On a weekday father-daughter night at a central Victorian school, a teen girl arrives with a live yabby. It’s in a little takeaway food tub, filled with water. Fathers and daughters have been asked to bring along a “treasure” — something that reflects their relationship with each other. The organisers ask her about the significance of the yabby.
“This is what I do with my dad,” she says. “This is what I love.”
Many schools run programs like this one, encouraging a bond between father and daughter during the tricky adolescent years. Fathers will often arrive with photos of their child as a newborn, or a kindergarten drawing.
The girls nearly always opt for something signalling an activity they shared with their father — like the yabby.
“One of the things that dads are good at with their daughters is being the person who does the doing things — together,” says Bill Jennings, who runs one such program.
Going to the football, watching the swimming on television, mucking around in the pool, hiking, camping, learning to drive, planning a school project, bike riding — activities. Ask a girl about a searing memory showing a bond with their father and chances are it will involve an activity.
Seeking the views of about 1,300 girls and 400 fathers for my book Fathers and Daughters taught me so much. But one thing that stood out were those connectors that seemed to grow the bond between fathers and daughters.
Three things were raised repeatedly: the bond that working the land created, the significance of shared beliefs, and the connection between sport and a good father-daughter relationship.
Girls who were raised in rural areas and wanted to return to the land boasted a treasured bond with their fathers.
Many of these girls were at boarding school, and while they would talk to their mothers often, they really missed their fathers.
Adelaide principal Kevin Tutt says he sees it often. “Dads will really make the effort to be here for their girls, and not just in sport but across the board, as much as they can,” he says.
Dr Linda Evans, from Toowoomba’s Fairholme College, agrees. “Most of our boarders will go home and work over the holidays, and invariably that’s more likely to be with Dad than it is with Mum,” she says.
The second theme that surfaced during interviews with the girls — which is backed by experts — related to their father’s opinions or beliefs.
Girls who shared the same views as their fathers developed a solid alliance. These girls believed their fathers valued their opinions and listened to them — even if they put up an opposing argument.
Meanwhile, those who disagreed strongly with their father’s opinions — or who believed he dismissed their views without considering them — invariably described him as “old fashioned”, “racist”, a “misogynist” and even a “bigot”.
This was particularly the case when the girls offered their views on three issues — same-sex marriage, Australia becoming a republic, and our treatment of refugees.
“Dad just says I’m wrong when I try to say what I think — so I don’t bother anymore,” one says.
Or, “I just go quiet. I try and say something — like on refugees — and he just slaps my argument down.”
This doesn’t surprise those who teach girls. One school leader says fathers need to leave “being QC in the courtroom and be Dad in the lounge room”.
Perth principal Jennifer Oaten says while some dads struggle with that, it could “be the make or the break in their future relationship”.
As Gold Coast principal Dr Julie Wilson Reynolds says, “It’s about their self-esteem and their ability to hold their own.”
The third connector that jumped out in the girls’ responses was that those who played a sport their father loved or was actively involved in (coaching, ferrying them to and from training, or watching) enjoyed a lovely bond with their fathers.
It wasn’t only organised sport. Girls who ran or went bike riding or camping with their fathers enjoyed a similarly good relationship.
This response was so strong that I jotted down a long list of activities my girls could do with their father. The connection engendered through sport was reinforced by educators, teen counsellors and researchers.
Indeed, research by Baylor University has shown that a “turning point” in a father-daughter relationship can be the activity they share — beating other significant events like a daughter marrying, leaving home or having her own children.
Strong father-daughter relationships don’t require these three themes to succeed, but my research has shown how they can act as connectors.
Music, for example, is another connector — particularly with the revival of bands such as AC/DC, Frankie Valli and Meatloaf.
Dr Briony Scott from Wenona is one of a dozen experts who recommend a regular father-daughter “date”, like breakfast or coffee.
“You build the relationship as part of the ritual, and when life gets tough, as it invariably will, and they start to withdraw, you say, ‘Well, every second Friday, we are having breakfast’,” she says.
If there’s not a dad around, an uncle, grandfather or another male role model is fine. It’s the connection that’s important. “And that independent relationship is pure gold,” says Dr Scott.