Dads, Daughters, and Sports

Gard Skinner, founder of DaddyDaughterTime.org and a fan of We Are All Athletes, asked me,

“If you were speaking to a room full of men who, perhaps, had few sports experiences themselves growing up….

How would you–as executive director for an organization that is devoted to opening health doors for every single child– recommend they introduce their shy or cautious daughters to sports?”

It’s not so much that daughters tend to be shy or cautious. It’s that parents sometimes overlook a child’s natural athleticism if that child happens to be female. Fathers in particular might not know how to encourage and support a daughter’s interest in sports, especially if the fathers haven’t seen themselves as successful athletes.

The best time to start is early. Studies show that young boys have a ball tossed in their direction much more often than young girls do.

Dads can help girls develop strength, coordination, and appreciation for their own bodies by engaging them in myriad physical activities – playing catch, wrestling, hiking, camping, climbing hills, running, skipping, playing on monkey bars, even slapping high-five in celebration – to begin to give girls a sense that their bodies are sources of joy, wonder, and accomplishment.

Kids – especially one’s own kids – are inherently attractive, it seems to me, and fathers, with the best of intentions, often compliment girls for how attractive they are, hoping to instill a sense of positive body image that way.

However, what girls need much more is a sense of physical accomplishment, success, joy. This develops through physical activity.

Gard also asked, “How would you, in your experience, help us communicate that we are not trying to push our daughters to be “jocks,” but rather, to give them a healthy lifestyle and the benefits that go along with it?”

Gen X fathers know lots of strong, athletic women; many of them married one. But their mothers were raised in the pre-Title IX generation and had few sports opportunities. So we’re still in a transition phase, with many men not fully comprehending how important sports are for girls and women.

My own father, a physician and hospital president, “didn’t want his daughter to be a jock.” That conversation came up when I was a teenager considering colleges, and interested in their athletic as well as academic programs.

Stanford was acceptable to him; but the Stanford basketball program somehow threatened his sense of who his daughter should become. Homophobia was probably part of that; in my generation (I was born in 1956) athletic girls were often assumed to be gay.

When, after Stanford, I played professional basketball and had an opportunity to travel throughout Europe, Dad began to appreciate that sports had literally taken me far.

Later, when I took up golf (his sport) we had many happy days on the golf course together.

Just a few years ago, while playing 18 holes together, he finally proudly introduced me to a friend of his with this line, “This is my daughter. She’s an athlete.”

I almost fell out of the golf cart, I was so surprised – and happy. Sure, I’m proud of my professional accomplishments, and I’m glad Dad is too, but it meant a lot to me to have him finally affirm this other important aspect of my identity.

Probably the best way for dads to fully appreciate the positive benefits of sports experiences for their daughters is to participate themselves. That way, they’re modeling physical activity, physical fitness, and healthy competition — and reminding themselves on a daily basis how much joy we can all find in sports.

That’s key too – the “all” part. Daughters aren’t really very different from sons, despite the small publishing industry that claims the opposite. Kids are just people, and people inherently love to move.

Unfortunately, female people will hear many messages about the uber-importance of physical appearance. Fathers can go a long way toward counteracting the negative influences of these messages by showing daughters that what matters most is not what your body looks like, but how it can move, express itself, stay healthy, get strong, and accomplish great things, alone and with teammates of all kinds, including family members!
Mariah Burton Nelson
American Association for Physical Activity and Recreation
MNelson@aahperd.org

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2 Responses to “Dads, Daughters, and Sports”

  1. radicalchange Says:

    This is a really great post. I am an athletic director at an international school in Kuala Lumpur. Just saw your blog. One of the issues I have been facing with young adolescents in sport in Asia is the way parents use sport as a tool to punish their kids for not getting great grades. They tell their daughters that they can only play if they have all As or some absurd thing like that. Do you have any research on this issue that you could refer me to?

  2. gws3 Says:

    Hey R-change, I think Right to Play might have what you need, http://www.righttoplay.com/

    and I’d love to get some perspective from your students about their favorite father-daughter athletic memories. If any of them want to use the form on the http://www.daddydaughtertime.org site, I’ll make a feature out of it. Any pics you want to send would be great too. My info is all on the site,


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