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

CFCA Paper No. 25 – September 2014

Summary of Aboriginal strengths in family life and child-rearing practices

Taken together, the themes presented in this paper highlight some of the strengths of Aboriginal culture in terms of raising children and family functioning. Traditional Aboriginal cultural practices help children to grow into active contributors to family, community and societal life. Children have access to a wide network of support, and through a collective community approach, Aboriginal people work together to ensure their children are safe and happy. In doing so, children are given opportunities to explore the world, develop their independence and, hence, build their capacity to make responsible decisions that help them throughout their journey to adulthood.

The kinship system, which embodies the spiritual essence of the Dreaming, helps Aboriginal people to understand their relationships to one another, and the roles and responsibilities they have in raising children. The importance of harmonious social relationships and the spirit of culture continue to be a feature of traditional Aboriginal family and community life. Modelling positive behaviours, such as caring and sharing, and working together to help children build their identity, discipline and self-confidence help both children and families to trust others in the community. Grandparents and elderly family and community members play an important role in this respect, and they are particularly valued for passing down their cultural knowledge and traditional values to the children. These values help to build family and community strength and, provided the necessary social conditions are in place, Aboriginal culture is a protective force for Aboriginal children, families and communities.

Lessons for practice

Reflecting on the themes presented, there are striking similarities between emerging evidence and the cultural strengths of Aboriginal child-rearing practices:

  • Theme 1: Evidence shows that socially inclusive approaches to raising children, where ensuring the wellbeing and safety of children is a shared responsibility, helps to improve family functioning and build strength in communities.
  • Theme 2: Research supports the notion that child autonomy and independence helps children to develop the necessary skills to cope with life's challenges as they negotiate their pathways to adulthood.
  • Theme 3: Elderly family members are known to provide crucial support to families in raising children and contribute to family functioning.
  • Theme 4: Engaging in spiritual and/or religious practices have been shown to have positive effects on individuals and families.

These themes might be considered as factors that help to build the necessary social conditions to ensure children are raised in safe and happy environments. This paper is by no means a "how to" guide for family support workers. However, it may prompt service providers to consider how cultural characteristics could be used to strengthen family and community capacity. For instance, practitioners might work with families to explore, in greater depth, the factors that lie beyond those of the immediate household unit. Some explorations may include:

  • the extent of a family's social connections, and the degree of support that may already be available to help families cope with challenges, or to provide hands-on care for their children;
  • understanding some of the prevailing attitudes of parents and carers about child autonomy and independence;
  • identifying some of the values that parents would like to see in their children as they grow into adults; and
  • exploring some of the tensions families might experience when trying to balance societal expectations with the competing demands of private family life.

Where to from here?

This paper has provided a brief overview of some of the cultural values that help Aboriginal families keep their children safe and happy. By gathering and reflecting upon the perspectives of Aboriginal families on their traditional child-rearing practices, a range of cultural strengths have been highlighted. Not only does this help to build understandings about Aboriginal culture and day-to-day family and community life, it also helps service providers to consider other approaches to help strengthen non-Indigenous families living in the broader Australian community.

Understanding the true nature of family functioning and child-rearing practices is important in both Aboriginal and non-Indigenous contexts. Yet caution must prevail when comparing Aboriginal knowledge to non-Indigenous understandings about raising children. For example, ideas about what constitutes adequate parental monitoring, as well as appropriate bonding and attachment, are not always compatible across these two cultures. The challenge for non-Indigenous policy-makers, researchers and service providers is to understand how knowledge can be more effectively shared as part of a collaborative approach to child safety and wellbeing.

The rich oral traditions, experiential knowledge and cross-cultural sharing of knowledge has been applied by Aboriginal people through their own science for centuries, in order to ".… share what we know about living a good life" (Estey, Smylie, & Macaulay, 2009, p. 3). Sharing knowledge through community engagement and participation are essential factors for social change, irrespective of cultural differences (Baum, MacDougall, & Smith, 2006; Estey et al., 2009; McEwan et al., 2009). Yet, recognising how cultural factors can impact on family functioning is crucial to help ensure the best outcomes for children.