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What's so funny about a guy taking care of kids?

Male day-care workers say they are more accepted, but as 'Daddy Day Care' shows, the jokes and the questions persist.

May 11, 2003|Lynn Smith | Times Staff Writer

It's been 20 years since Michael Keaton wore gloves and goggles to change a diaper in "Mr. Mom." Sixteen years since Tom Selleck, Ted Danson and Steve Guttenberg struggled with bottle feeding in "Three Men and a Baby." Thirteen years since a gang of 5-year-olds tied up "Kindergarten Cop" Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Now comes Eddie Murphy in "Daddy Day Care," Hollywood's latest resurrection of the fish-out-of-water subgenre -- a man who takes care of kids. In the movie, which opened Friday, Murphy plays a father and laid-off executive who decides to open a child-care center in his home as his wife goes to work. Upon learning that Murphy and his buddy will be running the center, prospective parents flee.

Acknowledging that "the stay-at-home-dad joke has played out," the film's co-producer, Matt Berenson, said "Daddy Day Care" represents the next generation of "Mr. Mom"-type films -- men caring for groups of children. As a newly reinvented dad, Murphy reads his mission statement to a living room full of 4-year-olds, feeds them junk food and jogs his son into a door jamb. Poop jokes abound.

The movie follows some of the genre's conventions -- his wife has a high-paying job and the dad establishes his masculine credentials, in this case by displaying his business savvy.

What sets "Daddy Day Care" apart from its predecessors, according to film critic Leonard Maltin, is that Murphy hatches the idea himself and embraces it. "Ultimately, he realizes this is not a last resort," Maltin said. "It's a good idea to get closer to his son. That's a totally new spin on all of this."

But shortly before the film's release, a few of the nation's estimated 4,000 male preschool teachers wondered whether the situation portrayed in the film was as funny as it used to be.

"The first thing that came across my mind was the title. I would like to change the title immediately," said Gerardo Soto, director of UCLA's University Village Center, where an unusually high 20% of the staff is male.

Like the baby-sitter in "Jerry Maguire" (1996) who insisted Tom Cruise call him a "child-care technician," Soto said labels are important. "Last month we [the UCLA department] changed our name from child care services to early care education.... We in the profession steer away from the word 'day care.' Not only are we caring for young children, we are educating them," he said.

As with most humor, there's a little land mind of truth below the surface. As unemployment rises, more men are taking up professions traditionally dominated by women: nursing and office temping for instance. There are now enough male nannies to have earned their own name: "mannies."

For the past several years, men have made up roughly 4% of the membership of the National Assn. for the Education of Young Children. It's not much, but enough that some women worry men will usurp their last bastion of reliable employment. In "Daddy Day Care," Murphy --as inept as he is initially -- competes with a snobbish and overpriced preschool run by Anjelica Huston.

Audiences may laugh at men working with young children, but the work is incredibly rewarding, said teacher Moises Roman, a burly, upbeat man who knows the first, middle and last names of the 25 4-year-olds he teaches at the center.

"This is our chosen profession, not our backup," he said.

Unlike some of his colleagues who were concerned the film might perpetuate stereotypes that real men don't care for children and can't do it right anyway, Roman thinks the movie might educate the public and air a few ongoing issues -- such as the need for child care and society's exaggerated fears of male caretakers.

"I suspect people will say, 'I never thought a man could take care of a group of children,' " he said.

Men in early childhood education are well-trained and committed, said Mark Ginsberg, executive director of the education association. "They don't feel like fish out of water, they feel like fish making a difference in a very large pond," he said.

Roman and his colleagues talked about the single mothers and fathers who are grateful for a nurturing male presence in their children's lives. What's more, the teachers said, it's important for young children to see men and women working cooperatively together.

Of course, the men also told stories about family members asking when they were going to get a real job, and about parents at the center whose eyes betrayed their suspicions (Are they molesters? Why is a man working with young children?) even if they didn't say anything. Roman said he and the center's director, Soto, once interviewed a parent who asked them straight out, "What are two strong, young Latino men doing working in child care? What's wrong with you guys?"

'Sitting on the sidelines'

Despite changing social norms, society remains tense about men in child care, the filmmakers said.

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