Skip to main content

Stan’s Stuff

Learning from Aboriginals and Islanders regarding Parenting

In the early 1970’s, I was employed as a consultant in Australia’s Northern Territory. This work put me in touch with remote Australian Aboriginal settlements and some island communities.
 |  Stan Stewart  | 

In these deserts all the children of Aboriginal tribes are tracked by everyone.

Most visitors to the ‘top end’ of Australia’s Northern Territory, experience Aboriginals being in the town and the territory’s capital, Darwin. Sadly, many of these encounters will be with aboriginals who are addicted to alcohol.

In contrast to the town experience, a number of remote communities are dry, – by community consensus, no alcohol is allowed. This was the case with the communities I visited.


In my early 20’s, I almost lost my lower leg in a motor-bike accident. The accident left a spectacular scar.

In a remote community beyond Alice Springs, I was introduced to the junior grades in a primary school. The children were seated at my feet on a mat. I became aware that the children were particularly interested in my scarred left leg. So much so that a couple of the more confident children wriggled over next to me and began running their fingers up and down the scar.

When they did this all the children began to laugh. Soon they were calling out, ‘Naughty boy. Naughty boy’. The teacher calmed the hilarity and my small presentation continued.

After the class, the teacher shared with me a principle of aboriginal justice. If in that aboriginal community, a man commits a crime or misdemeanor, usually to do with a sexual encounter with another man’s wife, the men of the tribe chase him down and spear him in the calf muscle of his leg. That is his punishment.

Nothing more is ever done about his misbehavior. The leg heals leaving a scar like mine, but the person faces no further punishment. His crime is never mentioned again, and he is free to participate in the business of the tribe at all levels. ‘Punish the crime but then welcome the person back into the community.’ This principle of justice appeals to me.


Parenting in a traditional Island community is different. Possessions are few and not as important. This means that discipline as we know it barely exists.

However, there are times when their children misbehave, and fathers blow their tops and full of rage, chase after their children. When that happens, the child runs to ‘Uncle’. I don’t know if this applies to all island communities, but it did to the island population with which I stayed.

This ‘uncle’ person may be the child’s actual uncle, or a person designated as uncle.

When a child runs to ‘Uncle’ to escape his/her parent’s wrath, the child now lives with or under the protection of this ‘uncle’. The angry parent cannot now approach the child directly. He, usually it’s the father, can only approach the child through the ‘Uncle’.

For the Uncle’s part, no matter what the child’s misdemeanor was, his responsibility is to protect the child – to stand between the child and the wrathful parent. This strategy goes on for as long as the parent is consumed with rage – in some cases, days. Only when the parent’s anger has subsided, will the uncle agree to the child returning to parent. Sounds like a good strategy.


It was a small conference on the shady verandah of a government office in an Aboriginal community on the edge of the Nullarbor Plain in South Australia.

A small Aboriginal child had caught my attention. I judged this sturdy child to be around two years old.

As I watched, he made his way down the stairs and toddled off into the bush. My companions had just told me that in the direction the toddler disappeared into, was 1000k to the next human habitation.

I had just witnessed a little boy disappear into this unforgiving, trackless wilderness.

An hour later he still had not re-appeared. My anxiety had increased. I had to say something!

“Sorry to interrupt but that little boy has been gone for over an hour,” I blurted.

My aboriginal friend was amused at my anxiety.

“In our community”, he said “Everybody tracks the children. Our people are in and out of that scrub all the time. Everyone of them will observe the child’s tracks and watch out for him”.

Because of this shared responsibility, the child’s wanderings were always noted.

Even on the trackless Nullarbor Plain, wherever he went he was safer than on a known way because ‘everyone tracks the children’.

This was a central agreement that supported parenting in the desert. For millenniums, it was agreed that the whole community will all help with parenting. What a health-giving concept.

Parenting is never easy. It must be harder in the world of broken marriages and solo mums and solo dads.

The understanding that ‘everyone tracks the children’ would be most helpful.’ I’m all for it.