Older Men as Grandfathers- Maori Grandfathers in Aotearoa

Judith Davey


 The book I mentioned in my last blog – Grandfathers: Global Perspectives – is now published and our chapter – Maori Grandfathers in Aotearoa (New Zealand) – sits alongside contributions from Denmark, Finland, South Africa, Singapore, Australia, the UK and USA.[1] This is a summary of the chapter which discusses the role of Maori grandfathers and how it is changing.

Traditional Maori views of family and grandparenting[2]

Traditional stories discuss the important role elders hold in the life of their grandchildren. Maui, the famous ancestor, was raised by his grandfather, Tamanui Te Ra (the Sun). Maori kinship terms embody continuity over generations.  The word for grandchildren – mokopuna – literally means a reflection of the ancestors, through whakapapa (lineage). Mokopuna are likened to the soft new shoots of the harakeke (flax), which are protected by the outer layers, i.e. preceding generations. Tupuna – grandparent or ancestor – means “grown from”, i.e. a person from whom we grew. Koro (or koroua) refers to grandfathers and the men in the grandfathers’ generation. Maori proverbs frequently refer to the complementary contributions of older and younger generations.

Whānau is the key Maori social and cultural unit and membership of whānau entails obligations, including whānaungatanga (belonging, supporting and working together as kin). Grandparents, and older people in general, have significant roles as decision-makers and leaders in the whānau, as role models, preservers of good relationships, maintainers and guardians of whānau knowledge and identity. Strong traditional whānau exhibit shared parenting, strong relationships between the generations and the involvement of grandparents in decisions about their grandchildren. Grandparents help grandchildren with their self-image, linguistic competence and special skills, for example grandfathers may impart traditional skills in food gathering. Everyday care and nurturing of children took place in the whānau.

The traditional role of Maori grandparents is further illustrated in the concept of whangai, which is associated with the idea of adoption, although not necessarily legal adoption. Whangai means to feed, in this context to feed and nurture. Traditionally, a couple’s first child was often taken and brought up by grandparents, partly to care for them in old age. Whangai still occurs, not only for traditional reasons. Just as in society in general, grandparents may be raising grandchildren considered to be ‘at risk’ or lack parenting for some reason.

 Maori men as grandfathers

As part of the research, we undertook informal discussions with Maori grandfathers, asking how they saw their role.  Several themes arose from these discussions.

  • Pride in whānau and tribal heritage, acknowledging key male ancestors

The Maori grandfathers emphasised the importance of continuity over the generations; maintaining the role of providing protection to succeeding generations and passing on Maori and whānau knowledge. They spoke about the lessons they had learnt from their grandfathers and previous generations. “My koro taught me a love of the land and the people”.

  • The challenge of reclaiming Maori language and knowledge

Most of the grandfathers were brought up at a time when many older Maori believed that the way forward for young people was through Pakeha education. Hence speaking Maori to children and grand-children was discouraged even though the old people might speak it amongst themselves.  “Being brought up by my grandmother and grandfather, they wanted us to learn the English way because they saw that was the future – you could get a job and an education.” In some cases it has only been in their 40s and 50s that the men became proud of being Maori and have stood forward in leadership roles.

  • Keeping whānau together and keeping a watchful protective eye over the generations

The grandfathers acknowledged that their role was to protect children and promote family cohesion. “I have kept my family all together in the same way that he (his grandfather) did. Tried to keep them up the river on the (tribal) land.” When a daughter had a partner who was worrisome, one kept a close eye on the son-in-law’s behaviour and tried to mentor him.

Change and Diversity

Traditional roles can be harder to maintain in the modern context, for economic and social reasons, with the added influences of urbanisation and migration and the reduction of generations living together. Maori families are undergoing processes of transformation and redefinition, becoming more diverse in size, structure and roles.

Differences relating to rights, responsibilities and tolerated behaviours are significant issues for some grandparents. There may be differences in parenting styles between grandparents and the grandchildren’s parents (and their partners), leading to tensions and a perceived lack of respect for grandparents. There are sometimes real or implied threats about access to grandchildren when relationships between the parents are strained or broken. Where grandparents step in, following the Maori tradition of shared care, they may come into conflict with legal and policy measures. Grandparents raising grandchildren as whangai may not be eligible for government benefits that could come through a more formal arrangement.

The Children, Young Persons and their Families Act (1989) was strongly influenced by traditional Maori concepts of whānau and collective responsibility for children. It mandated the extended family/whānau as the preferred placement for children in need of care and protection. This role more often than not falls to grandparents. So, contemporary grandparenting among Maori still encompasses the roles of nurturing, caring for and protecting grandchildren as well as passing on cultural knowledge and identity. Grandfathers have an important role in this.


[1] Buchanan, Ann, and Rotkirch, Anna (Eds.) (2016) Grandfathers: Global Perspectives. Palgrave Macmillan Studies in Family and Intimate Life. Palgrave McMillan U.K.

[2] Useful references for this section include:
Edwards W. (2010) Taupaenui: Maori Positive Ageing. Unpublished Ph.D. thesis, Massey University, Palmerston North
Smith, C. (2010) The Health and Wellbeing of Maori Grandparents raising Mokopuna. Report to the Health Research Council for the Erihapeti Rehu-Murchie Postdoctoral Fellowship.
Walker, T. (2006) Whanau is whanau. Blue Skies Report No.8/06. Families Commission: Wellington.



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