Traditionally, children were seen as the children of the whole whānau – not just of their mother and father. The terms for mother and father – whaea and matua – are also used to mean aunt and uncle. Children were raised in, and supported by, a wider whānau that included grandparents, aunts and uncles as well as parents.
All our children
Joan Metge has written that ‘[w]hen a whānau functions as a unit, adult members describe each other’s children as “ā mātou tamariki” (the children of us many), as distinct from “ā māua tamariki” (the children of us two) and take an active interest in their raising’.1 Another writer commented, ‘I am the parent of my sisters’ and brothers’ children, just as they are parents to my children. Those whānau members are all parents, and will love and discipline and care for the children in a special way in their role as parents.’2
Sole parents and multiple parenting
There are difficulties raising children in Māori households where sole responsibility is left to one adult, or where there are multiple adults with diffuse responsibility and ultimately no-one takes responsibility for the children.
Whānau and Māori society benefit from coordinated efforts to provide support to whānau raising children. Shared parenting requires shared resources to meet the needs of children raised in Māori households. Whāngai (fostering or adoption) practices, and the involvement of aunties, uncles, grandparents, kuia and kaumātua, enable Māori to raise children in healthy ways.
Raising healthy Māori children requires not just parents who are able and willing to nurture their children, but also a wider social and economic support system. This is especially true if parents experience poverty, social exclusion or marginalisation.
Kaumātua role in parenting
Grandchildren can and do have a special relationship with their grandparents that is characterised by warmth and intimacy. However, the role of grandparents (tīpuna), kuia, kaumātua, aunties and uncles, who in the past provided care for Māori babies and children born into their whānau, has changed dramatically. Working longer hours and working later in life are now the norm.
Māori patterns of care of mokopuna (grandchildren) by grandparents have consequently been affected, with many older people working because of economic necessity. They may also live further away, although Māori whānau are highly mobile and often visit kuia, aunties or grandparents, sometimes staying for extended periods. Older Māori are rapidly learning about applying technology to the central role of te ahi kā – keeping the home fires burning by staying in touch with children and mokopuna through cellphones, email and Skype.
Oriori (lullabies) are one of a number of traditional practices that nurtured Māori babies and children while transmitting vital cultural information. Amster Reedy claims that it is the birthright of Māori to reclaim this heritage for child-rearing practices today, to raise healthy, happy children secure in their identity and knowledge of themselves and their whānau. Cradling children while singing to them about the activities of tīpuna (ancestors) teaches them about the dynamics of negotiation, conflict and resolution, and the history of food and migration.
Other practices such as mirimiri (massage), karakia and rituals around babies and children and their care, continue to occur among Māori whānau today. The role of grandparents, kaumātua and kuia remains significant. They are instrumental in caring for their mokopuna and transferring rich knowledge to them.