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by Lesley Patterson

There are many different kinds of parents – traditional mums and dads, sole parents, same-sex parents, step-parents and adoptive parents. Rather than maintaining strict discipline, as was the norm in the past, parents are now expected to give their children freedom to grow and develop.

Different kinds of parents

Biological parents

Most people become parents through biological reproduction. Generally, parents care and provide for their children until they reach adulthood. The emotional bond created through the parent–child relationship is usually life-long.

While egg or sperm donors are biological parents, they may or may not have a relationship with their offspring. Donation has made parenthood possible for people who in the past might not have had children, such as single women, gay and lesbian people, and people with fertility problems. Since 2005 donors and children born by this process have been able to find out about one another through a Human Assisted Reproduction Technology Register.

Mother figure

Mary Richmond (1853–1949), a member of a prominent colonial family and oldest of nine children, had parenting responsibilities from a young age. Her father was a busy politician while her mother had little interest in domestic matters. A letter from her father when she was 12 instructed her to look after her little brother while staying with friends: ‘Recollect that he is in your charge … do not forget your duties in your pleasures.’1 She never had children of her own, but children and their welfare were a life-long concern.

Social parents

Some people become parents through social, rather than biological, circumstances. This form of parenting is common in New Zealand – step-parenting is a widespread example. Other forms include adoptive parenting, foster parenting, whāngai (fostering within the extended family), and grandparents as parents for their grandchildren. Social parents can become legal guardians and acquire parental rights and responsibilities.

Legal status

Legally, maternity (who the mother is) is established by birth; while paternity (who the father is) is conferred by entering the father’s name on the child’s birth certificate. Legal parenthood is not restricted by marital status or the circumstances of conception. If the mother has a partner (the person she is in a relationship with when the child is born), she and her partner are assumed to be the parents of the child. From 2004 any partner of a mother could become a legal parent, regardless of gender. Male sperm donors cannot be the legal parents of children born through an artificial insemination process.

Wrong parents

In the bustle of Christmas 1946 Jim Churchman and Fred George were placed in the wrong cribs in the nursery at Dunedin's maternity hospital. The blond Churchmans, of Scottish descent, parented an olive-skinned, dark-haired boy; the ethnically Lebanese George family raised a pale-skinned, fair-haired son. When the families met, doubts were raised, but it took 57 years and a DNA test before the mix-up was confirmed.

Adoption is the only way to transfer legal parenthood. Only married couples or single people can adopt. If the couple is in a de facto relationship, only one partner can legally adopt. The other can become a legal guardian, which has a lesser status. Before same-sex marriage was legalised in August 2013, same-sex couples could not jointly adopt children.

Parenting arrangements

Parenting arrangements in New Zealand are diverse. Parenting may be sole or shared, and some parenting is done within extended families.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries parents often died relatively young – in 1936 there were three widows for every separated or divorced woman.

Later in the 20th century sole parenthood was usually the result of parents separating. Some sole parents formed new relationships and, if the other partner also had children, this created blended families. A 1995 study showed that up to two-thirds of mothers who separated found a new partner within five years.

Blended families were more prevalent from the 1970s because of increased rates of relationship break-up and the formation of new relationships. A 2004 study found that one in 10 children born after 1970 had lived in a blended family by the age of five, compared with one in 20 children born before 1970. Almost 40% of children had spent some time not living with their father before they turned 17.

    • Quoted in Frances Porter and Charlotte Macdonald, eds, My hand will write what my heart dictates: the unsettled lives of women in nineteenth-century New Zealand as revealed to sisters, family and friends. Auckland: Auckland University Press, Bridget Williams Books, 1996, p. 385. Back

Mothers, fathers and parenting

Parents are expected to share the responsibility of caring for children and providing for their needs. This is reflected in New Zealand family law such as the Care of Children Act 2004. Although parenting is a shared responsibility, mothers and fathers often care and provide for children differently, especially when children are young. This is in part because parenting varies according to the age and needs of children, and in part because men and women have often been seen as more suited to certain tasks.

Parenting in traditional Māori society

Before colonisation, parenting in Māori society occurred within the context of the whānau (extended family), which often comprised three or more generations. The care of children was a collective responsibility. Much care was provided by the grandparent generation. Parents had other whānau responsibilities in addition to parenting.

Colonial parenting

The different roles of mothers and fathers can be traced to the British origin of most immigrants to New Zealand. From the late 18th century British households changed from generally being both a dwelling and a workplace to family homes that became the special domain of wives and mothers.

Cheeky children

Most 19th-century families had many children, and mothers often had to raise them without much support. In 1880 Mary Rolleston of Christchurch wrote to her husband, William, a member of the House of Representatives in Wellington, complaining, ‘the boys are rather tumultuous and disorderly. If I let them do as they please the house is unbearable and if I reprove them I am told “they don’t like jaw”. Dolly [Dorothy, aged five] informed me today that I was a “greasy lout”!! Don’t you think that it is time that the father of the family took a little share in the responsibility of controlling his children?’1

When British settlers came to New Zealand, family life was organised around a gendered division of labour, although many rural women worked on family farms. The care of children and the home was the primary role of mothers, while the primary role of fathers was to provide for the family through paid work.

Parenting from the early 20th century

In the early 20th century motherhood remained women’s expected role. Mothers were supposed to raise their children according to strict routines and ensure they were clean, well-fed, appropriately dressed and well-behaved. Children’s physical growth and development was closely monitored by childcare experts. ‘Mothercraft’ was taught to girls in state schools. There was no boys’ equivalent. Although some mothers also had paid jobs, very few combined motherhood with full-time paid work or professional careers. Sole parents, who were mainly women, received little state support until later in the century, although widows could receive a pension from 1911.

Fathers were supposed to be good providers or ‘breadwinners’, and were not expected to spend much time with their children. They were the family disciplinarians and were sometimes available for a little horseplay before bedtime. Fathers did not do much in the way of childcare or housework. Their domain was outdoors – mowing the lawns and tending the vegetable garden. Widowers generally employed female housekeepers or sent young children to live elsewhere rather than care for them by themselves.

Legislation and social policies in the 20th century favoured this traditional type of family arrangement.

Work–life balance?

The 2001 census showed that 38% of fathers and 7.9% of mothers aged 25–34 with a child under five were in paid work for 50 or more hours per week. Studies have shown, unsurprisingly, that people who worked the longest hours were less able to do other activities like spend time with their families. When they did have family time a sense of pressure and work-related stress led to parents easily losing their tempers, shouting at their children and using more physical discipline.

Changing roles

For most families in the later 20th century one income was not enough to live on and parenting roles changed as a result. Many women were no longer prepared to stay at home, and wanted careers of their own. Mothers and fathers were often both in paid work and young children were placed in early childhood centres. In 1986, for couples with a child under five, 59% of mothers and 0.9% of fathers were at home full-time and not in paid work. By 2001 this had changed to 38% of mothers and 3.4% of fathers.

Mothers still did more caregiving than fathers, who were often the main breadwinner, (especially when children were young). Fathers worked longer hours than mothers, though mothers often increased their paid working hours as children grew older. Fathers took a more hands-on parenting role than in the past, becoming involved in cooking, feeding children and changing nappies.

In the 21st century the age of a woman’s youngest dependent child still has a significant effect on her level of involvement in paid employment and on her hourly pay rate. However, rates of involvement in paid work by women whose youngest child was aged three or four steadily increased between 1994 and 2014. While employment rates for sole mothers have increased alongside those of all mothers, they are less likely to be in paid work when they have young children.

While many mothers withdraw from paid work for a while when their babies are born, only a minority of fathers take on the work of caring for their children on a full-time basis. Nineteen per cent of women who were not in paid work listed looking after children as their main activity in the 2017 Household Labour Force survey; only 3% of men were in this category. Only 1% of those who take paid parental leave are fathers.

The small number of men who stay at home to look after their children are increasingly forming groups that meet in one another’s homes for mutual support. They include fathers whose partners are the main earners and sole fathers who are caring for their children alone. In 2018 the most high profile stay-at-home father was Clarke Gayford, the partner of the Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, who became the full-time carer for their baby daughter.

    • Quoted in Frances Porter and Charlotte Macdonald, eds, My hand will write what my heart dictates: the unsettled lives of women in nineteenth-century New Zealand as revealed to sisters, family and friends. Auckland: Auckland University Press, Bridget Williams Books, 1996, p. 401. Back

Marriage, separation and sole parenting

Marriage and cohabitation

Until the 1970s there was a strong expectation that people would marry before having children. Many couples married because of pregnancy – it has been estimated that over half of brides in the late 1960s were pregnant. In the late 20th century parents were less likely to be married and more likely to divorce than earlier generations.

A matter of choice

Some single women became sole mothers by choice, many because they wanted children but found themselves in their late 30s and without a partner. Donor insemination was one way of getting pregnant. Between the 1990s and 2000s the percentage of single women using the services of fertility clinics increased significantly. In 2003 one clinic, Fertility Associates, reported that 35% of its clients were single women, up from 20% in 1996.

Cohabitation became a common living arrangement for New Zealand parents. In 2017 nearly half of all women were not married when their first baby was born, although most lived in long-term relationships.

Unmarried mothers

Until the 1970s unmarried mothers faced financial barriers and disapproval from society if they wanted to raise their children alone. Many gave their children up for adoption – in 1970, 30% of babies born to unmarried mothers were adopted out. In the 21st century almost all unmarried mothers parented their own children.

Responsibilities after separation

New Zealand law assumes that parents will continue to care for their children if their relationships end. Mother-only care was traditionally seen as better for separating parents and for children. But by the 21st century shared care was usually considered better for children. The law encouraged separating parents to make their own parenting arrangements in the best interests of their children. Dispute resolution processes were available through the Family Court.

International battle

In 1988 five-year-old US citizen Hilary Foretich was secretly brought to Christchurch by her grandparents. Her mother, Elizabeth Morgan, claimed that Hilary had been sexually abused by her father. The US court did not accept Hilary as a witness and ruled that she had to have unsupervised visits with her father, which prompted the flight. Morgan went to jail for two years for refusing to comply with the court order, and later joined her daughter in Christchurch. The New Zealand courts awarded Morgan sole custody.

Separating parents had to negotiate new living and care arrangements. This could include sole care (children live with one parent), shared care (where children lived with each parent for three or four days a week) and split care (where children lived with one parent during the week and the other at weekends). Fathers took on basic tasks they may not have done in the past, like dressing young children and making school lunches.

Child support payments

Parents who do not live with or share the care of their children are expected to make a financial contribution towards their day-to-day care. Parents can make private arrangements or use a government-operated child-support scheme. In the year to March 2017, 92% of people receiving the sole parent support benefit paid by the New Zealand government were women and nearly 60% of them were aged 25-39. The number of parents receiving the sole parent support benefit declined between 2012 and 2017, and the rates of participation in paid work by sole mothers steadily increased in the 2010s.

Sole parenting

The 2013 census showed that 18% of families were one-parent families with children. Most were headed by mothers. Some children have ongoing contact with their other parent, but others have only occasional or no contact. Older children tend to have less contact than younger children. A 1998 study of children whose parents had separated found that 52% of adolescents sampled had seen their father in the last year. In 2013 almost 32% of mothers in single-parent families were employed full-time and 19% were in part-time employment. A third of all women who were sole parents were not in paid work.

Parenting practices

For most parents, raising children is one of the most rewarding aspects of their lives. Watching children grow and develop gives parents a lot of pleasure – events like first steps, first words and school achievements are long remembered.

Challenges of parenting

New parents have to cope with sleep deprivation and constant developmental changes. They have less time for themselves and to spend with other people, including their partners. Some find their identities revolve around their children.

Parents in paid work have to take time off to care for sick children. The parents of teenagers often have to deal with the challenging behaviour that is a hallmark of adolescence. There is considerable societal pressure on parents to make sure their children turn out well. Some parents do not have the skills to parent well, and neglect or abuse their children.

Helicopter parenting

In the 21st century the term ‘helicopter parenting’ was sometimes used to refer to parents who constantly hovered around children, making sure all possible needs and wants were met. Critics said this approach to parenting produced children who found it hard to think or act independently.

Parenting styles

Parenting styles are diverse, and are influenced by things like family background, socio-economic status and ethnicity. Advice from others is an important influence.

Some parents take a traditional authoritarian approach and try to have complete control over their children’s behaviour. Others control some behaviour while supporting children to make their own decisions. Permissive parents guide children but avoid restraining them, while disengaged parents show little or no interest in controlling or supporting their children. Many parents have a combination of styles that change over time.

Extra challenges

A 2008 study of relationships between parents and adolescent children in recently settled African, Middle Eastern and Asian migrant families found that typical arenas of conflict at this stage in life – clothes, money, TV and the internet – were intertwined with the acculturation or settling-in process. Disputes about things like clothing and access to alcohol often arose because adolescents wanted to be like their Kiwi peers, whereas their parents wanted them to retain the values of their homeland. This could result in a more authoritarian approach to parenting than that taken by most New Zealand parents.

Outcomes for children

Studies carried out in the early 21st century showed that although parental income positively affected child outcomes (including health and schooling), parental age, gender, marital status and sexuality did not determine how people parented or how children turned out as adults. Gay and lesbian parents were as competent and effective as heterosexual parents, and there were no notable differences in child outcomes for heterosexual, gay or lesbian parents. Sole mothers and fathers were equally effective parents.

Child discipline

Teaching children to behave well is a major parental responsibility. Physical punishment was common until the late 20th century, when ‘positive parenting’, which involved praise and acknowledgement of good behaviour, and strategies like ‘time out’ (time away from the source of conflict) and family discussions or ‘conferences’ became more popular. A 2007 law change meant that a defence of using reasonable force to discipline their children could no longer be used by parents in court for child abuse.

Growing Up in New Zealand is a longitudinal study of 7,000 children born in the Auckland and Waikato regions between April 2009 and March 2010 and their families. Findings from this study provide research evidence about parental practices. A report released when the children in the study were four suggested that while two-thirds of the mothers interviewed never used physical punishment, 10% of parents did use smacking to discipline their child. Most of the children in this study were in two-parent households, while 17% lived in an extended family. Eight per cent of these children were living with a single parent, overwhelmingly their mother.

Boomerangs and sandwiches

In the early 21st century it was much more common for people in their 20s and even 30s to be still living with their parents than in previous decades. Children who left for a while and then came back were described as ‘boomerang children’. Another trend was parents caring for children and ageing parents at the same time, because people had their children later and were living longer. The parents in the middle were called the ‘sandwich generation’.

Parents in schools

Parenting changes as children grow up – from the hands-on care of babies to supporting older children’s educational, sporting and cultural development. The New Zealand Parent Teacher Association formed in the 1950s brought parents into schools in a voluntary capacity. In the 1960s and 1970s mother helpers were common in New Zealand primary schools. They became less common as more mothers went into paid work. From the 1990s parents were expected to participated in the management of schools as elected members of boards of trustees.

Parents often support children in out-of-school activities, for example as sports coaches and administrators. Walking buses led by parents became a popular way of getting children to and from school safely in the 21st century.

Parenting advice and organisations

Family support

Family is an important source of advice and assistance for New Zealand parents. In a 2007 survey respondents identified family and whānau as their most important source of advice and support. People who live far away from other family members often feel this separation keenly after their children are born.

Neighbourhood help

Early settlers Sarah and Danforth Greenwood had nine children when they arrived in New Zealand in 1843. A 10th was born in 1846. A letter written by Sarah to her mother describes one way she dealt with the difficult task of raising so many children without family support: ‘I am in quite a quandary just now about weaning Baby which I find to be indispensable but she is now 13 months old, feeds chiefly on me … and has a famous will of her own, so that without nurse or nursery I don’t know how we will manage. I think I must send her to my neighbour and washerwoman, Mrs Bere, for a few days.’1

Parenting organisations

Parenting organisations enable parents to learn about parenting and to share their experience with others. They mainly used to train mothers in the care of infants and young children. In the 21st century they focused on advice and support for both parents on a range of matters. In a 2007 survey, just under half of respondents with children under five attended parenting classes, programmes or presentations. Parents of young children were more likely than other parents to seek advice from parenting organisations.


One of the best-known parenting organisations is Plunket (originally the Society for the Promotion of the Health of Women and Children), which was founded in 1907. Plunket nurses made home visits, ran clinics, and offered instruction, advice and support. Mothers joined local Plunket committees, which gave them opportunities to learn more about children from their peers and to socialise. In the 21st century Plunket also facilitates fathers’ groups.

Parents Centres

Parents Centres were established from 1952, in part to help mothers form close emotional bonds with their babies. The organisation established some of the first antenatal (before birth) classes in New Zealand, and talked to expectant parents about natural birth, adjusting to parenthood and children’s psychological development. Parents Centres remained influential in the 21st century, and in 2018 Parents Centres New Zealand had 460 branches.


Playcentre arose in the 1930s and 1940s. Playcentres offer play-based learning for preschoolers. Parents participate as helpers and can learn about child development and parenting. The centres provide an important space for parents to meet and share their parenting experiences. The organisation also publishes books about child education and parenting.

Women are much more involved than men. A 1976 survey of Playcentre members found that men were just 0.4% of session helpers. In 2007 the figure was 3.1%, though this was much higher than the percentage of paid male caregivers in early childhood centres. In 2018 there were 442 Playcentres in New Zealand.

Parenting Place – Mā tāua, oti atu ai

Parenting Place – Mā tāua, oti atu ai is a charitable trust set up in 1993 to support whānau/families and children by providing a range of programmes for families, communities and schools. In 2018it had 120 staff and 585 volunteers nationwide.

Great Fathers

Great Fathers focuses on delivering information to fathers via accessible videos and cartoons. It provides short video clips of New Zealand men talking about parenting and interacting with their children. A toolbox of information for new male parents is available on the Great Fathers website.

Parents organising themselves

New Zealand parents also organise themselves, often around particular issues like sole parenting. In the 1970s Joss Shawyer, a sole mother and founder of the Council for the Single Mother and her Child, published the book Everything a single parent needs to know. This included advice on housing, income and legal issues, unusual in an era when parenting books focused on childcare and health.

Antenatal groups which women, and sometimes their partners, join before their babies are born often become informal support groups for parents of small children. They meet in one another’s homes or cafes, share their experiences and discuss what has worked for them as they care for their children. 

In the early 21st century websites set up by parents, or those with expertise in parenting, provided up-to-date advice about legal matters, housing and income, in some cases specifically for sole parents. Among the websites run by parents for parents was the Mothers Network – Te Aka Haumi Ūkaipo in Wellington, a not-for-profit organisation that has been operating for 35 years as a mutual support groupThe proliferation of community-based groups and websites shows that parenting is a diverse experience, and that New Zealand parents seek advice and support in multiple ways.

Parenting experts

Some home-grown parenting experts have gained a high public profile. Plunket founder Frederic Truby King was widely known in the early 20th century. From the 1970s University of Waikato psychologists Jane and James Ritchie were influential in the movement towards positive parenting and less use of physical discipline. Prominent figures in the early 21st century included psychologist Nigel Latta and The Parenting Place founders Ian and Mary Grant, who regularly appeared on television and radio. Rochelle Gribble edits the Kiwi Families website that aims to provide practical advice to New Zealand parents, while Caroline Beazley has been offering Conscious Parenting advice since 2009.


Until the 1970s most parenting books and magazines targeted mothers. They focused on topics such as child hygiene and management, discipline, baby talk and favouritism. In the 1970s parenting advice books began focusing more on children’s emotional and developmental needs, how mothers could stimulate children’s intellect and creativity, and how fathers could be playful companions. In the 21st century advice was for both parents and was often about the different needs of children at different ages. Radio and television programmes on parenting were popular, and many parents also accessed information and shared their experiences online.

The website of professional media company Raising Children Supporting Parents provides parents with over 100 short video clips about different aspects of parenting, including feeding, sleeping, brain development and post-natal depression. It also operates a blog on which parents can write about their own childrearing experiences and access information such as suggestions for activities in the school holidays. Raising Children is supported by the Ministry of Education and various public, private and philanthropic partners.

OHbaby! is an example of a media business that provides a range of information for parents with babies, including practical advice about pregnancy, a baby products directory and opportunities to join face-to-face mother and baby groups, or participate in online mother and baby forums, baby blogs or chat groups. It also provides advice on baby names, baby showers and healthy food.

    • Quoted in Frances Porter and Charlotte Macdonald, eds, My hand will write what my heart dictates: the unsettled lives of women in nineteenth-century New Zealand as revealed to sisters, family and friends. Auckland: Auckland University Press, Bridget Williams Books, 1996, p. 390. Back

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How to cite this page: Lesley Patterson, 'Parenting', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 16 April 2024)

He kōrero nā Lesley Patterson, i tāngia i te 5 o Mei 2011, reviewed & revised 26 o Hune 2018