Europeans have commented on Maori since 1642. These accounts, when examined beyond their own cultural views52, give us snapshots of how parents were socialising their children. After Abel Tasman’s confrontation in the South Island and James Cook’s travelling around the New Zealand coast, most of the earliest accounts of Maori were in the northern areas. Both Tasman and Cook were searching for prospective colonies. In 1807, John Savage added to observations. Others followed soon after. In their observations, the European methods of raising children with some form of punishment, was evident and they expressed surprise at shared parenting.

Whānaungatanga (Relationships)

In the community, helping one another was a fundamental expression of blood kinship and community cooperation66. The same cooperation applied to childrearing where there was a shared responsibility of the children especially since the people in one kainga or village were closely related67. The young people greatly respected the old people68. Grandparents lived with the children as they grew older, and they were rarely treated with harshness.

Each adult had a responsibility to care for all children. The kinship terms describe the generational relationships and their duties to one another. Therefore every child knew everyone in the different roles. Everyone above was a matua (parent) or matua tupuna (grandparent) and everyone in the same generation was a tungane (brother) if you were a girl, or tuahine (sister) if you were a boy. There were tuakana (older sibling or cousin) and teina (younger sibling or cousin), and below you was your tamaiti (son) or kotiro (daughter) and below them, your mokopuna (grand child), As Royal-Tungane notes, “The tuakana/teina relationship …operates through the dual nature of ako. Ako means to learn and teach”69. So the teacher can become the learner and the learner the teacher. Aroha (love) was the basis of this relationship which reinforced whanaungatanga, the binding of the whanau, hapu.

Physical punishment or reprimand was not an option for the parent. Shortland had observed that,

““were he[or she] to [physically punish a child], one of the uncles would probably interfere to protect his nephew, and seek satisfaction for the injury inflicted on the child by seizing some of the pigs or other property”70

Edward ShortlandPublished in 'Maori Religion'

Joel Polack stated a fundamental principle of child raising which was that,

“A child belongs equally to his distant relatives as to the putative father”71

Joel PolackPublished in his book 'New Zealand'

The whakatauki, “He tangi to te tamariki, he whakamā to te pakeke. When the (impudent) child cries, the elder blushes”, expresses the idea that there may have been the possibility that the child was responding to a negative response from the minder, hence the adult’s embarrassment.

The child was also under the protection of atua which the observers did not recognise. The reports of the father as the constant child carer could describe any male in the father’s generation. Similarly with the ‘mother’ when either blood parent was not available.

Polygamy brought with it many more mothers72 though most polygamous unions were difficult73. However, where the matua wahine (head wife) ruled the other wives, relations were more peaceful.


52 Smith, Decolonising Methodologies 28.
66 Hiroa, Coming of the Maori 375.
67 Hiroa, Coming of the Maori 334-336.
68 Salmond, Two Worlds 422.
69 Royal-Tangaere, A. Maori Human Development Theory in Mai I Rangiatea. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 1997. 45-59.
70 Shortland Maori Religion 156.
71 Polack New Zealand 57.
72 Elder J.S. ed. The letters and journals of Samuel Marsden, 1765-1838 senior chaplain in the colony of New South Wales and Superintendent of the Mission of the Church Missionary Society in New Zealand. Dunedin: Coulls, Somerville Wilkie, Ltd. and A.H. Reed for the Otago University Council, 1932. 97. Chief Tiarria /Tarea had 10 wives. Te Pahi of Rangihoua had 4 sisters as wives and several concubines. He was nearly paralytic when Cruise saw him in 1824! Cruise, Richard. A Journal of a Ten Months Residence in New Zealand, London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, Brown and Green, 1824. 272.
73 Elder, Samuel Marsden 113.

The content of this web page was originally published in the Traditional Maori Parenting report published in March 2011 as commissioned by the Office of the Children’s Commission (OCC). The content is republished here with their permission as copyright owners of this work.

You can download the whole report from the OCC website.