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

CFCA Paper No. 25 – September 2014

Theme 1: A collective community focus on child rearing helps children

Australian Aboriginal culture is built around a "collectivist" kinship system, meaning that people think of themselves in terms of their affiliation with other people and their community (Yeo, 2003). The kinship system is a dynamic and complex social structure that defines how individuals relate to each other in terms of their roles, responsibilities and obligations (SNAICC, 2011). This section explores how, as a collective group, Aboriginal families and communities care for and protect their children and raise them to be active contributors to community life.

The beliefs and attitudes that guide child-rearing practices can differ from one Aboriginal community to the next,5 yet children remain central to the life and culture of Australian Aboriginal communities (SNAICC, 2010). Raising children to be active participants in the community is seen as the collective responsibility of all members of the community, who each have a role to play in keeping children safe and happy (SNAICC, 2011; Yeo, 2003).

"One community, many eyes"

For Aboriginal families, the concept of "one community, many eyes" captures the collectivist approach to child rearing:

It's called "many eyes". There are people watching all the time. They know who you are, they know your name and they know what line you are and how you come down in your family and what your responsibilities are. (Parent, NT)

When you live in a community, you are pretty much all family. You are related some way or another or you are very close and all the kids, naturally they are going to know each other as they roam around. (Mother, NT)

Most of our families are connected … they are all connected. Like Cairns is a small place, most of the families are connected. If your boy does something down the street, someone will see it and that word is already going around and somebody would have rung the parent and said, look, I think something has happened but we don't want to touch it because we know it's your place. (Parent, Qld)

Child safety and wellbeing

At the heart of the collectivist approach to child rearing is the emphasis on protecting children and preserving their wellbeing:

For instance, in the back of the community, there is a drain there and in raining season, my son had headed out the back gate of the community, by the time the kid told me my son had gone down there, I was in the car and heading off to stop my son. (Parent, NT)

Oh, we just pick up someone else's kid. Being a parent, too, if it was your kid, you wouldn't let them just walk out in the middle of the road, you have got to do something, it's just common sense. (Mother, Qld)

One parent from Cairns explained how it works for everyone in the community, after she recently called another parent after seeing her daughter in town with an older boy:

I've called up my friend because I've seen her daughter with someone like and her daughter was only young, so I called her up and we worked at the same place and I've said, look, your daughter was just down the road here with so and so and she said, "What?" ... I said, "Look! I wouldn't be telling you this if I didn't feel a concern. I'm a mother. If I saw my daughter like that, I would want somebody to tell me, so I'm telling you." So, she hopped in her car, she come from work, went straight to that place and her daughter said, "How did you get here so fast?" She said, "I have eyes everywhere, so get in this car now, put down that bottle and get in this car and get home!" (Parent, Qld)

The value of ongoing support from extended family members

Extended family members and other community members, such as local Aboriginal Elders, are particularly valued for the ongoing support they offer Aboriginal parents and children:

If a kid's in trouble, whatever age, they usually go to the older cousins or siblings or an Uncle or Auntie ... if it's girl-to-girl or boy-to-boy. There are so many options for them. (Parent, NT)

My parents died young, so, I became my brother's mum and dad and I also brought up my own kids as well, but I didn't do that myself, I had my godparents, I had my Uncles and Aunties, so everything I did with them, it was screened before I could even set it out to them. It meant that if anything happened within the families, my Uncle would talk to this Auntie and say, this one needs some help. This person here would be best to talk to them, you know, there's certain people that would know who was best to talk to them and that word would go out. This is just what happened to my family to this day. (Parent, Qld)

One of my boys, he works in a green team with an Aboriginal Elder, so I'll ring him up and say "Son's not doing to well," and he goes "Ah, okay. I'll fix it. Leave it!" … So, when they're working he'll bring up, "Are you okay?"… and then they'll fix it. It doesn't come back to me but I know that it's okay, things like that. So there's ways you do it … My kids have always known that they can come to me, but they don't, they always climb to their Auntie. (Parent, Vic.)

The extended family network also provides lifelong learning opportunities for all family members:

When the family gets together for family dinners and barbecues and Christmas all the kids grow up together, so the standards are the same and your parents are still there, so they are still teaching you even though you have kids now. (Auntie, Qld)

I'm like that with my Godchildren. My Godchild is 35 and to this day, she still calls me and asks me, she treats me like her mother and she asks me lots of questions and she has six kids. (Grandmother, Vic.)

Building security, trust and confidence

The collectivist approach to raising children is not just about keeping the children safe and happy. As a central characteristic of Aboriginal culture, the kinship system is a shared value system that helps people to bond with each other (Fejo-King, 2013; SNAICC, 2011). Some Aboriginal parents emphasised the sense of security, trust and confidence in the knowledge that others in the local community are always there to help care for their children:

When you go to community events there's Aunties and Uncles and extended community that watch your children. That's what I like about the Aboriginal community. Wherever you go, and there's a group of you, your child's safe. You know, you might misplace them for a few minutes, but they're off playing and someone else is watching them … You'll go looking for them and they'll go, "It's alright Aunt, they're here." Your child's always safe, there's never a moment when they're not in the community. That's what I like! (Aboriginal Auntie and grandparent, Vic.)

In this day and age, it gives me confidence. (Parent, Qld)

It takes a lot of burden off the person with the child. It takes a lot of stress and pressure off. You know that they're okay, you know where they are, and you know it's culturally appropriate as well. (Mother, NT)

Too many eyes?

For young Aboriginal children, having so many eyes on them is not always welcome. Only later does it dawn on the child why they were so carefully monitored:

When you're young like that, you feel that your dad's eyes are everywhere or they're watching all the time and you're like, "Come on, give me a break." And it's actually love and you realise that later, but at the time, you are self-conscious … like subconsciously with safety. You know, you feel safe because you know that people are watching. (Parent, Qld)

Another parent recalls the mysterious eyes that would always be watching:

Oh, my grandmother was the worst. She'd say, "Oh, a little birdy told me!" I'd hate that little birdy! I don't even know who that birdy is and if I ever found out ... (Parent, Qld)

For some Aboriginal children, getting disciplined by extended family members may be uncomfortable for the child, but it is seen as an effective way to teach the children and promote positive behaviours:

It's … embarrassing! Yeah, yeah, for them (the kids). It don't worry me … Grandson played up once at the Fitzroy Stars … "Oi, get here!" by one of the Uncles. All the boys were … sitting around. "You were swearing. You know you shouldn't be saying that!" … "Yes, Uncle" … "Well?" … "Sorry, Uncle." But all the boys were there, so he never did it again. It's actually better for your mum to yell at you than your Uncle or Auntie out there. (Parent, Vic.)

We could be at a family meeting and my sister can growl at my kids and my brother can growl at my kids, yeah, you know? They have the authority because they are raising them as well as me. The same as my parents as well, my parents have passed on now but if they were still here, they could growl at their grandkids, because they are teaching them. (Mother and Auntie, Qld)

"That's how it has always been!"

Some Aboriginal parents highlighted the enduring nature of the collectivist approach to raising children, and how this approach is reinforced through a shared understanding of Aboriginal cultural traditions:

We have faith in the community because we know everyone, plus we've had that history of support. (Mother, NT)

That's how it's been for centuries and there are shared values. You can drop them there, you know, you don't have to worry about them, you can just drop them off, it's like they are just at home, and it's how it's always been. (Auntie, Qld)

One grandparent highlighted the instinctive willingness of unfamiliar community members to provide support to other families as a defining characteristic of Aboriginal culture:

Maybe it's the definition of family between Indigenous and non-Indigenous culture. I don't know. Even the other week, there was an Aboriginal family and one of the little girls, she was about 2 or 3, and she was walking away … I don't know this child, I don't know this family, but I just went and grabbed this child and said, "You alright bub?" And then I went over and went and had a chat to this family, and there was no issue with this at all, because there is something … I don't know, if I was non-Indigenous, maybe I would have acted differently, but it was just instinct, this woman was like, "Oh thanks." Even though it's not blood family, it's still community. We still look after our mob, you know … even if you don't know them. (Grandmother, Qld)

For some non-Indigenous families, the collective approach to child supervision is often not seen for what it is:

I was out about a week ago and there were a whole lot of Torres Islander families and I don't know where the men were. They must have been out doing something and there was a big pool and all these beautiful children were swimming in the pool. I was walking by, walking back to my car and there was a non-Indigenous older woman and she walked up to me and said, "Oh, look at that! They aren't even supervising their children in the pool." But if she had just opened her eyes just a little bit more, she would have seen what I saw, which was lionesses, like seven or eight women ready to pounce if something happened to their cubs. There was a safety thing, but they were all letting their children have fun. There was nothing wrong with that, but it's that stereotypical type of thing. (Mother, Qld)

These quotes support the notion that a collective approach to raising children is embedded in traditional Aboriginal culture, where the values of interdependence, group cohesion and community loyalty underpin day-to-day community and family life (SNAICC, 2011; Yeo, 2003). By contrast, the values of many non-Indigenous Australian families are characterised by a more individualistic approach to community life.

Reflections about collective community approaches to raising children

Australia is considered to be one of the most "individualistic" societies in the modern world (Darwish & Huber, 2010), and social isolation can place high demands on many families as they struggle with day-to-day family life (Darwish & Huber, 2010; McDonald, 2011; Price-Robertson, 2011). For Aboriginal families who continue to practice their cultural traditions, the notion of "one community, many eyes" emphasises the inseparable domains of family life and community life. Through the kinship system, Aboriginal people share a common set of values that allows them to work together to ensure the safety and wellbeing of their children.

There is evidence to support collectivist approaches to child safety and wellbeing (McDonald, 2011; McLachlan, Gilfillan, & Gordon, 2013) and recent Australian policy initiatives6 reflect this (COAG, 2009; Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations [DEEWR], 2009). Yet conventional academic wisdom may not be as readily applied in Aboriginal contexts. For example, part of growing up in a collectivist culture means that Aboriginal infants may be breastfed and cared for by several women interchangeably. Under bonding and attachment theory, the practice can be viewed negatively as indiscriminate attachment (Yeo, 2003). Similarly, issues of child neglect can often be considered as a matter of parental culpability, rather than as a shared responsibility between parents, families, community and society (Brend, Fletcher, & Nutton, 2013; Scott, Higgins, & Franklin, 2012; Yeo, 2003).

To summarise:

  • Collective approaches to child rearing helps children to:
    • be physically safe;
    • develop feelings of self-confidence and trust in others;
    • cultivate discipline and learning through positive role modelling; and
    • access a wider range of support when they experience difficulties and need someone to turn to.
  • Collective approaches to child rearing can provide parents with practical, social and psychological support, including:
    • identifying situations when a child's safety is at risk;
    • practical child care support;
    • helping parents to cope with the stresses of child rearing; and
    • providing parents with confidence, security and trust in the local community.


5 The way Aboriginal people are grouped within communities extends beyond marriage laws and is often distinguished by a complex system of families, hordes or tribes, and religious structures, with various sections and subsections, totemic groups and clans. These distinctions will almost always depend on localised beliefs and customs, which are inherently connected to the physical characteristics of their ancestral land (Fejo-King, 2013; SNAICC, 2011).

6 The National Framework for Protecting Australia's Children 2009-2020 (COAG, 2009), and the Early Years Learning Framework (DEEWR, 2009), are Australian policy frameworks that acknowledge the importance of social support, social contact and neighbourhood interaction in contributing to effective family functioning (McDonald, 2011; McLachlan et al., 2013).