Traditional Maori child rearing and parenting practices have their source and their template to guide parents in the heavens, as Ranginui Walker notes1,

Maori mythology and traditions provide myth-messages to which the Maori people can and will respond today. All that is needed is that these messages be more clearly signposted. Myths are “...both a reflection of current social practice in dealing with a particular crisis and also a directive, an instruction on how to proceed.

Ranginui Walker

These purakau are treasured because they link the spiritual and the physical, explaining the interwoven energies of “te kahu o te ao” (the fabric of the universe)2. Waiata, whakapapa, purakau, whakatauki have tribal and hapu differences, as Maori Marsden has stated, “… various tribes have different traditions and do not agree in detail motivations and behaviour”3.

The early European recordings of our purakau were from Maori men to Pakeha men. The tipuna korero, ancestral discussions, were sifted through Pakeha cultural beliefs. The collectors compared Maori with Greeks4, for example, to define us and translated according to their cultural understandings and frameworks. We have attempted to clarify what the observers were seeing.

Men were positioned as the primary protagonists in these stories. Maori women were assigned domestic duties (like European women)5, yet their roles in the cosmos equalled the men. Women were as important, if not more important, than men in many of these critical early purakau6.

Nga Matua Purakau/Parenting in the Cosmogony

To find pre-contact parenting knowledge, the purakau have now been analysed from a different perspective. The original pantheon is considered as an interactive whanau.

The Primal Whakapapa

The whakapapa of Maori, beginning with Io, linked the ethereal, the spiritual to te ao marama (the world of light) and human descent. The atua imbued children with mana enfolding them within the embrace of the supreme beings. This mana of the children accruing from the atua tapu underpinned the beliefs our tipuna had of children, their socialisation. Thus, the cosmic creation of the universe is at the core of the whakapapa Maori. It is here that the primal family: Ranginui (the Sky father) and Papatuanuku (the Earth Mother)7 and their children, the atua, the supreme beings, and their interaction, form the template for human behaviour. So the world of the spirit was real and of enormous importance to the world of humans. The first parents and their child rearing practices were found here.

Colourful artwork of Ranginui, god of the sky.

Ranginui. Image credit: Warren Pohatu

Nga Matua Tuatahi / The First Parents

The beginning of Te Ao Marama led to the creation of flora, fauna and ultimately, humans. This creation came from the union of Ranginui with Papatuanuku. They produced their children, numbering six to seventy8 to 1209. These then produced children. Uncles, aunts, cousins, siblings all lived together, reproducing incestuously, and unhappily, as the subsequent rebellion revealed. Their treatment of each other, however, was a model for humans.

The union of Ranginui and Papatuanuku was the first example of the power of tapu as a mechanism of socialisation. Ranginui broke a tapu contract with Io. He went down and united with Papatuanuku, after he had built only one of the ten heavens he was contracted to build. By breaking his contract with Io, Ranginui set in motion a chain of events and misfortunes, the primary example of the consequences of this action.

The first parental behaviour was a union of loving commitment. As husband and wife, Ranginui and Papatuanuku were a model pair and the union was fruitful. Papatuanuku was not just a mute, passive partner “lying … belly up …”10. She was active, thoughtful and outspoken. The two stayed together for aeons very happily, sharing decisions11. Their farewells to each other when they separated were very respectful and loving12. And they grieved for each other openly wailing and weeping even to the present day13.

They were committed to each other and to their children but even so, their children did not mature. Out of their loving embrace thus, emerged the second parental behaviour, that of neglect. They held the children close and safe but cramped, “… in a world of darkness that inhibited the growth and development [eventually] of man”14. The children craved this space to grow and looked for a solution.

The children argued and debated in whanau hui (family meetings) and resolved to separate the parents, with the exception of Tawhirimatea. Conflict became endemic in family relationships. Tane led the way and Ranginui was forced back to the heavens, the consequence of the broken promise to Io.

The parents were more concerned at the loss of close embrace, than the welfare or castigation of their children. The children tried to help their parents separate more easily by appealing to them in several karakia (incantations)15. The children and offspring knew how to behave, resolving disputes by debate together and by always treating their parents and grandparents with respect.

Caring parent-child relationships continued in the primal family after the violent act of parental separation. Tane and his siblings gave their own children to their mother and Papatuanuku became a grandmother who continued her nurturing role to her mokopuna. These children became the flora and fauna on Papatuanuku16. Tane then cared for Ranginui, enabling him to nurture his whanau below and provide direction with the placement of the sun, moon and stars on the father, as clothes. The parent’s exclusive embrace was sacrificed but their children had transformed the universe so that their whanau were able to grow, develop and multiply.

Colourful artwork of Tane and Hineahuone

Tane and Hineahuone. Image credit: Warren Pohatu

Nga Wahine Atua / The Primal Female Beings

The usual story of Hineahuone (Earth formed woman) was that she was found and brought to life by Tane. They then had a daughter, Hinetitama, who had two daughters by Tane. When she found that her husband was also her father she was ashamed and it is usually said that she fled to the underworld to hide in shame.

But Hinetitama exercised her rangatiratanga (self choice) by considering her abilities and strengths and then a place where she could exercise them. She must have received her grandmother’s guidance for any knowledge, because when she discovered the incest, she went immediately to Papatuanuku, her grandmother, for advice. And from there she went in to the depths of Rarohenga out of Tane’s reach. To do this required not just a powerful intelligence but an esoteric knowledge which must have come from her grandmother and mother. Papatuanuku had already told her son Tane that incest would bring evil to him17. She had known where Hineahuone was hidden. Hineahuone, as mother and also the victim of Tane’s incest, appeared as a passive victim but she may not have been, as her power may not have been emphasised18.

Papatuanuku and Hineahuone produced a daughter who was forceful, moral and decisive as evidenced by her actions. She was a model for all girls and women to emulate. Hinetitama opposed the powerful controlling influence of Tane and separated from him because of his incest. This separation must have been conceived and planned carefully between Hinetitama and Papatuanuku. She found a place to live and to use her nurturing qualities for her children. She passed by the fearsome Keeper of the Gates, Kuwatawata, and against his warning went down to the place of no return, where Tane could not enter. She told Tane to look after their children on earth knowing they would also be cared for and protected by their whanau members. He, as a husband, was duly rejected. She became the powerful Hine-nui-te-po, the carer of souls of her own, and all, children.

Nga Tane Atua / Men as Primal Male Beings

Maui created new domains for human occupation using the kauae raro, the ancient worldly knowledge (the jawbone) from his grandmother. He entered the sun’s cavern to force the sun to slow down using a net, which symbolised the maramataka, the calendar. He journeyed through time and space to improve the resources for human use. Maui as a son and brother is quite well documented but Maui as a father is little known.

Te Whanau o Maui / Maui’s Whanau

Maui’s father, Makatutara or Ira-whaki, and his mother, Taranga, an atua wahine, had five sons of whom Maui was the potiki (youngest). He was born as an embryo, an abortion19. The tohi rite, a dedicatory act which placed the infant under tapu, was performed for Maui. He was floated in a knot of his mother’s hair to be cared for by the atua. In his life, he always remembered the atua and when he did not, he died.

When he was older, Maui searched for and found his mother. When she favoured him, his brothers explained why they were jealous, revealing also Taranga’s mothering20:

...[O]ur mother never asks us to sleep with her; yet we are the children she saw actually born and about whose birth there is no doubt. When we were little things she nursed us, laying us down gently on the large soft mats she had spread out for us – then why does she now not ask us to sleep with her? When we were little things she was fond enough of us, but now we are grown older she never caresses us, or treats us kindly. What do we care about our
father, or our mother? Did she feed us with food till we grew up to be men? No, not a bit of it. Why, without a doubt, Rangi, or the heaven, is our father, who kindly sent his offspring down to us.

George GreyLegends of Aotearoa

They were explaining that their mother left them during the day to forage for food from Papatuanuku, with the help of Ranginui’s nourishing weather. But, what the brothers did not speak of was the kainga (village) they lived in. They did not live in a vacuum; they were surrounded by a larger whanau to help with their care giving during the day. Taranga’s mothering allowed space for children to grow, but the parenting was shared by the whanau who surrounded the children. The children learned about the gifts of Ranginui and Papatuanuku through the teaching and guidance of the tuakana (older relative), matua (father, uncle), whaea (mother, aunt), and matua tipuna (grandparents).

Maui’s power-filled tipuna whaea (grandmothers) were indulgent towards him as the mokopuna, so much so that the keeper of knowledge, Muri-ranga-whenua, gave her kauwae raro (lower jawbone), that is, her ancient worldly knowledge, to Maui, even though he was the youngest and such things usually went to the eldest. This enabled Maui to complete those stupendous tasks benefiting humans. His other grandmother was Mahuika, keeper of the ten sacred fires, who knew her mokopuna was tricking her yet (however grumpily and painfully) she still gave him all her finger and toenails thus sending, through Maui, fire to the world. These tupuna whaea both helped Maui to do what he wanted.

Maui, in all his deeds, always called on his brothers for help and without them he could never have completed his ventures. Such whanau teamwork was an example of whanaungatanga.

Colourful artwork of Mahuika, Māori goddess of fire, and Maui.

Mahuika. Image credit: Warren Pohatu

Hei hoa tane, matua a Maui / Maui as a husband and father.

Maui as a parent was not so well known even though he had several wives and several children. We do know that his wives were dissatisfied with him because he was not a steady provider of food as they complained that he was lazy21. One fishing trip for instance ended with him landing one gigantic fish that was too big to eat – this action was an over-kill for the wives who still had no fish.

One of Maui’s wives was the beautiful Rohe, sister of the sun. They had a son named Rangi-hore but Maui laid a spell on Rohe and swapped faces with her. As a result Rohe went to live in the darkness of the Underworld “to exact revenge on” the spirits of humans “as the ferry woman”22. In doing so she left behind her child to be raised by her husband and the wider whanau.


Domestic violence was part of this world. The marriage of Maui’s sister (or cousin) Hinaura23 is an example and is significant to us as she became Hine-te-iwaiwa, who is heralded as the ‘patroness’ accountable for establishing the powers and responsibilities of women and the domestic arts. Hinaura met, married and had a son by Tinirau. When he abused her she left only returning when he pleaded with her to do so. However, he later imprisoned Hinaura behind a fence while he lived with another woman. In response to her plea, her brother (or cousin) Maui-mua transformed into a rupe (pigeon) and rescued her.

Hinaura made the decision to move on with her life, changing her name to mark this event to Hineteiwaiwa. She left Tu-huruhuru, her son, with Tinirau in order to pacify him. Tinirau was of chiefly rank and his whanau were there to help parent their son. Indeed the baby was raised with love and care and he eventually searched for and found his mother. This story can be considered as a template for the trials of abused wives and the responsibility of brothers to look after their sisters and protect them from abusive husbands.

There are many other purakau which detail directions for humans to take but these few indicate the vast field available for future study.

Child rearing messages signposted from the Purakau

The primal parents were a loving and committed couple to each other and to their children. They reluctantly learned that children need space to grow in their own way. The primal children forced space for themselves but retained respect for their parents and treated them with care. Their socialisation came, not just from their parents, but from their whanau who were cramped together in the dark with them. They learned to debate their issues, to resolve disputes and to act together and support each other. And they carried out the jobs assigned to them. They learned from Ranginui’s broken promise to Io to respect the atua.

The child rearing practices of the primal whanau were used by other super beings. Other whanau were important. In pre-contact times kainga consisted of small units of 30 to 45 people24 or bigger25 where everyone helped with the children and were committed to raising the next generation. Tapu and makutu (spiritual retribution should tapu be transgressed) helped control behaviour. Actions which demeaned the mana of the individual or whanau resulted in utu and muru. Thus punishing children brought retribution from the atua and the whanau. Children learned from their whanaunga and were socialised under the tuakana-teina principle. Older adults and siblings were their teachers.


End Notes

1 Walker R Ibid 1992 p 173

2 Royal, Te Ahukaramu, The Woven Universe. Selected writings of Rev. Mori
Marsden. Otaki: Estate of Rev. Maori Marsden, 2003. xiii

3 Henare, Manuka. ‘Document A86’. Report on the Crown’s Foreshore and Seabed Policy. Wellington: Waitangi Tribunal, 2010. Paragraphs 13, 31, 32, 106.

4 Shortland, Edward. Maori Religion and Mythology. London. Longmans, Green and Co., 1882. 156. There are also numerous examples in Elsdon Best. Maori Religion and Mythology Part 1 Hong Kong. Museum Bulletin No. 10. 1995.

5 Smith, Linda. Decolonising Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples Dunedin: Otago Univ Press, NZ. 1999: “Family organization, child rearing, political and spiritual life, work and social activities were all disordered by a colonial system which positioned its own women as the property of men whose roles were primarily domestic”. 46.

6 Grace, Patricia. Wahine Toa. Auckland: Collins, 1994; Smith, Decolonising Methodologies 46; Henare, Manuka, Petrie Hazel, Puckey Adrienne. He Whenua Rangatira: Northern Tribal Landscape Overview (Hokianga, Whangaroa, Bay of Islands, Whangarei, Mahurangi and Gulf Islands) Part II, Crown Forest Rental Trust, 2009. 232-267, 510.

7 See Royal, The Woven Universe 180 for the diagram of the whakapapa.

8 Best, Maori Religion 75,76. See also Hiroa, Te Rangi (Sir Peter Buck). The Coming of the Maori. Wellington: Whitcombe and Tombs Ltd, 1949. 439, p445, pp454-464.

9 Henare et al, He Whenua Rangatira 236.

10 Smith S.P, The Lore of The Whare Wananga Part I. New Plymouth: Thomas Avery Printer, 1913. 117.

11 Best, Maori Religion 1995 81.

12 White, John. The Ancient History of the Maori, His Mythology and Traditions: Horo-uta or Taki-timu Migration. Volume 1. Wellington: Government Printer, 1887. 20.

13 Best, Maori Religion 1995 87.

14 Best E. 1992. p2

15 White, Ancient History 51. Reed, A. W. Treasury of Maori Treasury. Auckland: A. W. Reed, 1963. 24.

White, Ancient History 44: A translation of the chant. Tutu te kiri, wehewehe (wewehi) te kiri, Tatara-moa te kiri, onga-onga te kiri. Kei mihi ki te ipu (ipo) kei tangi ki te tau. Tanga-roa whatia (wetea). Tanga-roa tara; Tara ki (kia) mamao. Anga tonu koe ki tai, e, ki tai e, Whati, ko koe kei mihi, Ko koe kei aroha, Kei mihi ki te ipu (ipo) kei tangi ki te tau.

16 Hiroa, Coming of the Maori 450, 451; Best, Maori Religion 119,120; Reed, Treasury 40, 41,42; Edward Shortland, Maori Religion and Mythology. Christchurch: Capper Press, 1980. 20,21. These writers have lists of female beings already created presumably at the same time as the male beings.

17 Shortland E. op cit. 1956. p20

18 Jenkins, Kuni. Reflections on the status of Maori Women Unpublished paper, Auckland, 1986.

19 Reed Treasury 115.

20 Grey, George. Legends of Aotearoa. Hamilton: Silver Fern Books Limited, 1988. 15. It is a pity Grey messed with the original reo.

21 Grey, Legends of Aotearoa 23-24.

22 Grey G, op cit. 1856 p 94

23 She is also known as Hinekahu.

24 Salmond, A. Two Worlds. First meetings between Maori and Europeans 1642-1772. Auckland: Viking, 1991. 148.

25 Salmond, Two Worlds 210.

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.