What are child-rearing practices in Aboriginal and Torres Strait cultures?
There is no one way in which Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people raise their children and families may draw upon child rearing practices from a range of cultures. The child rearing practices of any one culture are no more ‘valuable’ than those of another.In Aboriginal culture the extended family plays a crucial role in raising children.
“Child rearing … is literally a family and community concern and is not confined solely to the parents of the child”
Unlike the wider Australian society, the whole Aboriginal community contribute to raising the child, giving mutual assistance and support to the parents.
The mother is the main carer for the child, but aunties, uncles, cousins and older siblings share the responsibilities for caring and raising the child as well (in some communities the mother’s sisters or the father’s brothers are also called ‘mum’ and ‘dad’).
Grandparents are very important people in the life of Aboriginal children. They often fill the role of ‘boss’ or protector for the children. They have real authority over their upbringing, and they teach them Aboriginal culture values and beliefs
The first thing that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children learn from an early age is whom they are related to. And as they get older their peer group becomes an important part of their learning. The children in this group are usually related to one another (as well there are some outside their kinship structure) and they spend most of their time together, playing and caring for each other, almost without adult supervision.
In fact, in Aboriginal culture, it is normal or okay for adults to not interfere in the child’s activities (unless it is necessary). By not placing too many restrictions or guidelines on children’s play and exploration, adults expose the child to ‘controlled dangers’ so that he/she can experiment and learn through risk taking. Within the peer group the child is so able to test his/her independence and develop within a caring structure.
It is from the interactions with peer groups and adults that the child learns how to behave.
Instead of telling the children how to behave or punishing them for misbehaving, discipline is commonly taught through humour, teasing and surprised responses, and sometimes even the use of scary beings.
“…it is expected that the children through trial and error and observation over a period of years will recognise what is expected of them and in so doing develop their own control.2”
In Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island generosity and compassion are seen as very important and desirable behaviour. Children learn unselfishness observing adults and peer group. They assimilate these values through copying the actions of others. For instance, by not denying the child’s wants adults show to the children unselfish comportment. Moreover sharing everything with the group is another example from which the child learns compassion.
There is not a ‘right time’ in Aboriginal and Torres Strait island culture to feed a child or for a child to sleep. These two child’s needs are left completely under the decision of the child him/herself. In contrast to the mainstream practice of establishing routine for feeding, sleeping and activities, Australian Indigenous cultures believe that is the child to know when he/she is hungry or sleepy and so adults have to respect and satisfy these judgements.
In some communities children prefer to sleep close to their relatives rather than their own cots or lie down together.
One of the most significant differences in terms of child rearing practices between Torres Strait Islanders and Aboriginal peoples is customary ‘adoption’, which is a feature of Torres Strait Islander communities. ‘Adoption’ takes place between relatives and close friends where bonds of trust have already been established.
Some of the reasons for the widespread nature of ‘adoption’ include:
- To maintain the family bloodline by adopting (usually) a male child from a relative. This islinked to the inheritance of traditional land in the islands.
- To keep the family name by adopting a male child from a relative or close friend into the family.
- To give a family who cannot have a child due to infertility the joy of raising a child. A married couple may give a child to either a single person or another couple. ‘Relinquishment’ is not
- restricted to single parents.
- To strengthen alliances and bonds between the two families concerned.
- To distribute boys and girls more evenly between families who may only have children of one sex.
- To replace a child who had been adopted out to another family – this may occur within extended families.
- To replace a child into the family once a woman has left home so that the grandparents would still have someone to care for.
The underlying principle of Torres Strait Islander ‘adoption’ is that giving birth to a child is not necessarily a reason to be raising the child. The issue of who rears a child depends on a number of social factors, such as those listed above, and is a matter of individual consideration by the families involved. Children are never lost to the family of origin, as they are usually placed with relatives somewhere in the family network.
Why are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander child-rearing practices important?
Being aware of and integrating Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander child rearing practices helps children and families feel that they belong, and supports important cultural practices.
Understand and embracing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander child rearing strategies is absolutely crucial in ensuring continuity for children between home and out of home care services. Inconsistency between these two environments can affect in a negatively way the child’s development.
Tips to support child rearing practices
Below you will find some tips about how to support Indigenous child rearing practices.
- Respect families values and beliefs about child rearing;
- Encourage family meeting time;
- Support families in their parenting role;
- View children as independent, capable beings;
- Remember that children look after each other so it is not appropriate to separate children’s activities according to their age.
- Don’t blame the child harshly if he/she is wrong.
- Accommodate different children’s sleeping arrangements.
- Respect the desires expressed by the child and try to satisfy them.
1 Yeo, S (2003), ‘Bonding and Attachment of Australian Aboriginal Children’, Child Abuse Review, Vol.12, p. 299
2 Ellis and Petersen, (1992) in Growing up our way: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander child rearing practices Matrix, (2011), p.102. SNAICC