Fathers helping kids go further

Sep 2 2016

By Professor Phil Morgan*

From the moment men first entered the delivery suite, the stereotypical role of Aussie dads has radically transformed. It’s no longer enough to simply be the chief bread winner who mows the lawns, cooks snags and barracks from the sidelines on weekends.

After decades of assuming fathers were not so important in the lives of their children, there is now overwhelming evidence of their powerful and independent influence. Positive father involvement strongly impacts on children’s physical, social, emotional and mental health.

It is often considered to be a result of their ‘masculine’ interaction style where they engage with their children through physical play involving rough-and-tumble, competition, risk taking and are vigorous and stimulating.

Studies have consistently shown the positive effects of this type of engagement on a range of developmental outcomes, including self-esteem, confidence, resilience, physical activity, fundamental movement skills and educational achievements.

Our research team first saw this unique impact on both boys and girls in the highly successful obesity prevention program Healthy Dads, Healthy Kids, which encourages dads to become family role models and spend quality time with their children, using exercise and healthy eating as the engagement medium.

More recently, our world-first ‘Dads And Daughters Exercising and Empowered’ (DADEE) study highlighted the enormous benefits that result from a strong father-daughter bond. In fact, the social-emotional outcomes were among the best we’ve seen in research internationally.

This research has come at a time when less than 20 per cent of Australian girls are sufficiently active and fewer than 10 per cent can adequately perform basic skills such as kicking, catching and throwing upon entering high school. Compared to boys, girls enter sport around two years later and drop out six times faster.

We know that many fathers spend less time with their daughters than sons, considering themselves just an “extra set of hands”. That’s less time being active and practicing sport skills together, and missed opportunities to foster their daughters’ wellbeing.

It’s also known that fathers play 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. For example, studies have shown that more than half of primary school girls desire to be thinner.

DADEE included eight weekly sessions where dads were taught evidence-based parenting strategies and the dads and daughters participated in fun and active games and challenges designed to improve the girls’ physical and social-emotional skills. Topics included fitness and physical activity, sport skills, female role models, challenge and adventure, parenting, emotional mirroring and ‘pinkification’.

Promoting the idea of ‘equalist’ parenting helped address the culture of gender prejudice that permeates all aspects of girls’ lives. It helped empower the girls 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.

After participating, daughters felt better about themselves, had stronger relationships with their fathers and were more active. With greater confidence and ability in ball skills, most daughters went on to register for a range of new sporting pursuits.

Fathers also experienced meaningful improvements in a host of outcomes including increased physical activity levels.

Seeing children grow and thrive is arguably life’s greatest reward and parenting is both an enormous privilege and a major responsibility for dads and, of course, mums too.

Although many of the fathers in our study enrolled to help their child become more active or interested in sports, it was clear that the most cherished outcomes were those related to improvements in the father-daughter bond.

The University of Newcastle and HMRI (through funding from Port Waratah Coal Services) are now set for wider rollout of the program in the Newcastle community. A new website (www.dadee.net.au) has been launched for interested families to register.

* Professor Phil Morgan is Deputy Director of the Priority Research Centre for Physical Activity and Nutrition at the University of Newcastle, researching in conjunction with HMRI's Cardiovascular Research Program.