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

CFCA Paper No. 25 – September 2014

Theme 2: Children need the freedom to explore and experience the world

A major challenge for parents living in any society is to ensure the safety of their children while allowing them opportunities to develop their social, emotional, cognitive and physical development through unstructured play (Ably, 2005; Guldberg, 2009; Howard, 2011). As Guldberg (2009) suggested:

Children need to be given the space away from adults' watchful eyes - in order to play, experiment, take risks (within a sensible framework provided by adults), test boundaries, have arguments, fight, and learn how to resolve conflicts. (p. 6)

Traditional cultural values ensure that Aboriginal children are provided with the freedom to explore the world and to learn their responsibilities to care for and protect one other (Daylight & Johnstone, 1986; Diamond, 2012). This section provides some insights into how Aboriginal children learn these responsibilities, and the role that adults play in providing their children with the necessary skills to help them negotiate their pathways to adulthood.

"We let the kids go", as long as it is safe!

The importance of unstructured play is well understood by Aboriginal parents:

They (the adults) let the kids go … they have to make their own decisions! (Mother, Qld)

While the children are encouraged to explore the world around them, issues of safety are always considered:

They are encouraged to explore, within a safe distance, using common-sense and safe practices put into place … they are encouraged to … have a sticky-beak at everything. (Grandmother, Qld)

"Common sense" refers to the shared values of the local community and other family members to allow the children to learn from their own experiences. If a child is exposed to any kind of risk, families trust that it will be reported back to them:

I'm not worried as I have a lot of relations around me. The families know each other and if one child walked out of the community, another member would see that and report that to the family. I pretty much let my children go out there and learn from experience. (Mother, NT)

If someone has abandoned their caring responsibilities, for whatever reason, someone from the local community will inevitably raise the issue:

Yeah, and you know there are consequences for that. If you didn't keep them (the younger children) out of trouble, if you knew your sister was doing this and you didn't pull her up on that, you'd have the community telling you! (Mother, Vic.)

Independent play and learning responsibility

From a very early age, Aboriginal children are taught to help and encourage one another, to protect each other and to work together (SNAICC, 2011). Unstructured play is seen as a way of providing opportunities for children to learn these important behaviours. As children grow, they are expected to help others to also learn these responsibilities.

I think we all have that (protective nature) because we grew up knowing what our responsibilities were from the word go, and those that come behind, you have to look after, no matter what. (Mother, Vic.)

That's the thing, we aren't always wrapping them in cotton wool, we let them go a bit, but you're controlling it … I've done it with my boys too, but what is it going to prove if you are sitting right there and they are swimming and you say, "Don't go there." I mean, what is it going to prove in the long run? You can't be right beside them when they are 18. They have to learn! (Mother, Qld).

Box 1 describes how the responsibility to protect each other is passed down through the generations, and the security that such protection provides for the children. The "protector", in this case emphasises how a "sensible framework provided by adults" (noted above) can be achieved, to allow children to feel safe as they experience the world and learn their responsibilities.

Box 1: "My Uncle, the protector"

I've known that (I would be protected) since I was 8 years old. It's a family trait that someone will be designated to protect you. For me, it was my Uncle.

My Uncle isn't alive anymore, but when I was born he promised my father that he would protect me.

I didn't know about it at the time, but I always remember he had that thing where he would just show up.

For example, if I'd have guys come on over, or I'd gone to a party with my friends, he would always just rock up. It was funny, we'd all be having a few drinks, just laughing and joking and he'd be just standing there right behind them. Then they'd turn around and just say "hello", because they were all scared and they'd know, straight away, the drinks would go and everyone would be straight up.

He always seemed to know. It also happened when I was home alone, when both my brothers were out working, he'd just suddenly arrive. Or if I'd had an argument with my friends or family, he'd know. He'd come around, ask me what happened and help me fix it up.

After I'd thank my Uncle and I wouldn't see him for days, months even, until, then, all of a sudden, a knock on the door, and I'd know he's back. It was beautiful.

Since he passed away, his son, who is younger than I am, pops up every so often and I'm like, "What is this?", and he'll say,"Oh, just checking on you, just seeing what's happening, do you want to go for a ride?"

So, we'll go for a cruise around town and we'll see who's in town and who's doing what and he'll go, you know, "Do you just want a yarn with me?"

He's never told me but I'm pretty sure the role of my protector has been passed from my Uncle to his son. (Mother, Qld)

Modelling positive behaviours

One of the benefits of having children learn their responsibilities at such a young age is that they can, in turn, model positive behaviours for younger children:

Well, my boy is 17 now and we've got kids in care and he feeds them, picks them up and carries them if they are crying, picks them up out of the cot. I don't tell him to, he just does it, he's always done it! (Aboriginal mother and provider of out-of-home care, Qld)

We don't wrap them in cotton wool. If you've got a bigger family, the older kids grow up quicker because they help bring up their younger siblings. The children learn from doing, so you have to give them that freedom and that responsibility gives them confidence. (Aboriginal Auntie and Elder, Vic.)

I think it's the early parenting. Even now, my nieces, they look after their brothers and sisters from when they were babies, from when they were in their arms, they are carrying them … feeding them … changing them. The boys carry them and look after them as well, it's kind of like they are just copying the behaviour of the parents. (Mother, Qld)

We went to a big function down here in Cairns and we had this baby in the family. When we were all watching the concert we looked back and three of my teenage nephews were feeding this little one a bottle. It's nice to see. (Aboriginal mother, Qld)

"Responsibility" empowers children

For many Aboriginal families, instilling a sense of responsibility is seen to empower children with a sense of trust, support and confidence:

The reason it works so well in our culture, is because that sense of responsibility empowers our children. Children think, "well, mum trusts me enough to do this, this and this, I better not let her down". (Mother, Qld)

It comes back to communication and family meetings. It's just a big yarn up, what have you got to talk about, you know, and you feel supported. Not only in my family did we do that, like it was probably the same in everyone's. Mum would come to sit down with us and say, "Alright, I think you are old enough to know this now!" And then she would say it. As she would say this, both my sister and me would go, "Ah, mum's going to give us a bit of knowledge now." It gave us pride, the more that she would share with us about our family. And that builds on that relationship, the rapport, the communication, the trust, and then, she would have the confidence for us to go out by ourselves. (Mother, Qld)

For some parents, the term "responsibility" fails to capture the real essence of what it means to care for one another:

It's not a responsibility, it's the way you're brought up. It's just part of being a family. (Mother, NT)

Helping bring up extended family. I wouldn't label it responsibility, because that's like saying, "You have to" … it's not how it's looked at. It's just something you do … You could be sitting around, having a yarn and I could say to you, "I got a job", and your sister might say, "Oh well, I'll watch 'em"… "Alright, then", and you'll go like that or, "I can't have 'em today", so you'll ring someone, "So and so's sick. Can … ". "Yeah, bring them round." So there's a pool of family that you can ring around that those kids are safe with and know. (Mother, Qld)

Responding to non-Indigenous perspectives

There was a general consensus that non-Indigenous people sometimes misunderstand the positive aspects of traditional Aboriginal family life. At times, Aboriginal people need to remind each other of their kinship responsibilities as they continue to face criticism of their traditional cultural practices:

I was speaking to my sister last night on the phone. We are both in our twenties and she was telling me that the other day she got a growling from her non-Indigenous friend. She said, "You know, you baby your sister … you should let her stand on her feet." She was talking about me and she didn't realise what it's like in Aboriginal families. I said, "But Louise, that's in our culture. You've done that since I was a bub, big sister looks after little sister." You see, she still does that now even though we are adults. There is still that nurturing. There's always that thought in her head of "oh, I've got to look after my little sister". (Mother, Vic.)

One particular criticism of the Aboriginal approach to child rearing is that children are often left unsupervised and are unnecessarily exposed to harm:

Children are given responsibility but not at the expense of safety. People (from the wider non-Indigenous community) worry that a young sibling feeding an infant a bottle may have an accident, but you're still there, you're not going to leave the room. (Auntie and Elder, Vic.)

When asked about non-Indigenous approaches to raising children, the discussion moved towards issues of over-parenting. None of the Aboriginal participants had ever felt the need to be overly protective of their children:

Not in my families, not in my communities. I've never experienced that (Grandmother, Qld).

Reflections about child autonomy

One of the strengths of a collective community approach to raising children is that parents and carers have the security and confidence to allow their children the freedom to explore the world on their own terms. For Australian Aboriginal families, the risks associated with children's activities are accepted as a natural part of growing up (SNAICC, 2011). Aboriginal carers actively encourage independent play so that children can learn a range of important life skills, including the capacity to learn responsibilities to care for and protect one another (Diamond, 2012; SNAICC, 2011; Yeo, 2003). To deny a child this independence would be considered a breach of parental responsibility under traditional Aboriginal culture and Law (Lore/The Dreaming/Dreamtime) (SNAICC, 2011; Yeo, 2003).

In contrast, parents living in modern societies can be overprotective when it comes to the safety of their children (Beck & Beck-Gernsheim, 1995; Furedi, 2002, 2005; Howard, 2011; Locke, Campbell & Kavanagh, 2012; Rudner, 2012). By over-exaggerating the risks to their children, some parents may reduce a child's resilience, independent mobility and autonomy in decision-making, while increasing a child's anxiety, obesity and sense of entitlement (Locke et al., 2012; Rudner, 2012). In doing so, risk-adverse parents may unknowingly be placing their children at risk in the longer term as they grow into adults (Furedi, 2002, 2005; Thomson, 2005).

To summarise:

  • In both modern and traditional societies, child autonomy is seen as a protective factor in child safety and wellbeing.
  • Aboriginal parents and families encourage children to explore the world, but not to the extent that children are exposed to excessive risk.
  • The need for children to develop a sense of responsibility, through autonomous play, is seen as priority for Aboriginal families and communities.
  • In Aboriginal families and communities, the responsibility to care for and protect one another is taught from a very young age and continues to be reinforced throughout life.