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

CFCA Paper No. 25 – September 2014

Theme 4: Spirituality helps families cope with challenges

A key characteristic of the collective Aboriginal community is to help the spirit of a child emerge as he or she grows and experiences life. This is done by letting the child know who they are in relation to their family, the broader society, the environment and the living spirits of their sacred ancestors and land (SNAICC, 2011).9 These relationships are guided by Aboriginal Law (the Dreaming/Dreamtime/Lore), and define a child's identity and how they are connected to everything in life (SNAICC, 2011).

Aboriginal "spirituality", kinship and the Dreaming

The Dreaming is a holistic, multilayered framework that integrates the physical, personal and spiritual dimensions of Aboriginal culture with past, present and future life (McEwan & Tsey, 2009; Nicholls, 2014a). In Aboriginal communities, where traditional cultural practices continue to thrive, the spiritual connection to the Dreaming is as relevant to the daily life of Aboriginal people today as it was to their ancestors (McEwan et al., 2009; SNAICC, 2011).

The holistic nature of Aboriginal life applies to Aboriginal communities all around Australia. Yet the Dreaming, as a religion grounded in the land itself, is subject to the locality rules of a particular "country".10 Inevitably, the physical characteristics of a specific region will determine how kinship regulations, morality and ethics are applied in people's economic, cognitive and spiritual lives (Nicholls, 2014a). Furthermore, Aboriginal spirituality is a highly abstract and experiential notion, and the Dreaming is "impossible to relay in words" (SNAICC, 2011, p. 49). For these reasons, spirituality is explored here in terms of how it is passed on to children to help them cope with life's challenges, and to keep the spirit of Aboriginal culture alive for future generations (Walker, 1993).

The focus group participants rarely referred to the Dreaming, or "spirituality" directly. Instead, they spoke about "culture", "values", "beliefs" and "traditions" interchangeably to describe how a sense of spirituality is passed down to their children. Often the sentiments reflect the themes presented in the previous sections, which further emphasises the holistic, inseparable elements of Aboriginal family life.

Caring and sharing: The "heart" of Aboriginal spirituality

At the heart of Aboriginal spirituality is the emphasis on caring and sharing. While these values are important for the children, they can also remind adults of their own role to help look after others in the community:

I've decided in my life that I have a responsibility as an Elder and I will fulfil that responsibility. Our culture is caring and sharing … full-on caring … I decided a long time ago that that's where my niche is, and … also I do wellbeing about healing. I'm not a doctor and I'm not a preacher or anything like that, but I try and do appropriate cultural activities that help people to heal with all of the past wrongs … (Auntie and mother, Vic.)

As part of a collective culture, the responsibility to care for others is central to one's identity:

You kind of want to instil in your kids that caring mentality where they are like, that's caring, you can label it, I guess a kind of responsibility, but really it's instilling in them that caring for their family and themselves is so important to who we are. (Parent, Vic.)

The caring mentality is instilled in children from such a young age so that they can help care for the younger children:

You might see a 12 year old change a nappy or feed a bottle or go to the fridge and warm a bottle, you know, do things like that. And that's our way of teaching our kids. It's sort of going back to 200-odd years ago. It's when you were brought up with the mums and you were taught what to do. Even the boys were brought up with the mums until they were initiated. (Auntie and mother, Vic.)

Ways of passing the spirit of Aboriginal culture to children

One father describes how his children learn about Aboriginal cultural values through his extended family network, by having his children spend time at their grandparents with his nieces and nephews:

My kids learn about who we are, the history of family, our culture and they also get to know their cousins, so that they become more like brothers and sisters. (Father, Qld)

Sharing cultural knowledge through traditional activities is an important way to pass "culture" down to the children:

In my culture, it's the Uncle that teaches my son to hunt, not the father. In my culture, it is the Uncle that teaches his nephews to go hunting or to make things or to you know, to make spears or those types of things … the Uncle is the one. The mother teaches her young daughters … I knew how to cook and all that from a very young age. Wash up, wipe up, clean up and sweep the floor from a very early age. (Parent, Qld)

Using modern technology is another way to connect with families and to learn about Aboriginal culture. This quote highlights how one Auntie is able to help other family members who are struggling to cope:

I'll get phone calls. So then I'll have a yarn … To try and combat that modern stuff, I've joined Facebook. So, I'm up … late of a night, because I go through and check out what people are saying and, if I see someone struggling by the way that they've written something, I inbox them, "Are you alright?" and they'll go, "No, Aunt. I'm not." And then we'll have a yarn. When I do meet them, I talk about doing old ways. I just use the modern ways to get to them. (Auntie and mother, Qld)

Teaching traditional language is important for imparting knowledge about Aboriginal culture, even if the children don't recognise the significance of such knowledge at the time. In this case, the children listened carefully to their Elder, thanks to the respect that they had developed as younger children:

I walked into the room one time after the lunchtime and I saw [name] who is now 30 something and my younger brother … they were lying there. Mum and dad's place is really hot and it's the middle of summer, they were lying there on the floor, like little boys do and there was mum, she was telling them the story in full language and when I walked away, I said to one of my nephews, do you know what Nan is talking about and he said, nope. They didn't know, but they listened to that whole, you know, she would talk for hours about language, no English whatsoever and they would be twiddling with their thumbs, but they'd be listening, but they wouldn't know what she was talking about. Now they've learnt their language. (Auntie and mother, Qld).

Elders and grandparents help to reinforce the strength and resilience that can be gained from knowing one's culture and being connected to it:

I think Elders bring connection to our past and our history, and they bring us stories … I wish I still had my grandmother around … When you've got an older person, they can confirm your connection … they can confirm your connection to country and family and their stories - which is what we should have and a lot of us don't have. And your language, you don't have a lot of language. And their stories that they tell you are our history and it tells you where you belong, and it gives you that strength. (Auntie and mother, Vic.)

Reflections about spirituality in coping with family challenges

Evidence suggests that engaging in spiritual practices is associated with improved physical and mental health. Improvements in immune system function, lower blood pressure and lower rates of heart disease, stroke and kidney failure are just some of the physical benefits from engaging in spiritual practices (McEwan et al., 2009). Mental health benefits include a greater sense of responsibility, increased self-control and greater tolerance (McEwan et al., 2009). Spiritual engagement is also shown to be a protective factor against adolescents' risky behaviours (Bradford Wilcox, 2007; McEwan et al., 2009; Miller, 2007; Resnick et al., 1997; Rostosky, Danner, & Riggle, 2007).

For Aboriginal families, spirituality is a key cultural characteristic that embodies the interconnectedness of life's dimensions. The sacred connection to the Dreaming provides guidance for families and communities in raising children and helps to instil the shared values of interdependence, group cohesion and community loyalty. These qualities help to provide a safe environment for raising children and help both adults and children to understand the importance of caring for and protecting one another.

To summarise:

  • Aboriginal spirituality is instilled and reinforced at a very early age through a range of social relationships.
  • Spirituality helps Aboriginal children to identify the place they hold in the family, the local community and in broader society.
  • Spirituality can instil positive values in Aboriginal and non-Indigenous children, including caring for and sharing with others, and taking responsibility for their own actions.
  • Spirituality provides a healing framework to help children build resilience and coping abilities.


9 This paper explores the notion of "spirituality" in terms of: "those things that have something to do with the sacred … If there is no connection with the sacred, then it should not be referred to as spiritual or spirituality". (McEwan, Tsey, & the Empowerment Research Team, 2009, p. 13)

10 Land-based narratives differ in subject matter from place to place depending on specific environmental features, landmarks, and local flora and fauna (Nicholls, 2014b).