In This Article Aboriginal Childhoods

  • Introduction
  • Early Colonial Accounts
  • Contemporary Studies of Adolescence
  • Contemporary Work of Aboriginal Authorship
  • Education
  • Health-Oriented Studies
  • Government Reports

Childhood Studies Aboriginal Childhoods
Gaynor Macdonald
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 May 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791231-0159


Documentation of Aboriginal childhood and adolescence in Australia has never been systematic. Information about children has been buried within studies of family life or women as mothers. Given the paucity of material explicitly highlighting children’s experiences, past and present, texts that include good material about children are included as well. Two reviews of substance have been published, a century apart (Malinowski 1913, cited under Early 20th Century (to 1960s) and Eickelkamp 2010, cited under Overviews, General Themes, and Historicized Studies), with another two unpublished (von Sturmer 1980, cited under Ethnographic Studies in Remote Australia Young 2011, cited under Overviews, General Themes, and Historicized Studies). Only one monograph focuses on children (Hamilton 1981, cited under Ethnographic Studies in Remote Australia). Indigenous Australians include Torres Strait Islanders as well as Aboriginal peoples, but there is so little work about Torres Strait Islander children that they are not included. The descriptor “Aboriginal” encompasses different languages and ecological zones as well as different colonial histories. While there were remarkable consistencies in the way in which Aboriginal children grew into mature Aboriginal persons across the continent, there were also regionally distinctive practices. Literature concerned with the transitional rituals of initiation is not included. While a significant focus of research, it provides little insight into the pre-initiatory world of children or even the lived experience of initiates. Also excluded is the contentious virgin birth debate alleging that Aboriginal people were ignorant of human physiology (reviewed by L. R. Hiatt in Arguments about Aborigines: Australia and the Evolution of Social Anthropology. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1996) but which did not concern children themselves. Conception beliefs are included, as these convey the meaning of “a child” as an embodied, socially embedded, and spiritual being. Studies often distinguish between urban, rural, or remote regions, although such distinctions may mask similarities of value and practice as well as similar impacts of social distress. Much change has been experienced everywhere, not only in the urbanized coastal and southern regions. However, research remains heavily oriented to remote areas, especially Northern Territory and Western Australia. The literature is separated by period because understandings of Aboriginal children’s worlds and childrearing practices have been influenced by the moral attitudes of different eras: the history of scholarship about Aboriginal childhood should be understood within a history of racializing theory. Although the constitutional apartheid introduced at Federation in 1901 was removed in 1967, the legacies of colonial and racializing stigmata remain. As recent studies demonstrate, increasing economic and social stress takes a high toll on Aboriginal children’s well-being. They cannot be divorced from their paradigmatic position as postcolonial subjects: poverty and ill-health impact on children as well as on the capacities of parents and alloparents. This article has been compiled selectively, but there is little omitted. Despite a short burst of interest in 1980s, sustained interest in Australian Aboriginal children, their childhood experiences, and their parenting has come to the fore only since the turn of the 21st century.

Early Colonial Accounts

From the establishment of the British penal settlement in Sydney in 1788 the Aboriginal inhabitants of the continent attracted attention ranging from curiosity to annoyance and concern, but commentators were seldom interested in children. Although references to Aboriginal children pepper 19th-century texts and include delightful and insightful observations as well as comparisons—favorable and unfavorable—with British norms, there are no substantial or contextualized studies. These writers, for the most part colonial officials, documented visible practices and interpersonal interactions, especially those that struck them as unusual, without understanding of the cultural mores that informed these. Nevertheless, these early accounts of incidents involving children, together with descriptions of various customs and practices, provide valuable glimpses into the way children lived with adults and their peers prior to the profound changes wrought by colonization. Collins 1798, Bonwick 1870, and Fraser 1892 and to a lesser extent Eyre 1845 and Roth 1908 contain firsthand observations of cultural practice and belief, as does Grey 1841, although his work in particular is infused with racial moralizing. In contrast, Dawson 1831 takes an interest in Aboriginal people’s own understandings. Smyth 1878 is able to provide an overview of what is becoming known of Aboriginal life including childhood. All writers comment that Aboriginals adults, male and female, were affectionate and indulgent to their children, who were not chastised. Western theories of childrearing were at the time focused on subduing children, and the apparent disinterest of Aboriginals in molding the adult through disciplining the child led these observers into thinking that no acculturation took place during early childhood. When anthropology developed in the late 19th century, anthropologists were male and preoccupied with discerning “early forms” of social organization, marriage, and religion, which they assumed to reflect the state of their own evolutionary origins. They looked at ways in which skills were imparted across generations, but were not concerned to discern how “persons” were formed or in what kinds of worlds. Interest in Aboriginal children and childhood declined, both because these were people now assumed to be “dying out” and because the intrusion into their lives was by then severe. Anthropologists were interested in apparently precolonial or “traditional” lifestyles. Observations of children’s lives were not a preoccupation until well into the 20th century.

  • Bonwick, James. Daily life and Origins of the Tasmanians. London: Sampson Low, Son and Martson, 1870.

    DOI: 10.2307/3014441E-mail Citation »

    Bonwick’s is one of the more sensitive of the 19th-century texts and includes reference to the warmth of relationships between children and their mothers, the small size of families, abortion and neonaticide, and childbirth. He also observed children accessing breast milk long after weaning.

  • Collins, D. An Account of the English Colony in New South Wales: With Remarks on the Dispositions, Customs, Manners, etc. of the Native Inhabitants of That Country. To Which Are Added, Some Particulars of New Zealand; Compiled by Permission, from the Mss. of Lieutenant-Governor King. Vol. 1. London: T. Cadell and W. Davies, 1798.

    E-mail Citation »

    Also available online An early colonial official, Collins provides images of infancy and childhood, recording incidents involving children and making some attempt to describe customs and conduct. He gives a glimpse of the impacts of industrial society on Aboriginal sociality and economy, including how Aboriginal women and children were influenced by their colonial subjectivity. His is the first written account of childbirth, witnessed by British women in Sydney.

  • Dawson, R. The Present State of Australia: A Description of Its Country, Its Advantages and Prospects with Referent to Emigration: And a Particular Account of Its Aboriginal Inhabitants. London: Smith, Elder, 1831.

    E-mail Citation »

    Dawson, a businessman in Australia setting up a pastoral company, provides direct observations of the treatment by Aboriginal adults of their children, and of children themselves, within an account of the settlement of which he was the director. Notable for his attempts to understand Aboriginal people and his admiration for them.

  • Eyre E. J. Journals of Expeditions of Discovery into Central Australia, and Overland from Adelaide to King George’s Sound, in the Years 1840–1: Sent by the colonists of South Australia, with the Sanction and Support of the Government; Including an Account of the Manners and Customs of the Aborigines and the State of Their Relations with Europeans. London: T. and U. Boone, 1845.

    E-mail Citation »

    Facsimile edition: Adelaide: Libraries Board of South Australia, 1964. Eyre was an official in the colonial administration engaged in policy development detrimental to Aboriginal people. There are evident contradictions between what Eyre observed and the impact of these policies. His interest was limited to comments of children suckling for several years, their gentle treatment, and methods of carrying them.

  • Fraser, John. The Aborigines of New South Wales. Sydney, Australia: Charles Potter, Government Printer, 1892.

    E-mail Citation »

    Fraser notes evidence of positive qualities, including intelligence, of Aboriginal children, contradicting official representations. He describes infant care, joy at the birth of the child, and mourning at premature death but notes that infanticide is common when there are significant demands on a mother. He outlines activities of boys prior to initiation.

  • Grey, George. Journals of Two Expeditions of Discovery in North-West and Western Australia, during the Years 1837, 1838 and 1839. 2 vols. London: T. and W. Boone, 1841.

    E-mail Citation »

    Grey’s direct but fragmented observations of Aboriginal people with children form a useful background to the daily existence of Aboriginal people in the early days of colonization, including labor, suckling, weaning, play, and affection. He assumed the inferiority of Aboriginal cultural practices, considering their destiny to be inevitable absorption after British-style education.

  • Roth, W. E. “Marriage Ceremonies and Infant Life.” North Queensland Ethnography. Bulletin Number 10. Records of the Australian Museum 7 (1908): 1–17.

    DOI: 10.3853/j.0067-1975.7.1908.943E-mail Citation »

    Roth provides few new insights, but his overview of issues concerning women and their children does serve to illustrate the similarities between practices in northern Queensland and elsewhere across the continent. This study, although published in the early 20th century, belongs to the category of colonial accounts.

  • Smyth, R. B. The Aborigines of Victoria with Notes Relating to Habits of the Natives of Other Parts of Australia and Tasmania. 2 vols. London: John Ferres, Government Printer, 1878.

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    Smyth’s compilation of various reports, with his own observations of childrearing practices, includes information on conception beliefs, birth practices, food restrictions, and being taught to search for food. It is the closest to a review available in the 19th century. Later ethnographies confirmed his insights into childrearing.

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