Story: Whāngai – customary fostering and adoption

Page 1. The custom of whāngai

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What is whāngai?

Whāngai is a Māori customary practice where a child is raised by someone other than their birth parents – usually a relation. The practice is similar to both adoption and fostering, as a whāngai placement may be permanent or temporary. A parent who takes on a child as a whāngai is called a matua whāngai, while the child is known as a tamaiti whāngai.

Other terms with similar meanings include tamaiti atawhai and tamaiti taurima. All these words have literal meanings referring to the welfare of the child – whāngai (to feed), atawhai (show kindness to) and taurima (treat with care or tend). In English, a child who becomes a whāngai is often described as having ‘been whāngaied’ or ‘whāngaied out’.

Whāngai and atawhai

For some people tamaiti whāngai and tamaiti atawhai mean the same thing, but for some iwi the terms ‘whāngai’ and ‘atawhai’ have slightly different meanings.

Professor Wharehuia Milroy has explained that ‘"atawhai" tends to equate more with "fostered child" and "whāngai" with adopted child. Other synonyms which are used to describe an "atawhai" child … are tiaki (look after) and taurima (to treat with care) and whakatipu (to make grow).’1

Situations where whāngai happens

There were a number of reasons that children were taken as whāngai, including:

  • finding homes for an orphaned child (pani)
  • taking a child from a large family that was struggling to support all the children
  • taking in a child who had young parents
  • taking in an illegitimate child
  • finding a child for people who cannot have children
  • finding a child for older people whose children have grown up
  • strengthening whānau, hapū or iwi ties by strategically placing children within selected whānau.
  • particularly in the case of kaumātua (elders), taking in a mokopuna (grandchild) to pass down tribal traditions and knowledge
  • taking children in as whāngai so that they could inherit land.

Differences from adoption and fostering

The whāngai system was open. It was done with the full knowledge of the whānau or hapū, and the child knew both their birth parents and whāngai parents. Rather than being the sole decision of the mother or parents, a wider community was involved in the decision.

Adoption and fostering are ways to find homes for children who are unwanted or whose parents have died, whereas in the case of whāngai, parents often gave up children to comply with the custom. Whāngai children were often wanted by both families. While whāngai has received some legal recognition at various times, it has largely operated outside the legal processes of adoption.

  1. Quoted in ‘Maori concepts of guardianship, custody and access: a literature review, part two,’ Ministry of Justice, 2002 (PDF, 627 KB). Back
How to cite this page:

Basil Keane, 'Whāngai – customary fostering and adoption - The custom of whāngai', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 19 April 2024)

Story by Basil Keane, published 5 May 2011, updated 1 Jun 2017