You’ve probably at some point seen one of those TV shows where they engage one of the most awkward comedic scenes possible, the one where a dad heads into the scary world of “The Toddlers Group.” There he finds himself like a fish out of water, alternating between being an object of curiosity and of suspicion. The message is clear. Men don’t belong in such groups.
Now, the reality is that for all kinds of reasons, dads end up staying at home and looking after the kids too. That might be because of anything from being a single parent who took on the bulk of childcare after separation, a bereaved parent who lost their wife or simply that they opted to be the one who stayed home in the early days whilst their spouse went out to work.
That’s probably why groups have evolved from being known as “mums and tots” groups to “Toddlers’ Groups.” I guess you could call them “Parent and Toddlers” but that excludes guardians, childminders and grandparents. So “Toddlers” it is – or some fancy name about bears, stars or sunshine.
However, at some point, someone will slide into the language of “mums and toddlers” again. I’m picking up on this because I heard a complaint the other day that when churches refer to “mums and toddlers” that it’s alienating to dads. They are likely feel excluded and unwelcome, that the group isn’t for them.
Now, it may be that the aim of group is for all parents and carers to bring their twos-threes along to and let them have a run around whilst the adults have a natter over a cupper before the ritual singing of bizarre songs about bus wheels, winding the bobbing and scarecrows. If so, you should take care about what you call it.
However, you might want to look at a few other things as well. You see, you may discover that whatever name you call the group doesn’t actually change the culture, shape and make up of the group at all. The point of those awkward sitcom moments was that the very nature of such groups was that they weren’t particularly man/dad friendly.
And that’s okay!
I’m not saying that there isn’t a benefit in looking to create groups that do cater for dads as well as mums, grandparents as well as parents, carers/minders as well as blood relatives. In fact, if you are seeking to engage with people in your community through day time, family friendly activities, you would do well to have a look at who is about during the day. The nature of society has changed a lot since the original days of setting up mums and toddlers groups. A lot of mums work, increasingly child care is shared among a variety of people. The pandemic and the increase of home working has probably seen a speed up in these societal changes.
So, here’s the first reason why I’m relaxed about “mums and tots groups.” I’m relaxed because often it is mums that set up such groups, often with a bit of help from a few nans. I’m relaxed because for many years, there have been plenty of spaces from which women have felt excluded or where if they go in they are made to feel unwelcome and unsafe. So, I have no problem for there t be some spaces where the focus is on mums.
It’s important to recognise at this stage that if you are running a “Toddlers” group that the primary aim is not so much to do something for the kids as it is to provide somewhere for the parents. If it’s a Gospel opportunity, then primarily it’s about building up relationships with them. And so, that’s why it’s okay to have something for mums -especially if it’s offered by mums with some help from others. There are distinctive things that mums look for and that’s why you do have specific things for them in wider society. For example, it’s worth us men remembering that the in-person groups aren’t that much different to online provision like Mumsnet. Perhaps then we should offer a range of groups. There is maybe a place for something for any parent/carer to turn up for play and stay. There’s also a place for mums to get together and maybe we need to think about specialised things where stay at home dads are catered for.
However, there’s another reason or sense in which I’m relaxed about such groups. It’s this. I think churches can get hung up over the place of the “Toddlers” group in the life of the church. At times, it can feel as though the toddlers group is more sacrosanct than the Sunday service. You can shorten the service, change it or move it but don’t touch the Little Angel Stars of Sunshine group.
And linked to that is the myth that Toddlers groups are a sure fire way of achieving evangelistic success. Get them to the Toddlers group and then via a few family services and the Christmas nativity, they’ll be in. The reality is that I know of only one family who have ended up coming to faith through that kind of route. I’m not saying it’s impossible but I am saying it’s rare.
Now, I don’t think this means that you shouldn’t have such groups. If a young mum started building links with other mums and this evolved into a regular play and stay event or similarly a dad began something for dads and their kids. Indeed, if a group of parents in the church began to build connections and found a helpful way of relating to others was through a mixed parent/carer and child group then that would be fine. However, I would not feel compelled to keep such groups going and desperately trying to find staff. Nor would I measure the fruitfulness of such a group on how many parents and toddlers were on the books. And I’d encourage the leaders to think carefully about what the purpose of the group was and why they were trying to run it.