Kōrero: Families: a history

Whārangi 1. Changing families

Ngā whakaahua me ngā rauemi katoa o tēnei kōrero

Families have changed a lot in the last 200 years but they remain the major source of emotional and material wellbeing for children and adults. Whatever a family’s size or composition, kinship and whakapapa are central to most people’s identity and their sense of connectedness to others.


The size of Māori and Pākehā families has changed since the 19th century, but the patterns of change have been different. Māori women on average gave birth to five to six children each in the 19th century and continued to have nearly seven children until this dropped to almost three births per woman in the late 1970s, and just over two from the 1990s.

In the late 19th century, women settlers had on average seven children but this rate halved by the early 20th century and dropped to 2.1 births per non-Māori woman in 1936. Births per woman doubled after the Second World War and dropped in the 1970s. In the 21st century the fertility rate was around two births per woman. By December 2017 it had fallen to an average of 1.81 live births per woman, below the 2.01 average maintained between 1980 and 2015. Māori fertility rates remained higher at 2.3 live births per woman. Māori mothers are also on average younger than non-Māori mothers.


Māori marriages involved tribal and whānau negotiations. From the late 18th century many economic and political relationships between Māori and sealers, whalers, traders and settlers were consolidated through marriage. After colonisation, Māori marriages were increasingly regulated by legal frameworks imposed by settlers.

Marriages among settlers were mainly decided by individuals. Most female settlers married young, but age at marriage rose and rates of marriage dropped in the late 19th century. After the Second World War Pākehā age at marriage fell. Marriage rates then dropped steeply in the late 20th century and more children were born to parents who lived together but were not married.

Family composition

While Māori whānau often included three generations, many settler family households initially consisted of a couple and their children. However, some Pākehā households expanded to include elderly parents, other relatives or unmarried friends.

An ample household 

Sarah McCullough immigrated with her family from Liverpool when she was seven years old. She married David Robertson Kennedy in Timaru in 1897. Their household in Christchurch included Sarah’s father, for the last year of his life, and their four children. David’s parents came to live with them when they moved to Wellington. Another member of the Brooklyn household was Miss Lyle, a family friend. Sarah’s brother Jack McCullough, a trade unionist, Labour Party activist, journalist and member of the New Zealand Legislative Council, was also a frequent paying guest.2

Since European settlement there have always been some families with just one parent. However, these rose from 10.4% of all families with dependent children in 1981 to 27% in 2013.

Single-person households

More men migrated to New Zealand in the 19th century than women; many never married and lived alone. The number of single-person households dropped in the early 20th century but increased in the late 20th century as more women and men lived alone before marriage or after divorce or widowhood. In 2013, 23.5% of all households were single-person households. Nearly 80% people living alone were 45 years or older.

Family dynamics

At the time of colonisation, Māori women and men were equally involved in providing for their families and female settlers made significant contributions to work on farms and to other family businesses. However, settlers brought with them the ideal of a male breadwinner with a dependent wife and children. This became the dominant arrangement in urban centres.

From the 1960s mothers became more involved in paid work and by 1986 over 50% of mothers in two-parent families were in the workforce. This rose to 61% in 1996.

While families have been a source of love, care and material well-being for many people, they have also been sites of emotional conflict and sometimes violence.

Family homes

Pākehā families in New Zealand have usually lived in detached, single-household homes. Māori whānau mainly lived in detached dwellings, often in a kāinga (village or small settlement) near a marae, but many families settled in urban suburbs in the mid-20th century.

Home-ownership rates have been high by international standards – in 1919, 53% of all households owned their own homes. From the 1930s, the state became a very important provider of single-household, detached rental housing. Home ownership reached a peak in 1991 at 74% of households, but had dropped to below 63% in March 2018 according to Statistics New Zealand.

Finding out about families

Information about families is available through statistics on births, deaths, marriages and divorces, and through data on households generated by the New Zealand census. However, diaries, oral history interviews, genealogies, novels, poetry, movies and documentaries also provide information about family life.

Kupu tāpiri
  1. Angela Wanhalla, ‘Family, Community and Gender.’ In The new Oxford history of New Zealand, edited by Giselle Byrnes. Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 2009, p. 450. Back
  2. Melanie Nolan, Kin: a collective biography of a New Zealand working-class family. Christchurch: Canterbury University Press, 2005, p. 138. Back
Me pēnei te tohu i te whārangi:

Ian Pool and Rosemary Du Plessis, 'Families: a history - Changing families', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/mi/families-a-history/page-1 (accessed 24 July 2024)

He kōrero nā Ian Pool and Rosemary Du Plessis, i tāngia i te 5 May 2011, updated 1 Jul 2017