Before European settlement of New Zealand, a whānau comprised kaumātua, pakeke (parents, aunts and uncles) and children. A whānau was around 20 to 30 people and had their own compound within a settlement. Whānau often had their own plot in communal gardens and their own places to fish and hunt. They also laid claim to particular trees. The whānau was self-sufficient in most matters.
Over time the whānau has changed. Households are smaller, and whānau are less likely to operate as economic units. Many whānau are also geographically scattered, especially since the urban migration of Māori after the Second World War.
Although Māori parenting is similar in some ways to parenting by non-Māori, particularly for middle-class Māori, there are also distinctive differences. These include the expectation that whānau is an extended family network, not just the nuclear family of immediate relatives. The wider network includes cousins, grandparents, hapū relatives and marae.
Whānau are dynamic and diverse, both today and historically, as change occurs across time and within the natural life cycle of families. Whānau can be thought of as living organisms where form and function change according to the dominant function of the whānau at that time.
Māori parenting also is far from homogeneous. There is huge variability between different whānau, as well as large inequities between Māori and non-Māori.
The concept of whāngai (adopting or fostering children) has been, and still is, important within Māori whānau. It is the practice of raising nieces, nephews, cousins and other wider-family members as if they were members of the immediate family. Whāngai are adopted children who are raised with a whānau, most often as another member of that whānau, like a brother or sister.
Whāngai were commonly mentored by family, particularly during the period of urbanisation. This allowed them to secure jobs closer to larger city centres and live with relatives. Sometimes whāngai played the role of housekeeper or babysitter – making themselves ‘useful’ for the whānau. Their status was not as a sibling to other children in the household, but somewhere between that of a cousin and a sibling. In some cases whāngai were used as servants, helping domestically and with the heavy farm work required to sustain whānau.