The fostering and adoption of children is a long-established Māori customary practice. Traditionally it was not uncommon for children to be tamaiti whāngai (reared by other members of the family), often by those who could not have children, or who wanted more children. Children were treated as the natural children of their whāngai parents and could inherit possessions and land. In some cases children were given to strengthen family ties. Children’s connections to their natural parents were often maintained so they could move between families.
Grandparents, in particular, would raise children so parents could provide for the family. As a result of this nurturing, grandparents were the first educators of the children, and in particular were responsible for imparting traditional knowledge to them. This is highlighted in the stories of the demigod Māui, where all his knowledge comes from his grandparents’ generation. Kuia (female elders) Murirangawhenua, Mahuika and Hine-nui-te-pō, and his koroua (grandfather) Tamanuikiterangi, provided Māui Pōtiki (Māui the last-born) with knowledge to undertake the feats he is noted for. Grandparents would often raise the first grandchild, whose first-born status made it important that they be versed in tribal traditions and genealogies.
Children were provided with lessons which prepared them for the daily tasks of life. They learnt through observation and participation, as they tended gardens, gathered seafood or snared birds. Some children noted for their natural talents were assessed to see if they should attend houses of higher learning, where sacred rites, genealogy and karakia were taught.
Games and amusements
Māori children amused themselves with singing, dancing, story-telling and an array of games including kite flying, top-spinning, string games, knuckle bones and dart throwing. Children gathered at night in the whare tapere, a house used especially for amusement. During the day, they might be found playing on the moari (swing) described and painted by George French Angas: ‘A pole, generally the trunk of a kahikatea pine, is erected in the centre of an open space adjoining the village; flax ropes are suspended from the top, and, holding on to these, the natives swing themselves round and round.’1
In some instances a child might be promised as a future husband or wife for another child, a custom known as taumau or tomo. Such requests were ceremonial and took place at public assemblies. These arranged marriages were often for political purposes, to strengthen bonds between families or tribes. A betrothed girl was known as a puhi and was carefully watched over during her adolescence. In most cases the arrangement was accepted by the children concerned. Their betrothal was a point of honour and it was incumbent on both families to see that the marriage took place when the child grew up.
Many historical accounts of tattooing indicate that people who received these were pre-pubescent. Their moko symbolised a rite of passage into adulthood for both boys and girls. Early observers noted that until moko had been acquired a boy could not be referred to as a warrior, or a girl as ready for marriage. Moko kauae (chin tattooes) were often done in groups of sisters, or of related members of a hapū. Often these young women were chosen by their elders to receive the moko as markers for their future roles amongst the people.