Story: Ngā tamariki

Page 3. European influence on Māori childhoods

All images & media in this story

Mission schools

The mission stations set up throughout New Zealand from the early 19th century were the major influence in changing the traditional pattern of Māori childhood. As part of their project of "civilising" Māori, missionaries paid close attention to child-rearing practices and aimed to adapt the behaviour of both children and their parents. The missionaries set up the first schools for Māori and, as well as teaching new skills such as literacy and new religious beliefs, introduced new forms of discipline such as physical punishment. The mission schools taught mainly in the Māori language and many pupils became highly literate in their own language. These early schools were almost all abandoned by Māori during the land wars of the 1860s.

Eager to read

Merimeri Penfold of Ngāti Kurī was a pupil at Te Hāpua Native School in the Far North in the late 1920s. She remembered, ‘We did not have homework. Reading, however, was very much an attraction. It was common practice to stuff books and journals in our clothes and trouser pants to read at home … I often resorted to reading secretly in the maize crop, in bed, by moonlight at night hanging out the window, or under the beds.’1

Native schools

A new system of primary schools for rural Māori was set up by the state in 1867, and ran in parallel with the public school system for almost a century. At these native schools (renamed Māori schools in 1947) English was the only officially permitted language, although Māori language was sometimes tolerated. Many Māori parents actively encouraged the education of their children and contributed to the cost of land, buildings and teachers for new schools.

Māori also contributed to the school curriculum, methods of discipline and teaching staff. For example, Mary Tautari became one of the first Māori to lead a native school when she was appointed head teacher of Taumārere Native School in the Bay of Islands in 1875. A visitor found that the girl pupils were learning instrumental music and household duties, ‘in order that they may be Europeanised as much as possible, and in all respects rendered fit to become the wives of settlers’.2

Learning new ways of life

Both public and native schools had a wider function than teaching academic or practical skills, and introduced Māori children to a new way of life, values and attitudes. Hamiora Hei, a member of the Te Aute College Students Association, said in 1897, ‘In order that Maori girls may become good, useful wives and mothers, it is essential that a knowledge of the most simple rules of health and medicine should be imparted to them. They require it to break down traditional superstition and the power of the tohungas.’3 However some traditional elements of Māori childhood were also introduced to the new education system. For instance the ‘tuakana–teina’ system of encouraging older pupils to support younger ones was adopted in many native schools, and popularised internationally by the teacher Sylvia Henderson, who, under the pen name Sylvia Ashton-Warner, wrote the novel Teacher, published in 1963.

Survival of traditional child-rearing

In the home as well as at school, some traditional features of Māori childhood survived or were adapted. The whāngai system of customary adoption was banned by the Native Land Act 1909, but many Māori children continued to be raised by adults other than their birth parents.

The new net

One of the names for young people, rangatahi, also means a new net. A proverb ‘Ka pū te ruha, ka hao te rangatahi’ (when the worn out net lies heaped up, the new net goes fishing) refers to the way each generation is succeeded by the next.

By the mid-20th century a semi-traditional pattern of child rearing was still evident in Māori families, especially in rural or mainly Māori communities. In those families, new babies lived in a ‘golden world, the focus of continuous, loving warmth and attention; they were fed on demand, continually picked up, nursed and carried around by parents, siblings and surrounding adults.’4

Māori families tended to be larger than those of non-Māori, and older children were expected to take responsibility for their younger siblings. Māori parents could also rely on child-rearing help from relatives and other adults in the community. ‘For the Maori child, there is always someone to turn to. He is rarely alone, and other children become an extension of the family. Sometimes the home of an uncle or grandparents becomes like a second home.’5 Respected elders such as kuia (women elders) remained the watchful guardians of their extended families and community, and the conveyors of traditional knowledge to new generations.

  1. Quoted in J. Simon and L. Tuhiwai Smith, eds, A civilising mission?: perceptions and representations of the New Zealand native schools system. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2001, p. 92. Back
  2. Quoted in A civilising mission?, p. 72. Back
  3. Quoted in A civilising mission?, p. 229. Back
  4. Quoted in Joan Metge, New growth from old: the whānau in the modern world. Wellington: Victoria University Press, 1995, p. 138. Back
  5. Quoted in Jane and James Ritchie, Child rearing patterns in New Zealand. Wellington: A. H. and A. W. Reed, 1970, p. 130. Back
How to cite this page:

Rawinia Higgins me Paul Meredith, 'Ngā tamariki - European influence on Māori childhoods', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 4 October 2023)

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