In an effort to bridge the gap between Australian fathers and their daughters, one man believes sport is the answer. With government funding secured, our elected officials seem to believe him.
A good million years or so ago, I wrote a book about fathers. No, I have to be more precise. I interviewed 30 adults about the role their fathers (had) played in their lives, and how they had influenced the person they were today. In my research, I had come across particular father “types”, so my 10 chapters divided the children into their father-groups. There were fathers who had been helpful, famous, shared, victims, examples, inspiring, dead, absent, legendary and a tad too forceful. The whole project took me years to complete, but in the end, it gave me three powerful gifts. First of all, after the book came out, my own father told me he was proud of me. That was great, because he had never done that before and it changed our relationship. Secondly, one of the interviewees became my best friend. And thirdly, many of the book’s male readers contacted me with a startling observation: they had never known that they, as fathers, were so important in the lives of their children. Often they had thought that it was all about the mother, and that their children viewed them as peripheral figures. Now they realised that every move they made, every word they spoke, was being watched, and heard, and interpreted, and internalised.
Fathers, we are understanding more and more, are vitally important. Especially in the lives of their daughters. Because often the cliché is right: he is the first man we get to know, and often we choose partners like him for the rest of our existence. So how we deal with him, and, more to the point, how he deals with us, is critical. That is why DADEE is such a good idea. DADEE stands for Dads and Daughters Exercising and Empowered. Yes, I know, linguistically problematic. But it had to fit and sound as closely to daddy as possible, and the inventors of the acronym are academics, not often brilliant with language. Nevertheless: listen to this. A few years ago, professor Phil Morgan was getting a bit worried about statistics that told him that especially girls don’t move enough. As a consequence, their rates of obesity went up, of course, but you could also see it in their declining physical and psychological health, because not using their body made girls less and less happy with it. And that added to their normal teenage self-loathing, which resulted in depression and other mental health issues. As the father of three daughters, Morgan decided it was time for dads to step up. He knew that fathers were great at doing things, being active, playing sports. Often they did that with their sons, hoping to educate the next captain of the Australian cricket team. But what about daughters?
Morgan raised some money and started a trial in 2015 with 115 families at the University of Newcastle. He trained facilitators, gave the dads a pink t-shirt and their primary school girls a blue one and enrolled them in a nine-week, 90-minute program. Throughout they were playing games, improving sporting skills, running around and improving their general rough and tumble. At the end, both sides were ecstatic. They had gotten to know each other much better, had a laugh, knew more about trust and resilience, self-esteem and confidence. Both the fathers and their daughters had (re)discovered each other, while they were getting fit and having fun. But most importantly, throughout the weeks, the fathers had become, as Morgan called it, “gender equity advocates”. People who were now motivated to make sure that their girls were protected from what he labelled “pinkification”, the idea that the lives of girls are limited because of their sex. The men were now, more than ever, their daughters’ advocates, admirers and agents of change in the rest of the world. And they had learnt something about themselves too. The quintessential win-win.
Now DADEE is going statewide. Minister for Sport Stuart Ayers has given Morgan $2.4 million to spread his program as far in NSW as he can. Ayers is mostly motivated by the hope that DADEE can drive girls to sport and NSW women’s sport to international highs. That is why he has made it part of his “Her sport, her way” package and given Morgan four years to spread his wings. But NSW is not the only place where girls and their fathers are getting a bit of a push. DADEE will also be rolled out in England, where it will help low-income families in London get off the couch. The interviewees in my ancient book would be pleased: anything to bring dads and their children together.