Strengths of Australian Aboriginal cultural practices in family life and child rearing

CFCA Paper No. 25 – September 2014

Defining "family"

The definition of a "family" is subject to a range of economic, political and social complexities (Corbet, 2004; Qu & Weston, 2013; Robinson, 2009). In Australia, the concept of family is often examined using data from the Australia Bureau of Statistics (ABS), where family is defined as:

a group of two or more people that are related by blood, marriage (registered or de facto), adoption, step or fostering, and who usually live together in the same household. This includes newlyweds without children, gay partners, couples with dependants, single mothers or fathers with children, and siblings living together. At least one person in the family has to be 15 years or over. A household may contain more than one family. (ABS, 2012)

Some authors argue that any conception of family that is limited to physical connections alone (i.e., living in the same household) does not adequately reflect the reality of many families living in contemporary societies (Corbet, 2004; Harris, 1983; Morphy, 2006; Qu & Weston, 2013; Robinson, 2009). This is particularly the case for Aboriginal families living within in a complex system of social relations (Corbet, 2004; Robinson, 2009).

The traditional social structure of Aboriginal communities is based around kinship systems that adopt an entirely different terminology to that of an "Anglo-Celtic" system (Morphy, 2006; Peters-Little, 2000). Especially in remote areas, households of Aboriginal people tend to be complex and fluid in their composition, with kinship networks overlapping, and adults and children often moving between households (ABS & AIHW, 2011; Qu & Weston, 2013).

Some of these issues may be countered by reframing the definition of family to reflect some of the complexities of Aboriginal family life. One definition that allows room to capture these complexities is provided by Families Australia:

Families are diverse in their composition and forms ... Families Australia believes that families are what people define them to be. It is helpful for people to reflect about whether "family" refers, for example, to a group of people living under one roof, to people who are related, to people with shared emotional bonds, or to other things. (Families Australia, cited by Robinson & Parker, 2008, p. 3)

This definition is particularly relevant for Australian Aboriginal people who, as a collective group, place great value on social relationships, their physical and emotional bonds to country, and connecting to the spirit of their ancestors (SNAICC, 2011). The themes presented below explore how these cultural characteristics are reflected in the day-to-day lives of Aboriginal families, and how Aboriginal cultural practices can benefit children, families and communities.