about the loneliness of working in a field dominated by women.
In addition, men may face a climate of suspicion, stemming from highly publicized court cases involving child-care workers - women and men - during the 1980s. "I think the sexual-abuse allegations scared men off, and scared programs into not hiring men," says Bob French, executive director of United Front Child Development Programs, a child-care center in New Bedford, Mass.
Different gender, different views
Yet Mr. French and others emphasize the value of male caregivers, especially in a society where many families are headed by single mothers. "It's all the more important that young children have role models of different genders as well as different cultural backgrounds," French says.
Horn's career as a family-day-care provider began in 1993, when he left his job as a warehouse truck driver to care for the couple's infant daughter, Casey. Mrs. Horn, now an account representative for an insurance company, became the primary wage earner. Soon friends began asking him to care for their children too.
"From the beginning I decided to get certified," he says. "I wanted to do it legitimately. It had to be a profession, a job, not just watching kids. Don't say the 'B' word, baby-sitting."
Getting licensed required 40 hours of classes at Community Coordinated Child Care in Milwaukee, plus a 15-hour infant and toddler class. Horn also must take 15 to 20 hours of continuing education a year. He is licensed to care for eight children.
Tom and Lisa Aspinwall of Brookfield, Wis., Sam's parents, chose Horn after Mrs. Aspinwall researched centers and family day-care homes. "Pete was far and away our first choice," says Mr. Aspinwall. "We visited him a couple of times unannounced, and we were impressed with the quality of care. He understands the development of kids. And the kids pick up on the fact that he's comfortable and calm."
Horn's devotion to his work becomes evident as his young charges play contentedly in the backyard on a sunny summer day. Kneeling down for a child's-eye view, he watches four children glide small plastic boats around a container of water. Later, three boys devise an impromptu game of "Ghostbusters," throwing towels over their heads and romping across the sun-dappled lawn as Horn cheers them on.
"It's not forced learning," Horn says. "I'll say, 'Look, there's a butterfly. What does butterfly start with?' I'll go with a teachable moment. They'll get enough of worksheets and book learning later."
He adds, "I think it's good that little boys can see me cooking and doing dishes. Those aren't girl jobs. They're just jobs that need to be done."
Like other male care providers, Horn acknowledges that he has "a different perspective on things than a woman does." That can include more active forms of play. As Ms. Whitebook notes, "Some men interact with children differently and are more comfortable roughhousing than many women are."
Newt McDonald, director of Ephesian Children's Center in Berkeley, Calif., agrees. "Kids get the advantage of a little more risk taking with men," he says. "On the playground, men generally will let kids be a little more risky, climb a little higher. Men also tend to let kids who are in conflict go further before they intervene."
For men working in child-care centers, an irony exists. Even those who most enjoy teaching often get elevated to desk jobs, which pay higher salaries.
"Female colleagues are always trying to promote you," says Jim Stockinger, a teacher at the University of California Infant-Toddler Center in Berkeley. "They don't think you should be changing diapers, doing art projects, and crawling around wiping up spilled milk. They think you should be administering those actions."
Put the man in charge
Whitebook explains the pattern this way: "In any female-dominated field, men rise to the top. Because there are so few men in the field, there's a feeling that they're going to give us status."
But real status for everyone, caregivers insist, will never come until wages improve. "I make so much money doing this," Horn says with mild sarcasm, "that's why I'm driving a 10-year-old car. Think about it. I have your child - the most precious thing in any parent's world - and what are we getting paid? Not much. Basically I'm getting about $3 an hour per child. That's less than minimum wage."
At the Harvard Law School Child Care Center in Cambridge, Mass., director Jim Morin notes that wages are better than average, starting around $11 an hour. Even so, annual salaries average only $20,000 to $25,000 for a 30- to 35-hour week. Caregivers, he says, "have to be able to live on the margins, or have a spouse who works."
Despite the challenges, some child-care specialists see signs of progress. "I am certifying more men and we're training more men, which is wonderful," says Diane Bean, family-day-care certification coordinator for Wisconsin Early Childhood Association in Milwaukee. She is even starting a support group for male caregivers.
"It's becoming more acceptable for men to do this," she says. "More and more men over the years have been getting very involved in their family and children, and they realize the importance they play."
Caring is manly
Still, any significant increase in numbers, specialists say, will depend on actively recruiting young men. Mr. McDonald wants such efforts to begin in high school. Adds Mr. Morin, "We must enhance the idea that caring for children and being responsible for them is a manly thing to do."
Morin also emphasizes the importance of formal training and experience - understanding what young children are like and how learning takes place.
"You need to provide a schedule, keep everyone focused and happy, and have eyes in the back of your head," he says. "That's very different from having a nice man come in who likes to play with kids. That's fine for an isolated afternoon. But day in and day out, to prepare an environment that's appropriate, challenging, and safe, and offer the variety of activities that support children's development, that's more complex."
Equally complex is the need for more widespread public and private support for child care.
"If we look at other industrialized societies, all of them have far better early education and care systems with more men in them," says French. "There's a national commitment to young children. There is public funding, which is recognized as a social investment that has a far-reaching social return. I see no other way."
Horn stops short of expecting government involvement. But he does suggest an essential first step. As he drizzles honey on peanut-butter sandwiches for the children's lunch, he says, "We need to educate the public that we're not just baby-sitting. We're child-care providers. And the service we provide is, well, I pretty much would call it priceless."
Careers in child care
National Association for Family Child Care
206 6th Ave., Suite 900
Des Moines, IA 50309-4018
National Association for the Education of Young Children
1509 Sixteenth St., N.W., Box 505
Washington, DC 20036
For free pamphlet on careers in early childhood education, send a business-size self-addressed stamped envelope)
Center for the Child Care Workforce
733 Fifteenth St., N.W., Suite 1037
Washington, DC 20005