Madonna King Fathers and Daughters

Madonna King: Author insights from Fathers and Daughters

Madonna King has just released her ninth book, Fathers and Daughters which curates and analyses feedback from the experiences of 1300 girls and 400 dads exploring the father-daughter relationship, combining with expert commentary from school principals, psychologists, CEOs, neuroscientists, police and parenting experts. We previously interviewed Madonna on the release of her award winning book Being 14.

Madonna’s also recently Chaired the Queensland Government’s Anti-Cyber-Bullying Taskforce. On September 14, the Taskforce, after state-wide consultation, handed down the report, framework and recommendations to Government to address cyberbullying affecting young people in Queensland, a topic that strikes fear into the hearts of parents.

Fathers and Daughters is a treasure trove of insights and must read for all parents – Fathers and Mothers – who wish to tune into what their teen daughters are thinking and feeling, and learn practical steps they can take to improve the father-daughter bond.

What were the key messages you gleaned about Fathers and Daughters and think are important that parents understand?

Girls want time with their dads, even if they say they don’t, or act as though they don’t. Hundreds told me that – but the irony is that they won’t ask. One psychologist told me that a girl’s inability to ask for what she wants reflects the lack of role-modelling of father-daughter relationships in popular media and I think he’s right. There are so many attributes girls see in their fathers and I keep thinking that ‘if only their dads knew that’.

Then on the dads’ side, I learnt that too many of them are missing out – some through their own actions, but many because they don’t know how to get to the starting line. Men and women communicate differently, too many fathers see themselves as the provider more than the parent, and because they don’t have a lived experience of being a girl, sometimes it’s hard for fathers to know how to handle their daughter – especially around puberty.

So there were learnings – for me – for both girls, and their dads! (And mums too, who have to learn to step back sometimes and let dad make mistakes).

The debate of quality vs quantity time is raised often in parenting. What did you find?

This is such a big issue. Girls want time, but that’s useless if Dad is in the corner, reading a book. One girl, Annie, told me what a privileged life she leads; her father is a medical specialist and she wants for nothing – except him. He’s always at work and when he’s home, he’s tired. She’d swap some of those overseas holidays, just to have her dad. 

In other cases, where families are separated, teen girls explained that they spent more time genuinely engaged with the fathers because the time was precious. I think in these cases dads also showed a fragility, perhaps, that girls welcomed – it meant they too could be vulnerable and open up to their fathers.

So while time is imperative – and girls really do want more time with their fathers – it’s useless if their dads aren’t really present, when they are with them.  I asked 1300 girls what they wanted; this is a snapshot

“Be there more, says Sally.

“More time surfing and talking together.’’ Jodie.

“He could eat dinner with the rest of the family more often.’’ Helene.

“He needs to spend more time with the family and less time working.’’ Maddie.

Tell us about how Fathers’ provider role is impacting their confidence and willingness to undertake lead parenting roles. You note they often described themselves as 2IC (second in charge) to Mum.

Fathers actually described themselves as 2IC to Mum; their words not mine and I think too many men settle for holding the barbecue tongs. So many fathers have decided that providing for their family is crucial – and it is, but not to the exclusion of being a parent. So many dads said they had spent their years working hard to put the family in a good spot, but had missed the mark emotionally – and I think that’s really sad. This is what one said, and it was replicated many times with the 400 fathers whose views I sought: ’I have always done everything financially with her – schools, and braces on teeth – but emotionally I missed the mark with her big time. Makes me very sad, to be honest, as I feel I failed her – but I guess time will tell.’

I also spoke to a cancer surgeon who often has the horrible task of telling a father their condition is terminal – and he says they ALWAYS ask why they didn’t spend more time with their children. The bottom line is that dads, generally, underestimate the power they have to raise strong, warm and wise daughters.

Are there differences in Father and Daughter relationships in separated families?

With 617,000 one-parent families with dependent children recorded in the 2016 Census, the role of fathers and step-fathers is elephantine. But the only times where I saw separation really hurt girls was when the parents bickered and didn’t focus on the effect on their kids. Many girls were happier after separation because the fighting had stopped. Home was calmer. Some found it easier to talk to Dad because he had showed a dent in his armour, and she felt she could then talk to him about problems she might have.

But parents who try to hurt each other, through the kids, just hurt their own children. Principals tell stories of parents requesting the school tell the other parent that the kids will have to move, because they are not going to pay the school fees anymore. They won’t even tell each other that! I talked to a lot of children in separated families. Here’s a snapshot of what they said.

What questions do you want to ask about your parent’s separation?

“Dad why did you leave?’

“Is it Mum’s fault or is it your fault?”

“Will we be able to stay at our school?’’

“Will I have to move away from my friends?’’

Some quotes from school leaders who see children being played off by parents.

“They become a pawn in a game.’’

“My heart bleeds when you pick up a student whose parents have been really adversarial.’’

“It’s absolutely devastating. You just want them to pull together for the benefit of their daughter.’’

But in some cases the separation has  actually helped a daughter. Here are what some told me: 

One said: “I’ve learnt to be independent.”

Tania: “My parents separated. It has meant I am spending significantly more one-on-one time with Dad and as a result it has made us closer.’’

Ally: “He is more real with me and we have more we can relate to.’’

So what do the girls want from their dad?

“To try and keep in contact and not treat my mother as an enemy.’’

“Ring every now and again.’’

“I want him to want to see me.’’

Have generational and societal changes impacted the Father and Daughter relationship?

Of course. I think the father-daughter relationship has always had challenges but the introduction of the smart phone, which has made our children older at a younger age, has turned the dynamic on its head. Theirs is a world remarkably different from their parents, and they know that.

Are there structural barriers to Fathers being involved parents, and how as a community can we address them?

What a great question. I think there are two structural barriers that need addressing to help fathers engage with their daughters.

Firstly, schools have to make their grounds more father-friendly. Often they are asked as a ‘token male’ on tuck shop, or for a special fathers’ event. Mothers are not treated this way. Some fathers told me how they think they are eyed with suspicion when they are on the school grounds – and that’s so, so sad – but I believe it is real. Our protectionist policies in education are weighted towards girls and of course they are needed, but not at the expense of fathers’ engagement.

Schools know this. Many told me that they think there would be less drama, particularly with teen girls, if fathers were a bigger part of the school life. But one principal even told me of a father, at a parent feedback meeting, asking her to remind him what year his daughter was in!!

So like life, it’s not a clear cut case: dads need to do more – but so do schools.

The other structural reform relates to the work place. Some fathers see a glass ceiling in wanting greater involvement with their children. It was explained to me this way: in many workplaces, men are seen as workers first and fathers second. Women, on the other hand, are seen as mothers first and workers second. We need to move here, and mothers and fathers play a part there.

For your books Being 14 and Fathers and Daughters, you asked thousands of girls if they could tell their Mum and their Dad one thing, what would it be. What did they say?

Oh, I didn’t really like this – but my promise was to catch what the girls said. So in Being 14, they all wanted to address their plea to their mothers – and it was along these lines:

“Please listen to me.’’

“Listen to me and hear what I’m trying to say.’’

“Please be calm and listen to me.’’

I learnt from that. But then I asked girls what they would say to their fathers, in Fathers and Daughters, and the number one answer was “thank you’’. Number two was an expression of love, and number three was a plea to spend more time with them, followed by a strong request by girls who had absent fathers or lived in separate families that their voice be heard. I think girls often judge their mothers more harshly than their fathers, and this might feed that view! I think there might also be a little bit of girls being so appreciative when their dads do spend time with them – that they want to say thank you.


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Posted by Jade Collins - Femeconomy Director

Jade Collins has 20 years’ global experience in corporate executive Human Resources and management consulting roles in the Mining, Energy and Aerospace industries, leading large scale, complex multi-million-dollar change management programs. Jade finds the combination of her HR, Psychology and MBA qualifications and her leadership experience is invaluable for increasing gender equality in leadership across industries. Jade was a member of the Queensland Government's Strategic Advisory Group for the Toward Gender Parity: Women on Boards Initiative and the 2019 CQU Alumni of the Year for Social Impact for her work with Femeconomy.