Story: Diverse families

Page 1. Extended family and sole-parent households

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Households in New Zealand have always varied in size. Māori whānau were multi-generational, and grandparents were closely involved in bringing up grandchildren. Pacific Island, Asian and African immigrants to New Zealand also have long traditions of living in extended-family households. Since European settlement there have also been sole-parent households. Until the later 20th century most sole parents had been widowed. In the 21st century sole-parenting is more likely to be the result of the separation of parents, or conception of children outside an ongoing relationship.


Māori concepts of whānau include kin beyond parents and their children, whether or not they are living together. For this reason, many Māori do not distinguish between nuclear (parents and children) and extended families. This understanding of family is often shared by immigrants from the Pacific Islands and many Asian and African refugees and migrants.

Family composition and ethnicity

The proportion of households that include more than one family is increasing. In 1981 17% of households with children included a mixture of families: either two one-parent families, a two-parent family and a one-parent family, two two-parent families, or parents with children and other people who were not relatives (such as boarders). In 2013 this had risen to around 34% of all households with dependent children.

Pacific households were more likely to include more than one family. In 2013, 17% of Pacific households with families were comprised or two or more families, compared to 11% of Asian households, 9% of Māori households and 3% of Pākehā households.

Just our family 

Peggy Fairbairn-Dunlop remembers how some neighbours were uncomfortable about the size of her large Samoan family in the 1950s. A woman across the road would ask: ‘How many people live in your house?’ The children would reply: ‘Just our family,’ and then rush home ‘to get away from her inquisitiveness’. 1

Immigrant extended families

Extended family households can be particularly important for immigrant families, partly because they are a traditional practice, partly because they provide a supportive environment, and partly because immigrants, especially refugees, may have little money and sharing a house is economical. Samoans, Tongans and other Pacific Island peoples see households composed of several families as the key unit of the family (āiga or api). Chinese and Indian immigrants also attach high value to extended family households and try to care for elderly relatives at home.

One of the luckiest people 

An Assyrian mother of a pre-schooler in Wellington described herself as ‘one of the luckiest people’ because her mother and sister lived with her and her husband. She said they were all very close and that her daughter slept with her mother because ‘she loves her grandma … She is always there so she takes care of her’.2

Multi-family living – benefits and costs

There are good things about families living together and sharing living costs, but some extended households are overcrowded and this can lead to higher levels of infectious diseases such as rheumatic fever, tuberculosis and meningococcal disease. The traditional three-bedroom suburban house does not suit the needs of many extended families. In the 21st century housing initiatives recognised diversity in family types and attempted to develop housing for extended-family households.

Sole-parent families

The percentage of families with children that have only one parent rose steeply between 1970 and 1990, but stabilised in the late 20th century. In 1976 only 9% of households with dependent children were sole-parent families. In 2013, 27% of all households with dependent children were sole-parent households and 84% of sole parents were women.

Weekends with Dad 

Children in sole-parent families may spend regular time with their other parent. One mother of two boys said that, while she looks after them most of the time, their father picks them up after school every second Friday night and brings them home on Sunday evening. He also has them over for dinner every Wednesday night. 

Some sole-parent families live in households with another sole-parent family, while some sole parents live with their own parents. Since approximately 20% of women who separate from their partner form another relationship (marriage or cohabitation) in the first year of separation, children of separated parents frequently interact with their parents’ partners and may live alone with their mother for only a short time.

Māori and Pacific children were more likely than children of other ethnicities to live in sole-parent households. Asian children were least likely to live in sole-parent households. While sole-parent families are very varied, they are more likely to experience economic hardship than two-parent families.

  1. Peggy Fairbairn-Dunlop, ‘How many people live in your house?’ In Making our place: growing up PI in New Zealand, edited by Peggy Fairbairn-Dunlop, and Gabrielle Sisifo Makisi. Palmerston North: Dunmore Press, 2003, p. 251. Back
  2. Anne Broome, and Sara Kindon. New Kiwis, diverse families: migrant and former refugee families talk about their early childhood care and education needs. Wellington: Families Commission, 2008, p. 32. Back
How to cite this page:

Rosemary Du Plessis and Candice Diggelmann, 'Diverse families - Extended family and sole-parent households', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 3 July 2022)

Story by Rosemary Du Plessis and Candice Diggelmann, published 5 May 2011, reviewed & revised 22 Jun 2018