New Zealand

In 1991 the American scholar Mary Gordon observed, in her comprehensive historiographical review published in Children in Comparative and Historical Perspective, that much work remained to be done on the history of childhood in AUSTRALIA and New Zealand. Some significant advances have been made since then. Educational and welfare scholars have explored the impact of past social policy on children's lives, while contemporary concerns over child health, abuse, and poverty are fostering research in these areas, particularly in the field of children's rights. Yet there is still no local equivalent to the history of Australian childhood written by Jan Kociumbas. Nor, despite the obvious potential for comparison, are there New Zealand works that parallel such Canadian and U.S. childhood studies as those produced by Neil Sutherland, Elliott West, and Harvey Graff. The challenge for any substantial history of New Zealand childhood is that it should be a worthwhile contribution to the international literature while at the same time providing New Zealand readers–young adults especially–with some youth-centered perspectives on their country's past.

Early History

Childhood experience in New Zealand falls loosely into four distinctive phases. Firstcomers covers the period from c. 1200 through the 1700s, during which the first migrants from Hawaiiki (eastern Polynesia) established, and their descendants developed, the communities from which contemporary Maori trace their tribal origins. That tamariki, or indigenous children, were loved, instructed, disciplined, and mourned is apparent from traditional proverbs, songs, and prayers. Mobility, adaptability, and intertribal conflict were commonplace. Life expectancy was short; living was a labor-intensive process. There was no prolonged period of dependency.

Newcomers characterizes a second period, from the 1770s through the 1850s, when the arrival of European explorers, adventurers, evangelists, and settlers initiated the experience of cultural encounter for youngsters in both societies. Tamariki were exposed to new smells and sounds, commodities and values–and diseases against which they and their kin had no immunity. Where Maori and Pakeha, or non-Maori, lived in close proximity, as in shore-based whaling settlements or mission stations, the children of each culture could grow up with some knowledge of the other's language and customs. From the 1840s, as the patterns that had evolved over centuries changed within the lifetime of a single generation, Maori became a steadily diminishing minority within their own land. Relatively few of the immigrants' children had meaningful contact with Maori. It would be tamariki, not Pakeha youth, who developed a bicultural awareness.

The Colonial Period

Young colonials reflects a period marked by conflict, internal and external, from the 1860s through the 1940s. These were years of prosperity and development, but with periods of disruption, dispossession, and depression. The varying effects of these periods on the colony's children crossed cultural, regional, and class divides. The New Zealand Wars of the 1860s were a conflict of sovereignty, not race; the legislative consequences of confiscation and land alienation were devastating for the tribal communities involved. The wars reflected both Maori resistance to the insatiable immigrant demand for land and the failure of the Crown to uphold guarantees of indigenous sovereignty as agreed in the colony's founding charter, the Treaty of Waitangi, signed between the Crown's representatives and Maori chiefs in 1840. The subsequent unfair confiscation of land from tribes deemed to have been rebellious, together with the continuing land alienation through the legislative process of a Native Land Court, impoverished the tribal communities involved and severely affected the diet, health, and living conditions of their children.

The well-being of Pakeha youngsters was also affected during the latter half of the nineteenth century. Gold rushes during the 1860s prompted state legislation to provide for neglected children, particularly those whose fathers failed to provide for their maintenance, while a colony-wide recession in the 1880s put additional pressure on many migrant families, especially on those for whom the dream of owning a small farm was largely dependent on child labor. And whereas Maori children were raised within extended whanau, or family networks on which they could depend for support, immigrants had to create such connections. At times the bonds proved too fragile and death or desertion led to children becoming dependent on institutional care. The lives of the colonial-born of both societies were also being shaped by a wider constitutional context as colonial politicians fashioned a new Britain of the south, and in so doing gave legislative expression to the dominant cultural values.

State education and health and welfare measures applied to all children, regardless of ethnicity: legalized apartheid has never been part of the New Zealand childhood experience. Yet legislation promoting economic development continued to undermine the communal principles of tribal life and failed to redress impoverishment. Maori children developed a clear understanding of the negative impacts of colonial rule upon their lives; Pakeha youngsters remained largely ignorant of the circumstances, culture, or language of the people whose assistance and cooperation, through food supplies, labor, and initial land sales, for example, had been so fundamental to the colony's establishment. They grew up knowing themselves to be British. The cultural differences of the small enclaves of other European migrants were scarcely acknowledged except when the xenophobia of 1914 through 1918 made ethnicity an issue. Both Maori and Pakeha fought in World War I; the injury and death rates were high and the legacies long term as youth absorbed without question the stories of heroism and sacrifice. There was also no initial shortage of volunteers for World War II.

Recent History

Emergent New Zealanders highlights the issues of identity that characterized much public discussion during the second half of the twentieth century, from the 1950s through 2000. Britain's entry into the Common Market, coupled with high rates of Maori urbanization and Polynesian immigration, challenged Pakeha to acknowledge and reconsider their monoculturalism. Globalization, television, the Internet, and the pervasive influence of American culture have all contributed to changing lifestyles for young New Zealanders, but the greater transformation has been internal. Multicultural immigration policies and the consequences of economic restructuring during the 1980s that diminished the role of the state in favor of market-led competition have contributed to greater social inequality within the country. Children and youth are bearing the brunt of these changes. High levels of youth suicide, sexually transmitted diseases, teenage pregnancy, single parenthood, alcohol and drug abuse, and criminal offending are matters of widespread public concern, as is the increasing awareness of violence against children.

Thousands of New Zealand youth still grow up healthy, happy, and emotionally secure, actively pursuing sporting and cultural interests and planning a future of worthwhile employment and travel overseas. But hundreds do not, and the correlation between poverty, ethnicity, ill health, low educational achievement, and abuse is increasingly obvious. New Zealanders have long cherished the belief that theirs is a great country in which to bring up children. More detailed research into both past and present childhood experience may suggest the need for some modification of that view.

See also: Comparative History of Childhood.


Dalley, Bronwyn. 1998. Family Matters: Child Welfare in Twentieth-Century New Zealand. Auckland, NZ: Auckland University Press in association with the Historical Branch, Dept. of Internal Affairs.

Gordon, Mary. 1991. "Australia and New Zealand." In Children in Historical and Comparative Perspective: An International Handbook and Research Guide, ed. Joseph M. Hawes and N. Ray Hiner. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

Graham, Jeanine. 1992. "My brother and I … : Glimpses of Childhood in Our Colonial Past." Hocken Lecture, 1991. Dunedin, NZ: Hocken Library, University of Otago.

Ihimaera, Witi, ed. 1998. Growing Up Maori. Auckland, NZ: Tandem Press.

Metge, Joan. 1995. New Growth from Old: The Whanau in the Modern World. Wellington, NZ: Victoria University Press.

Simon, Judith, and Linda Tuhiwai Smith. 2001. A Civilising Mission? Perceptions and Representations of the New Zealand Native Schools System. Auckland, NZ: Auckland University Press.

Tennant, Margaret. 1994. Children's Health, the Nation's Wealth: A History of Children's Health Camps. Wellington, NZ: Bridget Williams Books.