With 275 well-muscled pounds packed around a 6-foot-3 frame, student Sam Tai, a red-shirt freshman who plays defensive end for the Bruins, leaves no doubt that he can take care of business on a football field. Before he came to UCLA, Tai led his Liberty High School team in Henderson, Nev., to an 11-2 record and earned All-State and All-Region honors.
But before Tai can rush off to football training camp in San Bernardino on Aug. 3, he has to take care of business in another arena. He has a few more diapers to change, bottles to warm, and infants to feed and rock to sleep at UCLA’s Krieger Child Care Center where he takes care of the youngest infants and toddlers as a student worker.
Like players on the opposing team, the babies and toddlers may show a little apprehension when Tai comes in close because of his generous size. But a warm smile on a handsome face usually melts their jitters away. "They may cry a little bit at first," Tai observed, "but they’re fine when they get used to me. They eventually warm up to me." Opponents on the football field shouldn’t expect the same treatment.
UCLA student Sam Tai will soon leave his summer job at the Krieger Child Care Center for football training camp.
Tai, who has charmed quite a few babies and toddlers in the three weeks he’s worked at the center, is one of about a dozen men working at three UCLA child care centers, where they are getting an education they never dreamed would be offered at a big research university.
They are learning to be nurturing and caring around babies and toddlers, training that will perhaps hold them in good stead someday as fathers.
"This opportunity to work with young children allows — and even requires — these young men to use their gentler side," said Gay Macdonald, executive director of Early Care and Education at UCLA, which operates the child care centers. In a society that often assumes it’s a woman’s job to nurture very young children, she said, "these young men learn they can be tender and gentle — and use that part of themselves in a manly way."
Co-director of the Krieger Child Care Center on campus Gerardo Soto said Gay Macdonald, executive director of Early Care and Education at UCLA, is a big supporter of men working in child care. Men make up only 7 percent of child caregivers at ECE, but that is twice the national average.
For years, Macdonald has tried to achieve a workable gender balance among male and female child care workers to give her young charges a chance to interact with male role models who can clearly demonstrate that men too can be nurturing without losing their masculinity. The four directors of ECE child care centers are two men and two women. But among her staff of teachers and child care workers, men make up only 7.3 percent, yet that is twice the national average.
"We want to be able to say to young children, ‘This is what the real world looks like,’" Macdonald said. "Children are hungry for interaction with men. They love their mommies and female teachers and caregivers, but there’s a different quality to the interaction they have with male caregivers. They, in fact, welcome it, want it and need it."
But the stigma of being a male caregiver, especially for infants, still weighs on the minds of men, young as well as old. Gerardo Soto, a co-director at the Krieger Center, recalls one day when he was in a classroom at University Village Child Care Center changing a baby’s diaper.
An older gentleman saw what Soto, a teacher at the center, was doing and noted, "Why are you changing diapers? That’s a woman’s job." Soto told him "It’s my job, and I don’t mind at all doing it."
Soto called Macdonald "our biggest supporter" in defending men’s place in Early Care and Education. When a mother once complained to the center that she objected to a male caregiver changing her daughter’s diapers, Macdonald "informed her that that was part of our job and couldn’t be neglected," Soto said.
Explained Macdonald: "If I’m going to hire a man to do this job, I have every confidence that he can do this appropriately. We also reassure parents that no caregiver, male or female, is ever alone with any of our children. We work as a team. All our student workers are always under line-of-sight supervision by qualified teachers."
Tai reassures a child coming down a slide.
And while attitudes toward child care have changed — men’s restrooms now contain diaper-changing tables — there is still a perception in much of society that teaching at the college or high school-level is a fine career choice for men, but not at the elementary level, "and certainly not in preschools. The numbers drop off pretty sharply there," Macdonald said.
Soto, who took a part-time job at the child care center when he was a UCLA freshman in 1988, has spent 12 years at ECE as a teacher and 12 years as a director. But back in his student days, Soto recalled, the fallout from the much-publicized McMartin Pre-School sexual abuse case made many men reluctant to enter the field.
Now father to 5-year-old Emily, Soto comes across many children who are being raised by single moms and lack a male figure in their lives. "Especially for young boys, men add a different dimension to the relationship —a different kind of energy, an understanding of young boys and how they play. Many of the men we hire to work with infants and toddlers are good at their jobs because they’ve had good role models themselves and come from large families where they cared for young siblings."
Tai, Soto said, has that kind of background. "He’s a football player, a large individual, but someone who’s as gentle as you can possibly be with our youngest children. He just has that quality in him."
Tai, who’s the oldest of four kids in a close-knit Tongan family, has 15 aunts and uncles. "I’ve been taking care of babies, like my cousins, for quite awhile," the football player said. "And there’s a nine-year difference between my younger brother and me so I used to change his diapers. I’m not intimidated at all by babies."
Happy with his bottle, an infant finds contentment in Tai's arms. Photo by Elsa Gallazini.
He said his fellow football players can’t quite believe that this is what he does for a job. "They said, ‘That’s crazy! You can do that? There’s no way you’re good at that.’"
When Tai interviewed for the job (he needed money to help pay for his off-campus apartment during the summer), he had no problem with being assigned to care for infants and toddlers.
Although Tai admitted to being "a little rusty" with diaper-changing when he came to Krieger, he credits his female co-workers with bringing him up to speed quickly. "It’s pretty fun here. I like it," said Tai. The most difficult task has been putting the toddlers down for a nap. "But I pat their backs and rub their bellies. You can see their eyes getting heavier and heavier."
As for the future, Tai said, "I would love to come back [after football season is over]." His young charges "are really part of my day now. I’ll miss them."
Erik Batres, who graduated in June from UCLA with a B.A. in philosophy, is reluctantly saying goodbye to his class of "Ponies," children 1½ to 3 years old, because he needs to look for a fulltime job. As a student, he took a summer job at the Krieger center, intending to leave when fall quarter started. But "hundreds of diapers, hugs and smiles later," he said in a poignant farewell letter to the staff, he is still there a year later.
Erik Batres, a recent UCLA graduate who worked at Krieger, said the children have taught him about perseverance and patience.
"You get so attached to these kids," Batres said on his last day at Krieger, a day he dreaded. "All of a sudden, they give you a hug, and you’re hooked and want to stick around."
The experience of caring for children has taught him much, said Batres, who had never worked with children before. He learned perseverance, he said, from watching one child learn to pour milk from a pitcher after nearly a month of trial-and-error spills. Holding onto their hands, he has seen children, fearful of jumping off of two stacked blocks, overcome their fear.
Reflecting on those he has cared for at Krieger, Batres said they have moved on to other classes as he must inevitably move on.
"They probably won't remember me, but I am confident that I was able to earn their affection, love and trust. It was one of the best experiences possible."