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

CFCA Paper No. 25 – September 2014

Theme 3: Elderly family members are important to family functioning

The focus group participants highlighted that raising children is a shared responsibility of all community members, yet grandparents and Elders were often mentioned as pivotal contributors to family life in Aboriginal communities. This section explores the specific roles of grandparents and elderly family members in contributing to family functioning, and the influence this has on children.

Aboriginal "Elders" and "elderly" family members are not necessarily one and the same, and the distinction between these family members, including grandparents, Aunties and Uncles is often blurred. Australian Aboriginal people focus on life stages and relative degrees of maturity, rather than on chronological age, and Elders can be comparatively young in a biological sense (Morphy, 2004).

Elders are generally respected for the value of their cultural knowledge, leadership abilities and for making decisions on behalf of the community (McIntryre, 2001). They are particularly valued for helping children to understand the practical aspects of life, society and culture. As Walker (1993) describes:

The role of Elders is difficult for outsiders to understand. We rely strongly on them as key decision makers within families. They are the people we hold the greatest respect for because many of them went through so much, so that now we do not have to suffer the injustices they experienced. Their guidance is often illustrated through everyday life and their teachings are often done subconsciously; we follow, we observe and we go on to teach our own families. It is through our Elders that the spirit of Aboriginal people is kept alive. (p. 53)

Developing respect for elderly family and community members

Respect for elderly family members is instilled in children from a young age, and children and grandparents often form strong bonds as a result:

In the communities, yes, there is a lot of respect. My children did because they were taught from babies to respect their Elders and it's special … that kind of thing … It's just the way we are. Just that love. They just love their poppa and he just loves all their grandchildren. He spoils them sometimes. I remember when my mother was alive, she would always get my youngest daughter to brush her hair and my daughter says that that is what she misses. (Mother, NT)

One parent described the effort required to teach children about respect:

I think you have to put in some effort though … into instilling the values a bit more now because of all the other influences around. Simple things like, saying "give nanny a hug", or making sure Nanny Jen gets to hug the little grandchild … With four boys who are really boisterous, you know, footy, wrestling, the other things, it's quite easy for them to just go off and watch TV or whatever, but she makes sure when you walk in there, you have to put that effort in. (Mother, Qld)

It doesn't take long for the children to learn respect:

Now when we meet for family gatherings and stuff like that, when we arrive, we don't even have to tell them that, they will just go and greet all the Elders and all their grandparents and Aunties and Uncles, they just go and do it. You don't have to tell them, only the little ones. You know, we have to teach them, but when they get older, they will just do it automatically. (Mother, Qld)

Beyond respect: Practical lessons from elderly family and community members

Building respect for elderly family and community members provides a foundation for some of the more practical aspects of family functioning. Many of the focus group participants spoke of the value of grandparents and elderly family members in providing care for their children, and described the opportunities for children to learn other important life skills.

For instance, through the provision of child care, grandparents can teach their grandchildren about traditional cultural practices while, at the same time, establishing close relationships with their extended family members:

I drop my kids at my parents every day. It's so much more than child care. They grow strong and learn about our culture and get really close with all their cousins. (Father, Qld)

Having guidance and instruction from a family matriarch was particularly meaningful for this mother:

They learn a lot from grandma. When I was younger, my sister, it was before school age, we never had to do that kindy and stuff like that. We were dropped off at our nans, who was the matriarch of all our family, because it was a matriarchal tribe. You know, even though she was an elderly woman, she still looked after us: "Come on, come on girls, you are going to come out and chop your lunch up", and she would help us, but she gave us a firm guidance. "This is what you are going to do, you are going to chop up a tomato like that, this one is good for you. Next week, your Auntie is taking you to the beach and your Auntie is going to help you find pippies." (Mother, Qld)

Imparting knowledge is a particularly important role for grandparents:

There are others things too … like, I was working when my four girls were little … I would drop them off at my parent's every day and the things that my parents taught my children were the alphabet, so they would sit on my bed and by the time preschool came along, they knew the alphabet and they could count and this was not because of me, it was because of my mum and dad and the real good thing that I credit my mum and dad to is the beat my kids got for music, you know. They would sit them on the lap and they would clap to Mary Had a Little Lamb or whatever … it was all nursery rhymes and they just had a really good beat. Yeah, so, the things grandparents can teach your kids are so much. (Auntie and mother, Qld)

One participant spoke of her multiple roles to care for both her family and the local community:

I'm an Elder on the … Elders Council. But I am also an Elder in my community in which I live, … and I'm an Elder in my immediate family - which is still [name of clan], but I still look after my immediate family. So I have three hats - I look after the whole family line … if they're in any trouble or they need anything in their life … if they need money or they need advocacy for gas or electricity, I help. And I talk to them every day. So that's part of it. Also, I have an open door at home so that if anybody in the community or my family are in trouble, they can come and stay. And I look after them until they're able to be on their own feet. (Auntie and Elder, Vic.)

Elderly family members are positive role models:

I don't drink. Well, I have one Christmas Day, but I don't drink. I now don't smoke, but I did two and a half years ago, but I can't tell others not to smoke if I smoke. (Auntie and Elder, Vic.)

Reflections about the role of elderly family members in family functioning

The collective imagination of a modern society places great value on its youth, where health, virility, speed and agility are treasured. By comparison, old age represents sickness, loss of usefulness, poverty and loss of sexuality, and advertising continues to represent the elderly as slow, decrepit or weak (Bytheway, 2005; Diamond, 2012; Nelson, 2005; North & Fiske, 2012). Yet non-Indigenous families often provide extensive support to their elderly family members even though they rarely live in same household (Connidis, 2010; Lowenstein, 2005; Qu & Weston, 2013),7 and certain skills, such as interdisciplinary thinking and the ability to solve complex problems, increase with age (Connidis, 2010; Diamond, 2012).

In both modern and traditional societies,8 elderly family members provide practical "hands-on" care for children. This care translates into a range of benefits for children as they negotiate their pathways to adulthood (Connidis, 2010; Diamond, 2012; Walker, 1993). For Aboriginal families, elderly family and community members are often respected for their narrative historical value, where testimonies about the Dreaming and daily community life help others to understand the practical aspects of life and society (Diamond, 2012).

To summarise:

  • Grandparents and elderly family members are highly respected as important contributors to family functioning in both traditional and modern societies.
  • Aboriginal people, including "Elders" are not judged on the basis of age, but by the mutual benefits they bring to family and community life.
  • Mutual benefits include the provision of child care and instilling and passing down Aboriginal cultural values, traditions and responsibilities to children, and for keeping the spirit of Aboriginal culture alive.
  • Aboriginal grandparents, elderly family members and Elders often assume multiple roles within families and communities and, as a result, can provide a wide range of opportunities to contribute to family and community functioning.


7 Australian grandparents are the main providers of child care for children under 12: In 2011, there were 46,680 grandparent families in Australia where grandparents were the primary carers of their grandchildren (ABS, 2011; Qu & Weston, 2013).

8 There are complexities that need to be taken into account when comparing the role of the elderly in traditional and modern societies. For example, life expectancy is considerably less in traditional societies, where people rarely live to 60 years of age, and are considered "old" at 50 years of age or even earlier (Diamond, 2012). In modern societies, with improved medical care and life conditions, life expectancy has reached an average of 85, and people are considered old at 65 or more (Diamond, 2012; Lowenstein, 2005; North & Fiske, 2012).