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Ngā mātua – Māori parenting

by Cindy Kiro

Early European visitors noted Māori children being indulged by their parents and leading carefree, playful lives. Children were seen as the responsibility of the whole whānau, not just of their mother and father. In the 21st century Māori were reviving traditional parenting practices such as oriori (lullabies) and mirimiri (massage).

Parenting in tradition and history

Ranginui and Papatūānuku

The first parents in Māori tradition were the atua (gods) Ranginui (sky father) and Papatūānuku (earth mother). In the creation stories they held their children in their eternal embrace in the darkness. Ultimately, the children separated their parents – which in one tradition was considered the first sin.

Tāne and Hineahuone

In Māori tradition humans are descended from the gods. However, the gods sought te ira tangata (the human element). Tāne, a son of Ranginui and Papatūānuku, shaped the first woman, Hineahuone, from clay and gave her life. Tāne then fathered Hinetītama, the dawn maiden, with Hineahuone.

In another tribal tradition humans originated with Tiki. He is either the brother of Tāne and Tūmatauenga, or was created by them. His wife was Marikoriko (twilight) and their daughter was Kauataata.

Taranga and Makeatutara

The demigod Māui was given the name Māui-tikitiki-a-taranga (Māui wrapped in the topknot of Taranga) because he was stillborn and his mother Taranga cast him into the sea in her topknot. Māui was revived and raised by his grandfather, Tamanui-ki-te-rangi, and was later reunited with his mother. However, he wanted to find his father. After following his mother he finally met his father, Makeatutara.

This illustrates a common theme in Māori tradition, of boys who grow up without their father and later go to seek him. Examples include Uenuku, son of Rāhiri, the founding ancestor of Ngāpuhi; Rangiteaorere of Te Arawa; and Tamainupō of Waikato.

Status: Ruatapu and Paikea

In traditional society the status of the child was dependent on the status of both parents.

In the ancestral homeland of Hawaiki, the ancestress Paimahutonga was captured by Uenuku, and later had a child with him. Uenuku later made it clear to their son, Ruatapu, that he was of low status, whereas his brother Kahutiaterangi had a mother who was of high birth within Uenuku’s tribe. In revenge Ruatapu sought to drown all the leading young men of the village. Only Kahutiaterangi (who became known as Paikea) survived.

Early history

The records of early European visitors suggest that Māori children were indulged and led a rather carefree life, full of play. An early French explorer, Julien Crozet, commented that ‘[the women] seemed to be good mothers and showed affection for their offspring. I have often seen them play with the children, caress them, chew the fern root, pick at the stringy parts, and then take it out of their mouth to put it into that of their nurslings. The men were also very fond of and kind to their children.’1

French missionary Jean-Simon Bernard wrote in 1844, ‘The children here are completely free; the parents never do anything to them. They never beat them and do not allow anyone else to beat them.’ 2 This freedom was judged harshly by the standards of Victorian England.

    • Quoted in Anne Salmond, Two worlds: first meetings between Maori and Europeans, 1642–1772. Auckland: Viking, 1993, p. 422. Back
    • Two worlds, p. 422. Back

Whānau and whāngai


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.

Influences on parenting

Changes to Māori parenting

Parenting for Māori whānau is similar to that for other New Zealanders. Urbanisation, changed family composition, the increased participation of women in the labour market and longer working lives for grandparents has led to changes in how children are parented within whānau.

As extended family environments are eroded, parents have increasingly limited access to sources of advice and support from mothers, grandparents, siblings or aunties and uncles, who in the past would have lived in close proximity. This has led to increased demand for resources and information on parenting.

Structural and social determinants

Māori parenting is shaped by Māori patterns of fertility and cohabitation.

Age of childbearing

Māori women typically have children at an earlier age than non-Māori. In the 1950s and 1960s most New Zealand women had their babies young, but while fertility patterns have changed for other ethnicities, Māori patterns have changed less.

In 2015 the median age of childbearing for Māori women was 26, compared to almost 30 for all women. Māori teenagers also had the highest fertility rate. Māori mothers are therefore less likely to have completed higher education, and to have a secure income, accumulated assets and a stable long-term relationship, making the challenge of raising and parenting children more difficult. However, having a baby at a younger age has biological benefits, with fewer complications during pregnancy and birth, and lower rates of congenital abnormality.

Family composition

Changing patterns of family composition among Māori also influences how Māori children are parented. Single-parent households increased from 13% of all Māori households in 1981 to one-third in 2013. Multi-family Māori households also increased during this period, from 4.7% to 12%. Children growing up in multi-family households benefit because they have the resources of all adults in the household available to them.

Economic circumstances

Economic and social changes in the late 1980s and 1990s resulted in a rapid increase in inequality that greatly affected the most vulnerable children, many of whom were Māori. Greater insecurity in the labour market resulted in slowly deteriorating relative incomes for working families, including middle-class Māori families, until the introduction of income-related accommodation supplements and Working for Families tax-credit benefits.

In 2013 the median income of Māori was $22,500, compared to $28,500 for the total population. In a 2010 quality-of-life survey, 11% of Pākehā, 18% of Māori and 28% of Pacific people said that they did not have enough money to cover everyday needs. Parents struggling to make ends meet are more likely to be stressed and less able to focus on the job of nurturing children. Government support for low-income and marginalised families, such as for Māori families, softens economic dislocation and disruption.

Abuse and discipline

Most whānau do a good job of raising their children, and there remain practices that nurture and protect children from abuse and neglect. However, some families have life experiences that increase the danger to children within them.

Traditional discipline

Anne Salmond noted that in traditional Māori society ‘children were rarely hit and any harm to them was likely to provoke muru (plundering) raids from their kinfolk.’1 However, by the 1950s there was a much harsher use of physical discipline. Child advocates Amster Reedy and Hone Kaa argue that a reliance on physical punishment, including beatings, has no place in Māori tikanga.

Abuse and neglect

From 1978 to 1987 the Māori child-homicide rate was 1.15 times the non-Māori rate. However, between 1991 and 2000, the Māori rate rose to more than 3.5 times the non-Māori rate – of 91 children who were victims of homicide, 47 were Māori. In the early 2000s the Māori child-homicide rate was around 2.4 times that of non-Māori.

Media coverage of specific cases of Māori children who were killed or abused brought Māori parenting into sharp relief. Recognition of the disproportionate rates of homicide, abuse and neglect for Māori children compared to non-Māori children led many to search for solutions.

While stirring emotions, debates about Māori child abuse may obscure significant factors that increase risks for Māori babies and children.


Characteristics associated with perpetrators of child abuse and neglect are poverty, low educational achievement, youth, poor mental health including alcohol and drug abuse, being a victim of family violence as a child, and being an early offender. Māori are more likely to be affected by these indicators of socio-economic deprivation, which are both a result of and a cause of inequality between Māori and non-Māori. This inequity is likely itself to have a negative impact on good outcomes for families and children.

Emotional attachment

Māori teenagers have the highest birth rate – almost 2.5 times the rate for all teenagers in 2015. The outcomes for young mothers and their babies are good if they receive good social and economic support from those around them, including parents, neighbours and society. However, the combination of youth, few social supports and inexperience can lead to poorer outcomes for themselves and their children.

Emotional attachment between mother and baby, and father and baby, is crucial to the survival and thriving of Māori babies. It is most likely to occur when parents are embedded in and supported by a wider whānau.

Creating healthy families

Māori efforts to support whānau have focused on what they do well that increases the chances of raising healthy, happy and competent children. For example the Whānau Ora Taskforce, established in 2009 to develop a framework for a whānau-centred approach to whānau wellbeing and development, has identified a framework comprising five key elements: whānau action and engagement; whānau-centred design and delivery of services; iwi leadership; an active and responsive government; and funding.

Discipline without smacking

In 2008 Te Kāhui Mana Ririki was formed. This group is a national Māori child-advocacy organisation. Its primary role is to advocate for the needs of Māori children and young people at a national level. It fronted the Papaki kore – no smacking campaign. As part of this campaign Hone Kaa argued for honesty from Māori leaders about child abuse, and recognition of the role that wider whānau play in keeping children safe, promoting non-violence against children and acknowledging that Māori culture does not encourage harmful behaviour towards children. Kaa has argued that all Māori have responsibility for Māori children in abusive situations, and that the wider whānau, hapū and iwi are responsible for nurturing children.

    • Anne Salmond, Two worlds: first meetings between Maori and Europeans, 1642–1772. Auckland: Viking, 1993, p. 422. Back

Types of parenting

Shared parenting

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.

Supporting whānau

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.

Traditional practices

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.

    • Joan Metge, New growth from old: the whanau in the modern world. Wellington: Victoria University Press, 1995. Back
    • R. Selby, ‘My whānau.’ In Social work in action, edited by Robyn Munford and Mary Nash. Palmerston North, Dunmore Press, 1994. Back

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Cindy Kiro, 'Ngā mātua – Māori parenting', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 19 June 2024)

Story by Cindy Kiro, published 5 May 2011, updated 1 June 2017