Physical activity is associated with a wide range of physical and mental health benefits and participating in regular physical activity during childhood is vital for optimal growth and development. However, more than 80% of Australian girls are insufficiently active and are often marginalised in physical activity contexts at home, school and in the community. As such, girls have less opportunity, encouragement and support to be active, compared with boys. This has created a striking difference in activity levels and sport skill proficiency, with females being less active and less skilled than males at all stages. By the time they enter high school, less than 10 per cent of girls can adequately perform basic sport skills such as kicking, catching and throwing, which are the building blocks for confident and competent participation in physical activities through life. Current strategies to engage girls in physical activity and sports programs have had minimal impact and innovative approaches that address the underlying socio-cultural barriers girls face are needed.
Targeting fathers to take an active role in increasing their daughters’ physical activity levels may be one such innovation. Over the last 30 years, studies have shown that fathers have a unique and substantial influence on their children’s physical, social, emotional and mental health. Actively engaged fathers also improve a range of developmental outcomes in their daughters such as cognitive ability, self-esteem, social skills, resilience, physical activity and educational achievements. The masculine interaction style of fathers (more physical, unpredictable, risk taking) impacts positively on girls and physical activity provides a unique platform to engage fathers and daughters. Fathers also have a critical role in helping their daughters form healthy body image views; important, given that self-esteem and body image are major concerns facing girls, particularly in the teenage years. For example, studies have shown that more than half of primary school girls desire to be thinner and report being unhappy with the way they look.
Despite the many benefits that result from a strong father-daughter bond, research suggests that up to 70 per cent of fathers only see themselves as an ‘extra set of hands’ when raising their daughters. In addition, fathers are often less involved with daughters than mothers, spend less time with daughters than sons, and discount their role in fostering their daughters’ physical activity behaviours and social-emotional wellbeing.
To address these issues, the Priority Research Centre for Physical Activity and Nutrition developed and tested an innovative, world-first program called DADEE; Dads And Daughters Exercising and Empowered. The program was based at The University of Newcastle and targeted fathers as the agents of change to improve their daughters’ physical activity levels, sport skills and social-emotional wellbeing. Importantly, the program also targeted girls to improve fitness and physical activity levels, and parenting skills of fathers.
The DADEE program included eight weekly sessions. During the program, fathers learned about evidence-based parenting strategies to improve their daughters’ physical and mental health. Topics included fitness and physical activity, sport skills, female role models, challenge and adventure, parenting, emotional mirroring and ‘pinkification’. The program also promoted the idea of ‘equalist’ parenting, which addresses the culture of gender prejudice that permeates all aspects of girls’ lives, particularly in relation to physical activity. The daughters were given opportunities to practise key social-emotional skills including self-control, persistence, critical thinking, resilience and self-reliance. Importantly, the program also included fun practical sessions for the dads and daughters where they would practise sport skills, participate in rough and tumble play and engage in fun games to improve aerobic and muscular fitness.
The study findings were outstanding for both fathers and daughters. The program greatly improved the girls’ social-emotional wellbeing by empowering them to be resilient and critical thinkers, to take on new challenges, to be persistent and brave and to take a leadership role in the family’s physical activity habits with renewed physical confidence. After participating, daughters felt better about themselves, had stronger relationships with their fathers and were active within the family. We also saw meaningful improvements in physical activity levels and dramatically improved sport skills. By improving the girls’ confidence in kicking, catching, throwing, striking and bouncing, the program has put these DADEE girls on a new trajectory where they will be much more likely to lead a physically active life and engage in a broader range of community sports.
Fathers experienced meaningful improvements in a host of outcomes including increased physical activity levels, improved father-daughter relationships and enhanced parenting skills. Interestingly, the biggest impact of the program for many fathers was not necessarily what they anticipated. Although they may have enrolled to help their daughter become more active, or more interested in sport (or because their wives told them to!), they left with a greater understanding of their unique and powerful influence on their daughters and how the way they interact with their daughter can profoundly influence her wellbeing. The program also taught dads about becoming equalist parents by removing the gender straitjacket and acknowledging their daughters more for their physical confidence, passions, insights and beliefs, rather than their looks and passivity. They learned to honour their daughters’ unique experience in the world and to encourage them to define femininity in their own terms.
Fatherhood is both an enormous privilege and a massive responsibility. Seeing children grow and thrive is one of life’s greatest rewards. This was the first international study to target the father-daughter relationship as a key strategy to improve girls’ self-esteem and physical activity. We are excited that the DADEE program received the national award for ‘Best study in physical activity and health promotion’ at the 2015 ASICS Sports Medicine Australia conference and are looking forward to a wider implementation of the program.
The research team includes Professor Philip Morgan and co-investigators Dr Alyce Barnes, Professor David Lubans, Dr Myles Young, Dr Narelle Eather, Emma Pollock and Kristen Saunders from the Priority Research Centre in Physical Activity and Nutrition at the University of Newcastle. We received funding from Port Waratah Coal Services, Hunter Medical Research Institute and the Hunter Children’s Research Foundation.
We are currently recruiting local participants and facilitators. Please E DADEE@newcastle.edu.au or P 4913 8759 if you are keen to be involved. Our team invites you to follow us on Twitter: @philmorgo, @DADEEprogram, and like our DADEE Facebook page.