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Cultural differences in child-rearing practices

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This page was updated on 23 February 2024. To view changes, please see page updates

A key approach towards addressing the over-representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in the child protection system is to develop and build on their knowledge and understandings of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander family and community structures and child-rearing practices.

When you apply a cultural lens to each SDM tool and risk assessment you complete, your assessment outcome is more likely to be culturally appropriate and contribute to meeting the cultural needs of the child and young person. 

As Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander family structures and child-rearing practices have at times been mistakenly perceived as ‘unstable’ or ‘dysfunctional’, applying a cultural lens is necessary to be able to appropriately assess and support the family.

It is important to recognise that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander family structures and approaches to raising children can be a source of cultural strength rather than a source of dysfunction.

Community norms may also differ depending on the location of the Aboriginal community. For example, norms in discrete North West Queensland communities may be different to urban community norms in South East Queensland.

The child-rearing practices of any one culture are no more valuable than those of another.

Practice prompt

When placing an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander child in care, how do you find out what child-rearing practices are important for the child to experience while they are in care?

Mechanisms you can use to help explore this with the family include:

  • strengths cards
  • storytelling
  • The Three Houses Tool (completed with the parent about their worries and what their dreams are for the child’s care arrangement)
  • parents and extended family members actively participating in the child’s daily activities such as schooling and doctors’ visits
  • parents and extended family members working in partnership to co-parent the child and actively participate in the safety and support network.

Unlike in the wider Australian society, there are many people in the community who contribute to raising an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander child, by assisting in the care giving and providing support to parents.

‘The mother is the main carer for the child, but aunties, uncles, cousins and older siblings share the responsibilities for caring and raising the child as well. (In some communities the mother’s sisters or the father’s brothers are also called ‘Mum’ and ‘Dad’.)’ (Source: SNAICC: Child-rearing practices)

This may contribute to increasing the safety and support network of a child and sourcing kinship carers when a need arises. (Strengths of Australian Aboriginal cultural practices in family life and child-rearing, 2014)

Family structures  

The traditional social structure of Aboriginal communities is based around kinship systems that adopt an entirely different terminology to that of the above Anglo-Celtic systems. (Morphy, 2006; Peters-Little, 2000 as cited in Strengths of Australian Aboriginal cultural practices in family life and child-rearing, 2014)

There may be numerous households Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people belong to and live in with kinship networks overlapping, and adults and children moving between households.


To learn more about the kinship and family structure within the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures, watch this short video.

Family and kinship 

Further reading

To learn how culture is built around a collectivist kinship system, read the article:  

AIFS: Strengths of Australian Aboriginal Cultural Practices

Practice prompt

Consider how you can continue or replicate the ‘one community, many eyes’ notion with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and young people while they are in care. Engagement tools that may be useful to help re-create this notion include the Circles of safety and support, timelines, genograms, Safety House and the safety and support plan.

Torres Strait Islander traditional child rearing practice

One of the most significant differences in terms of child-rearing practices between Torres Strait Islanders and Aboriginal peoples is traditional child rearing , also known as island custom.  Traditional child rearing practice involves the transfer of a child from the biological (birth) parent(s) (the “giving parents”) to another person or couple (the “receiving parents”) to be raised as their own and takes place between relatives and close friends where bonds of trust have already been established.

The decisions regarding who rears a child will depend on a number of social factors and is something discussed and considered by the family members involved.  The children are never lost to their family of origin, as they are usually placed with relatives somewhere within the family network.  

There are several reasons for traditional child rearing practice, including to:

  • maintain family bloodlines and/or family name by adopting a child from a ‘blood’ relative
  • give a childless family member (married or otherwise) an opportunity to raise their own child
  • strengthen bonds between two families
  • distribute boys and girls evenly between families who may only have children of one sex
  • replace a child who has been adopted out to another family
  • provide company and care for an older relative.

Practitioners need to be aware that this can be considered a taboo subject to openly discuss and that children/young people may not be aware of their circumstances. It is common for families to tell children at a time that they feel it is time to let the child know. The views and wishes of the family must be obtained to ensure you are working respectfully and sensitively with children/young people who  are engaged in a traditional child rearing practice .

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