How can we raise daughters with resilience, confidence and positive self-esteem? It is a question parents of girls ask themselves often - and it turns out more time with dad could be the answer.
A University of Newcastle initiative focused on the role dads play in helping primary school aged girls build on their emotional wellbeing is set to role out across the state and has attracted international attention.
About 500 Australian fathers and 630 girls have taken part in the Dads and Daughters Exercising and Empowered program so far and, thanks to a $2.4 million funding boost announced last week by the NSW Government, it will soon be extended around NSW. A version of the scheme will also launch next year in the UK, where it will reach up to 650 families from low socio-economic backgrounds in London.
DADEE was created by renowned physical activity researcher Professor Phil Morgan, a father of three daughters himself. Professor Morgan became interested in gender equity after his own research showed more than 80 per cent of girls failed to meet physical activity recommendations and fewer than 10 per cent could perform fundamental movement skills such as kicking and throwing – results that are significantly worse than for boys.
He set about coming up with a way to reverse this trend and the resulting program was launched in 2015. Early research found girls who took part had improved self-esteem, confidence, resilience, sporting skills, strength and physical activity levels, and were more likely to take up traditionally male sports.
"The study findings were outstanding for both fathers and daughters. The biggest impacts were the daughters' improvements in self-esteem, resilience, physical confidence and emotional control. The social-emotional outcomes were among the best we've seen in research internationally," Professor Morgan says.
"After participating, the girls felt better about themselves, had stronger relationships with their fathers and were more active within the family."
Professor Morgan says fathers are one of the key role models and influencers in a girl's life and the program is designed to help fathers instil in their daughters the physical and psychological skills needed for a healthy life.
"Emerging research has demonstrated the unique and powerful influence dads can wield in shaping physical activity behaviours, learning ability, self-esteem, social skills and resilience, particularly for girls," Professor Morgan says.
"The father-daughter relationship is associated with significant psycho-social development and health outcomes, and physical activity provides a unique opportunity to foster this relationship.
"[The program] includes activities that helps fathers and father figures to play a greater role in supporting their daughters to develop physical confidence and competence, while at the same time helping daughters develop the social-emotional skills to optimise their self-esteem."
The free program includes weekly 90-minute group sessions, which are split into educational and practical activities. The practical sessions are focused on teaching girls' sports skills, developing aerobic and muscular fitness through physical challenges and fun games.
Education sessions teach fathers about positive lifestyle role-modelling and offer parenting strategies to empower girls to resist gender prejudice, particularly regarding physical activity and sport, while girls learn resilience, persistence and critical thinking.
During the practical sessions, dads spend quality time with their daughters learning fundamental movement skills such as ball kicking, catching, and throwing, and take part in rough and tumble play and health‐related fitness games.
Jonathon Poynter took part in the program with his daughter Celeste. He was initially drawn to the chance to spend some one-on-one time with his only daughter and youngest child, who was then nine.
"I loved the fact that every Wednesday for 90 minutes it was just about us and we were both doing something new for the first time," Mr Poynter, from Maitland, says.
He says both he and Celeste particularly liked the "rough and tumble play" component of the sessions and while Mr Poynter had regularly played more physically with his two older sons, he had done this less with Celeste.
"We had a game I always played with my kids where we had to get each other off the bed. I automatically played it with my boys but I did not do it as much with Celeste," he says, adding he realised through completing the program that he too was guilty of gender stereotyping.
Celeste says the thing she loved most about the program was the one-on-one time she got to spend with her dad "focusing on me".
"I have got two older brothers so that was his special time with me," she says. "I loved spending that time with my dad. We were already quite close but I think it made us closer."
Mr Poynter says he saw many positive changes in Celeste as a result of the program, and loved seeing her grow in confidence, become more empowered and willing to stand up for herself.
"She is a much more forthright and assertive person. She will really stand up to gender stereotypes now," he says adding she displays much more "strength and power" than she did before.
The NSW government funding for the program is a key component of a four-year strategy called Her Sport Her Way. The initiative aims drive change for women and girls in sport, expanding participation levels and leaving a legacy for future coaching and promotion.