Alternative care: Elder male childminders in Taiwan

Written by Yin-zu Chen.

To address the low fertility rate problem in Taiwan, the government implemented childcare policies that aim to alleviate the responsibilities of parents and improve the quality of services. In 1998, it introduced the child care certification system, which examines institutional and home-based childcare service providers. In 2000, the community childcare system (today called Family Day Care Service Centers) was established to assist with the professionalization, intermediation, and supervision of family day care centers. To become an officially recognized childcare provider, one must pass a certification exam or graduate from college with a degree in early childcare and education or a related major. To provide incentives for informal family day care providers to register, the government implemented a financial subsidy scheme for families whose children are younger than three years old to receive care from a registered childminder.

These policies shift the care giving work from the mother or grandmother to family day care services. Due to the shortage of day care workers, the government’s childcare subsidy scheme has been running since 2008. One of the results of these policies is the increasing number of men providing childcare services.

The number of registered male day care givers grew from 33 (1.1%) in 2009 to 2,453 (5%) in 2015. This phenomenon of increasing male participation in what has been considered traditional and informal women’s work has the potential to reshape the feminine characteristics of care work, to challenge notions of masculinity, and to reconstruct gender relations. All of men, who provide childmining, joined with their wives. Without a female colleague, male childminders would not have the opportunity to take care of children, because most parents do not trust that men alone are capable of care giving, or that they would always be friendly to their children.

Importantly, the male childminders present a very heterogeneous group. The majority have higher education backgrounds, and began their childminding careers between the ages of 30 and over 60. Each had different motivations according to their life situation, thereby influencing when they entered this profession; their age gives rise to divergent cultural gender expectations.

The traditional three-generation-family ideals and age-related masculinity norms are two social cultural factors that influence general understanding of the childcare profession and the everyday practices in childcare by those elder male childminders. Taiwanese culture prizes a large family as a sign of good fortune. Helping to raise grandchildren is a responsibility—but also a joy—experienced by grandparents. This cultural background facilitates their construction of domestic masculinity in childcare work. The elder male childminders, especially those retired from white collar jobs, provide childcare services but refuse to identify with elements of this traditionally female occupation.

The elder childminders strive to blur the boundary between home and work by using different strategies in their childminding practice. One of them is considering these children in the same way as their own (grand)children and seeing children’s parents as members of their family. For example, Mr. Feng, one of the elder childminders, noted that they even prepared dinner for children’s parents, because those parents seldom cook. This extra service is not included in the contract and they do not charge for preparing the food.

The elder childminders also have less family duties than the middle-age childminders, so that they have plenty of time (many of them have become pensioners following their retirement from other jobs). For instance, one strategy they employ to construct their masculinity (by considering childminding as family duty) is to easily accommodate parents’ requests, in terms of time arrangement. According to my interviews with male childminders, many of the older interviewees said that the children used to stay at their place more than 10 hours a day, because parents were not always able to pick up their children on time. Likewise, Mr. Liao described a case where the parents asked to delay the pickup time for their child, which he always agreed to do.

Elder male caregivers are more willing to engage in activities with the parents and children in their private time. Mr. Chu even organized weekend travel for families, because he believes that bonds between parents and childminders are good for children. This time flexibility is less often seen in young childminders. The older male childminders coordinated work and their daily family lives and tried to blur the border between family and childcare work, rather than separating work and the family (that is, the public and the private).

Childminders advanced in age, be they male or female, face the stereotype of lacking modern childcare knowledge and having less professionalized childcare skills. Furthermore, they were seen as less able to communicate children’s needs or parents’ requests, because they are less familiar with the new professional terms in childcare and thus are less able than the younger childminders to convince the parents in a refined contemporary language.

It is unknown if an increasing number of male childminders in Taiwan may be able to challenge the gender stereotypes and the female characters of childcare in the future. The elder male childminders still consider the routine child care practices as female activities, and they do not share all kinds of child care tasks with their wives in this profession. However, in contrast to the stereotype that “older men (or women) cannot provide professional/modernized childcare services”, the elder childminders present some advantages compared to their younger colleagues. But the traditional three-generations-family ideology and the conditions of their life stage lead them to conceive of childcare service as part of the family duties and the non-familial children as a family member, therefore they develop an alternative way of childminding to the professionalized and profit-oriented childcare service.

The intergenerational childcare services for non-familial members remain less discussed in Taiwan. Although it offers an alternative in the development of intergenerational care programs, recruiting men in childminding work was an unintended consequence of the Taiwanese childcare policy. A detailed study about the benefits and limitations of the everyday interaction between the children and the elder people in a family daycare setting can contribute to the future care policy design.

Yin-Zu Chen is an associate professor of sociology at National Taipei University. Image credit: CC by 攝影家9號/Flickr.

One comment

  1. “Without a female colleague, male childminders would not have the opportunity to take care of children, because most parents do not trust that men alone are capable of care giving, or that they would always be friendly to their children.”

    I like this. A Taiwanese friend, an academic at a British university, confirmed this prejudice in a conversation with me when she was searching for a child-minder for her baby a few years ago. Apparently, male childminders are not trusted by mothers. But it is not only mothers, my wife always objects when I offer to take our granddaughter to the park, giving her time to rest. She must accompany us because she fears I might be too careless in the street.

    However, a few days ago we cared for both our granddaughter and her two months old baby brother for a few hours to give the parents an opportunity to see a film undisturbed. It felt like my wife was unsure how to fend for a baby, so it naturally fell to me to change the diaper, entertain him, feed him and sooth him to sleep. No problem with this. It worked out just fine. No unhappy crying. No mishaps. No brutality. Just the right tenderness of a firm hand.

    “Taiwanese culture prizes a large family as a sign of good fortune. Helping to raise grandchildren is a responsibility—but also a joy—experienced by grandparents. This cultural background facilitates their construction of domestic masculinity in childcare work.”

    Indeed, helping to raise others’ children is a joy, be it grandchildren or friends’ children. And why is this so? Unlike with parents, our engagement is part-time and we don’t carry ultimate responsibility and the worries associated with it. We can afford to be relaxed in our relationship with children. That’s my personal experience and that’s what I observe with others.

    Apparently this is not just a Taiwanese culture thing. You probably will find it in many cultures. It’s more like, some men get the opportunity that others are denied, some cherish to be involved while others don’t. No need to construct domestic masculinity, just allow men to get involved. I don’t worry that my masculinity could be questioned and I never did.

    By the way, my experience tells me that it is detrimental to healthy family relationships when mothers get stuck at home. So, I gladly help my daughters-in-law and my sons with child care.


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