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

CFCA Paper No. 25 – September 2014

Introduction

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander2 parents understand "what works" to keep their children safe and to raise them to be active contributors to family and community life. The effects of intergenerational trauma, cultural disconnection and family disruption among many Aboriginal communities, however, are increasingly being recognised by the broader Australian community. The high levels of disadvantage faced by many Aboriginal families and communities are, as a result, now widely acknowledged (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare [AIHW], 2011; Bowes & Grace, 2014; Council of Australian Governments [COAG], 2009; Price-Robertson, 2011).

For many Aboriginal families and communities, engaging in traditional cultural practices and reclaiming a sense of cultural identity is the key to alleviating Aboriginal disadvantage and regaining their rightful place in broader Australian society. In this sense, Aboriginal culture3 is strength, and acts as a protective force for children and families (Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet [PM&C], 2012; Secretariat of National Aboriginal and Islander Child Care [SNAICC] & Innovative Resources, 2009; SNAICC, 2011; Victorian Aboriginal Child Care Agency [VACCA], 2013).

Understanding how Aboriginal culture can help to deliver positive outcomes for children may also help service providers in their work with non-Indigenous families. Some of the strengths of traditional Aboriginal cultural practices are supported by evidence that could be applied in cross-cultural settings. This paper explores some of those strengths, with an aim to:

  • identify the characteristics of Aboriginal culture that contribute to effective family functioning and child-rearing practices;
  • contribute to the body of knowledge about Aboriginal family and community life, to promote greater understanding about traditional Aboriginal cultural practices; and
  • explore the ways in which service providers working with non-Indigenous families might draw from some of the strengths of traditional Aboriginal family practices.

Approach

The views of Aboriginal families were gathered through a series of focus groups and compared with understandings drawn from the literature. To frame the discussions with focus group participants, a review of the literature helped to identify some of the key themes that frequently arise when referring to Aboriginal family life and child-rearing practices. These themes focus on: collective community approaches to raising children; issues of child autonomy and independence; the contributions of elderly family members in family and community life; and the role of spirituality in family functioning. Other literature was explored to identify how these issues can impact on families and communities in both Aboriginal and non-Indigenous contexts.

There were 16 participants interviewed for this paper across four focus groups in three locations. Participants included a range of parents, carers and community members, including Aboriginal Elders, living in various regions across Australia. Staff at the Secretariat of National Aboriginal and Islander Child Care (SNAICC) conducted the focus groups in Victoria, North Queensland and the Northern Territory in October 2013.4 While the views of focus group participants are not necessarily representative of all Australian Aboriginal groups, they do highlight a range of cultural strengths that appear to be shared by Australian Aboriginal people.

The paper begins with an exploration of how "family" is defined in non-Indigenous and Aboriginal contexts. Four key themes are then explored through a series of quotes taken from the Aboriginal focus group participants. Each theme includes a brief comparison of relevant non-Indigenous perspectives, and a summary is provided to help readers reflect on the strengths of Aboriginal culture.

Footnotes

2 In the literature, the term "Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander" is used interchangeably with "Indigenous", "Aboriginal and Islander people", "First peoples" and a variety of other variations. For this paper, "Aboriginal" refers specifically to Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families and communities.

3 This paper defines "culture" as "... a universal, shared understanding of what is important to a collective group, that provides a framework for beliefs, attitudes, actions, etc." (Fejo-King, 2013, p. 193)

4 The data were collected in accordance with SNAICC's Community Engagement Protocols and under the governance of the SNAICC National Executive. All participants were consulted about how the data would be used for this publication.