Mary Jane and Ronald Piazza had never even considered hiring a young man to care for their children. Then they observed one in action at their church's nursery. "He was lively, animated, and engaged. He even got down on the floor with them," Ms. Piazza recalls.
When they later invited him to baby-sit their two boys and one girl - now ages 11, 9, and 4 - they were again struck by what they saw. "The kids bonded with him like no other sitter," she says. Since that experience, they have preferred to hire male sitters. They have just said goodbye to one "outstanding" male au pair, who lived with them for a year, and are eagerly awaiting the arrival of the next one, who they hope will be equally effective.
In an au pair landscape traditionally dominated by young women, families like the Piazzas are finding that young men can also bring a high degree of nurturing skills as well as athletic ability to the job. They say that boys' strength, size, and enthusiasm for sports are helpful.
But the most common reason families cite for hiring a male au pair is to provide boys with a positive, masculine role model.
Piazza says that Stefan's example was invaluable to her children. "He showed them that it's cool to be helpful, joyful, respectful, hard-working, athletic, gentle, and Christian. And the boys have had the opportunity to witness a 'peer' doing household chores, outside labor, and caring for younger children."
Many families hiring these young men are single mothers or those with preteen or teenage sons. Families with girls also see the importance of teaching that either gender is capable of expressing nurturing qualities.
"I was concerned about the preponderance of women in my eight-year-old son's life," says Marian Smith-Subbarao of Newhall, Calif., who is studying for her MBA in addition to holding down a full-time job. Her husband, Ram, stayed home to care for their daughter until she was 15 months old. Since then, they have hired au pairs. A young Peruvian named Luis Navarro Gutierrez is their 10th.
"Luis gives Neil plenty of hugs, and he also nurtures him in other ways," she says, explaining: "Luis works patiently with Neil on his homework, providing support and rewards. Being stern, yet making it fun.... I couldn't do better."
Donna Brinkman of Louisville, Ky., says her au pair, Stuart Reeve of Great Britain, is encouraging, but not necessarily cuddly with her three children, ages 15, 13, and 3. But that's just fine with her. "Stuart gives the kids positive feedback," she explains. "For instance, if they are hurt, ill, or just sad, he might say, 'You are being such a big guy or girl about this.' I can give them the gentle nurturing at other times, so it's a good balance."
Family counselors and authors of recent books about raising boys applaud efforts to provide boys with positive role models outside the immediate family. Michael Gurian, author of "The Good Son," says that starting at about age 13 and for five years thereafter, boys naturally seek out mentors and role models.
"They need someone from the larger culture - Michael Jordan, an honorable government figure, even characters from books and other media as well as adults other than Mom and Dad who are positive, active mentors," Mr. Gurian says.
Otherwise, he says, boys will gravitate toward TV and video games because their need for role models isn't being satisfied.
It's too early to call the increase in male au pairs a national trend. Families making this choice are still in the minority.
"When Americans think au pair, they still think female," says Susan Robinson, vice president of EF Au Pair, one of America's largest au pair agencies. Ms. Robinson reports, however, that demand for men has been slowly rising in recent years, especially among families with older children. This year, the agency placed 180 men and 3,000 women in American homes.
Word-of-mouth is the best promoter of this choice. One mother enthusiastically spreading the word is Kathleen Armata of Granby, Conn. A single mom who divorced when her 12-year-old son was 2, Ms. Armata works as a marriage and family counselor.
"I was looking for a big-brother type for Dan. Someone who would teach him about being male," she says.
Jan Patak, her au pair from the Czech Republic, has been "amazing," she says. He plays semi-pro basketball back home and is always up for shooting hoops with Dan, as well as attending to nonrecreational activities like supervising homework, making his breakfast, and driving him to and from events.
She acknowledges, however, that many families are reluctant to make the same choice. "Some people are skeptical. 'Why would a guy want to baby-sit?' "
To which she responds that men and women are drawn to the job for many of the same reasons. Mostly, they genuinely love children and want to experience life in America surrounded by the comfort and security of a family.
So why aren't more people opting for male au pairs and baby sitters?
"Families often fear abuse," Armata explains, adding: "I'm not sure why, because people who do that kind of thing can come in all shapes and sizes. But, of course, you always want to be careful, no matter what gender, and go to an agency you can trust."
And, of course, the Louise Woodward case showed many skeptical families that abuse problems aren't gender specific.
Nonetheless, prejudice persists. After one incident of sexual molestation five years ago, Au Pair in America, a large agency based in Greenwich, Conn., stopped recruiting men. But this decision was made primarily because of low demand, says William Gertz, the agency's executive vice president.
Parents in a Pinch, a baby-sitting agency based in Baltimore and Brookline, Mass., knows about the challenges of placing men.
"Only 1 percent of the sitters hired are male," says director and co-owner Davida Manon. "We love them." But, she adds, "as soon as we tell families that we have the most wonderful guy for them, there's static on the telephone line."
"It's just an American bias," says Armata. "In Europe, it's done all the time." Her own au pair, Jan Patak, was surprised to be asked so many questions about his job and gender when he first came to the states.
"I didn't have a clue that it would be such a big deal," says the tall, dark-eyed young man, one of five male au pairs placed in Connecticut homes this year by EF Au Pair.
"Low demand for guys, however, means that agencies are more careful about screening applicants," explains Armata. "The male au pairs who pass their test have a lot more experience. They often have formal training in kindergarten or child care."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society