Billy Slater may have just been earning a buck but the message behind his playing with dolls, and thus establishing a positive father daughter relationship, is no less important because of it.
Champion league player Billy Slater achieved his own WTF? moment last year when he all of a sudden popped up on the breakfast television circuit talking about playing with Barbie dolls.
Turns out Slater was revealing this little-known side of himself to encourage more dads to play games with their daughters, reflecting both the recognised importance of free-form play for children and the often less natural father daughter relationship. Slater appeared in a video which achieved some viral power playing make-believe with his daughter and her dolls.
Also turns out the whole thing was part of a campaign by Barbie’s creator, Mattel, to sell more dolls. And while that’s entirely unsurprising in the modern world, where all advertising requires an editorial hook, it shouldn’t obscure the essential message ‘Billy the Kid’ was attempting to convey.
Past studies have found that while children turn to mum for comfort when distressed, they turn more often to dad for play. It’s still dads, in the main, who end up playing hide-and-seek, building cubby houses, going to the park, exploring new places and, like Billy, playing using Barbies to build that father daughter relationship. I know that’s true for me.
But isn’t that, like, the less important part of parenting? The stuff with little consequence? Not at all. Plenty of research has found that play without strictly defined limits has significant and long-lasting benefits for kids, in particular in developing emotional and behavioural self-regulation, in developing imaginative and problem-solving functions, and in building their resilience to take on new, challenging situations throughout childhood.
Playing games with your kids isn’t always easy. Their schedule (or lack thereof) rarely respects yours. You’re tired, the footy’s on… all you really want to do is sit on the couch and do fuck all. What you really want to do, at heart, is be selfish. And that’s natural, not shameful.
But when you consider what those play sessions with dad actually mean to the little one, and the almost incidental benefits that accrue to your child from an hour’s mucking around, the couch can wait.
Don’t see playing with your kids as a chore. See it as a vital part of their development. Childhood doesn’t last long. Ask mates with older children. There’s a whole new set of challenges awaiting in the teenage years.
One thing about play I’ve learnt is that you’ve gotta be invested. Put your phone away, take your eyes off the TV and give in to your inner child when you play with your kid. Children have surprisingly attuned bullshit detectors and instantly know when you’re distracted or worse, faking it, a bit like Billy was in the Barbie ad.
Fathers playing with sons may seem an easier fit. Sport and boys’ early love of physicality ain’t a stretch for most of us to satisfy. Girls, to perhaps state the obvious, are an altogether different proposition, but a father playing her games is no less important for establishing a positive father daughter relationship.
Dress up, talk in baby voices, stage a tea party, pretend to be someone or something you’re not… the joy I’ve seen in my daughter’s face when she can see how fully I’ve embraced her little world, when she can also sense it’s not really my bag and I’m out of my comfort zone, is worth the terribly inflated price of Barbie and her damned accessories.
Like our parents did to us, we end up putting a fair pile of rules on our little people. Eat your dinner. Get ready. Brush your teeth. Go to bed. Play is a place where they can do things their way, without a heap of rules, and automatically grow their understanding of the world. As their dad, you’re just helping out a bit when you join in.
Images: Billy Slater Facebook