Story: Ngā tamariki

Page 1. Traditional Māori childhoods

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In traditional Māori society, children were seen as belonging to, and being the responsibility of, the wider whānau and hapū. Children quickly learnt to identify with their hapū community. The natural parents were not the sole caregivers – child-raising involved grandparents, uncles, aunts, great-uncles and great-aunts. This collective responsibility and these kinship ties ensured the safety and welfare of children, who were seen as representing the future heritage of the tribe. This principle was conveyed in the proverb: ‘He kai poutaka me kinikini atu, he kai poutaka me horehore atu, mā te tamaiti te iho’ (pinch off a bit of the potted bird, peel off a bit of the potted bird, but the inside is for the child – save the best for the child).

Waiata oriori

A waiata oriori was often composed for a child of rank. This class of waiata is often translated as ‘lullaby’. However, unlike European lullabies, the waiata oriori contains complex whakapapa and histories specifically related to the child. From infancy these songs were chanted to children as part of their early education. One classic example which is still sung is ‘Pinepine te kura’, composed for the young Te Umurangi, a descendent of the great Ngāti Kahungunu chief Te Whatuiāpiti.

Children indulged

Māori children were, by and large, cherished and indulged. The pōtiki (last-born) was often a particularly favoured child. This care and affection was observed by several early travellers and missionaries. The French explorer Julien Marie Crozet, on his visit to the Bay of Islands in 1772, remarked of Māori: ‘They 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 out the stringy parts, and then take it out of their mouth in order to put it into that of their nurslings. The men were also very fond of and kind to their children.’1

The missionary Samuel Marsden commented in 1820: ‘There can be no finer children than those of the New Zealanders. Their parents are very indulgent, and they appear also happy, and playful, and very active.’2 The travelling painter George French Angas found: ‘Both parents are almost idolatrously fond of their children; and the father frequently spends a considerable portion of his time in nursing his infant, who nestles in his blanket, and is lulled to rest by some native song’.3

Karakia tohi

Whano koe – tāngaengae,
Ki te hopu tangata – tāngaengae,
Ki te piki maunga – tāngaengae,
Me homai – tāngaengae,
Mō te tama nei.

Sprinkle with the water of Tū!
Go thou – navel cord,
To catch men – navel cord,
To climb mountains – navel cord,
Let these be given – navel cord,
For this male child.

Tohi ki te wai nō Tū!
Whano koe – tāngaengae,
Ki te mahi kai māu,
Ki te whatu pūweru mōu,
Ki te whatu kaitaka mōu
Ki te karanga pahī,
Ki te waha wahie, māu
Ki te keri mātaitai, māu
Me homai
Hei whakatupu
Mō te tapairu nei.

Sprinkle with the water of Tū!
Go thou – navel cord,
To prepare food for thyself,
To weave garments for thyself,
To weave fine cloaks for thyself,
To welcome visitors,
To carry firewood on the back, for thyself,
To dig for shellfish, for thyself
Give these
To help growth
For this first-born girl.

He wāwāhi tahā

The nature of children is to explore their world and the objects in it, which can lead to them breaking precious items. This is highlighted in the proverb ‘Ko te mahi a te tamariki, he wāwāhi tahā’ (the activities of children break calabashes). This whakataukī (proverb) also served to remind families that it was their responsibility to teach children, and not to respond to accidents with anger – children might not always appreciate the value of taonga, but should not be punished for being inquisitive.

The birth of a child

The birth of a child represented the continuation of whakapapa or genealogical lines. This was particularly important for those of chiefly status eager to ensure that the mana and tapu of their ancestral lineage did not die out.

Pregnant women, particularly those of high rank, were moved to a special place away from the communal areas of the village. This was called a whare kahu (birthplace), and it was a tapu place under the guidance of a tohunga. The tohunga cut the umbilical cord (pito) which, along with the afterbirth (whenua), was laid at a chosen site, either buried in the land or placed in trees or caves. This fixed the newborn to that place. The land provided a tūrangawaewae (a place to stand) part of tribal identity.


Boys born to chiefly parents were often dedicated to the god of war, Tū. Girls orinially were dedicated to the goddess of childbirth, Hineteiwaiwa. This dedication of the child's life was part of the tohi rite. It was conducted at a sacred stream by the tohunga or priest. The tohi ceremony dedicated children to their life's work, and strengthened and protected their mauri (life principle). Male children were expected to follow in the footsteps of their fathers and female children in those of their mothers. This is reflected in the proverb: ‘Ngā tamariki tāne ka whai ki te ure tū, ngā tamariki wāhine ka whai ki te ūkaipō’ (boys should be manly, girls should be motherly).

  1. Julien Marie Crozet, Crozet's voyage to Tasmania, New Zealand and the Ladrone Islands and the Philippines in the years 1771–1772. London: Truslove & Shirley, 1891, p. 66. Back
  2. John Rawson Elder, ed., The letters and journals of Samuel Marsden. Dunedin: Otago University Council, 1932, p. 283. Back
  3. George French Angas, Savage life and scenes in Australia and New Zealand. London: Johnson Reprint, 1967 (originally published 1847), p. 313. Back
How to cite this page:

Rawinia Higgins me Paul Meredith, 'Ngā tamariki - Traditional Māori childhoods', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 25 February 2024)

Story by Rawinia Higgins me Paul Meredith, published 5 May 2011