Physical activity is associated with a wide range of physical and mental health benefits. Participating in regular physical activity during childhood is vital for optimal growth and development.
owever, 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% 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.
Compared to boys, studies indicate that girls enter sport 2 years later on average and drop out of sport 6 times faster. 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.
Compared to boys, studies indicate that girls enter sport 2 years later on average and drop out of sport 6 times faster.
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, combined with 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, which is important given self-esteem and body image are major concerns facing girls, particularly in their 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% 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, spend less time being active and practicing sport skills together, and discount their role in fostering their daughters’ physical activity behaviours and social-emotional wellbeing.
THE DADEE PROGRAM
To address these issues, we developed and tested an innovative, world-first program called DADEE: Dads And Daughters Exercising and Empowered. The program was targeted at 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 the parenting skills of fathers.
The DADEE program included 8 weekly sessions. During the program, fathers learned about evidence-based parenting strategies to improve their daughters’ physical and mental health. The program also taught fathers how to improve their daughters sport skills by engaging in fun co-physical activities experienced in a warm and positive environment. Initial emphasis was placed on playing exciting and stimulating games together with the longer-term goal to enhance the daughters’ intrinsic motivation to continue practicing the skills on their own in the future.
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 RESULTS: CONFIDENCE, HEALTH, EQUAL PARENTING
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 more active within the family. Meaningful improvements were also observed in physical activity levels alongside dramatic improvements in sport skills and participating in community sport. 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.
The program also taught dads about becoming equalist parents
Fathers also 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.
LONG TERM HEALTH BENEFITS
When interviewed after the program, many fathers reported that the program opened their eyes to how much fun it could be to be active with and give their undivided attention to their daughters. The learning of ‘how to teach’ their daughters to perform basic sports skills through positive parenting practices and co-physical activity had also been an eye-opening and very positive experience for many fathers. During these interviews, almost all participants talked of a newfound physical confidence that was evident in their daughters after the program and a greater level of persistence with difficult or new activities. This physical confidence was partly attributed to a growing awareness of gender biases and a refusal to buy into traditional stereotypes. By moving the focus away from ‘pretty’ to ‘healthy’, the program also helped the daughters improve their positive self-concept. Certainly, there was evidence of a greater acceptance of risk and challenge and an improved ability to persist in the face of adversity; Not only did this result in barriers and obstacles being managed differently, but also in a more proactive approach to making and taking opportunities to engage in physical activity and allocating the time as a family for physical activity.
In the wake of the DADEE program, the fathers reported clear evidence of greater participation from their daughters in a range of sporting pursuits such as hockey, soccer, basketball, swimming and softball. They were also more likely to consider participation in activities not traditionally seen as female sports, including martial arts, AFL and boxing. Many daughters were reported to being eager to practice their new ball skills (hitting, throwing and kicking) and fathers had seen improvements in their daughters’ skill levels and physical strength.
When fathers were asked about their most beneficial part of the program, the most common responses related to (i) improvements in their daughters social-emotional wellbeing, and (ii) the opportunity to strengthen the father-daughter bond. Many fathers linked participation in the DADEE program to a host of positive behaviours and intrinsic personal resources which had helped improve their daughters' emotional well-being as well as social functioning within the family unit and school context. In addition to the improved bonding, the fathers also alluded to an increased realisation of the importance of fathers in the lives of daughters and spending one-on-one time with their daughters.
Fatherhood is both an enormous privilege and a massive responsibility.
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 of the University of Newcastle, 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.
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