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Child rearing on Darnley Island: An Islander's account

Evelyn Anson

This study is based on my own experience of child rearing on Darnley Island. The following topics will be introduced:

  1. a description of Darnley;
  2. the lifestyle of its people;
  3. the family kinship system;
  4. family roles in child rearing.
Darnley is one of the 14 inhabited islands in the Torres Strait. It is situated on the top eastern channel of the Strait and the closest contacts are the three neighbouring islands, Yorke, Murray, and Stephen. It takes two to four hours in a 12-14 foot boat with an outboard motor to reach them. There is a school on Darnley with grades one to seven. All teachers are local men and women except for the principal who is a European. The Medical Aid Post has two local untrained nurses but they receive a visit from the qualified sister, who is based at Yorke Island, every month. The council provides jobs on council projects for the people who receive the unemployment benefits, with funding from the Federal Government. The council clerk is responsible for social security and all other matters, with advice from the chairman who is the most important person.

Foods planted locally are sweet potatoes, watermelon, corn, cassava, pawpaw, yam, pumpkin, and peanuts. Other foods such as flour, rice, oil, tinned vegetables, and some meats are bought from the local store. People also fish a lot. They live in villages with houses supplied from the Department of Community Services, which are built by a qualified carpenter and local men. Travel to and from the island can be either by a boat trip or a plane.

The lifestyle on the island is peaceful, enjoyable, and flexible. People always gather together for any local happenings and tend to see each other all the time. Languages used are Torres Strait Creole and English when talking to the principal, the sister, and the carpenter. People communicate in every situation possible. For example, when walking along the street, they call out to people in each house as they pass. Children also talk to their friends but, more importantly, they ask for the baby and call out names and blow kisses to the baby and sometimes come in to the house just to kiss the baby.

The marriages that occur on the island are not based on certain groups but rather on what relationship a man is to a woman and vice versa. The overall expectations of the parents of the two people planning to get married are as follows:

  1. For the man:
    1. Does he know how to plant crops or know the right time to plant and harvest them?
    2. Is he capable of looking after their daughter?
    3. What behaviours does he have when consuming alcohol?
    4. Does he respect the community and the elders?
  2. For the woman:
    1. When accompanying her husband to plant crops, can she clear the weeds for a certain length of time?
    2. Can she cook, wash, and do housework from the early hours to the late afternoon?
    3. Is she ready to settle down yet?
    4. Does she respect the community and the elders?
For both people once they are married, they are not allowed to call each others' relations by their first names, even each others' parents.

Relationship terms are:

Man Ata/woman Ata

Napa (for both sexes)

Mama, Mum, Ama/Dada, Dad, Papa

Father's Sister

Mother's Sister

Father's Brother

Mother's Brother
Ama, Uncle

Sister's Brother

Ba-Ba, Be-Be

The uncle, who is the mother's blood brother, plays an important role in the marriages. He confronts the parents and also gives the woman away to her husband.

Within the family the husband's role is making the decision - what will happen the next day; what will be each member's chores after they come home from their job and finish school. These are usually told to the family at the tea table.

The father plays a very small part in a young child's life. He can hold the baby for a certain length of time but, once the baby wets or dirties his/her pants, he hands the baby to the mother or a sister to be changed. The father is always said to be the busiest person and seems to be on the move all the time. Once a boy is eight years old he accompanies his father and uncle everywhere. Some of the things they teach him are:

  1. how to plant and dig holes to plant crops;
  2. what leaves are needed to plant crops;
  3. how to cut wood;
  4. when is the right time to go and hunt for turtles;
  5. how to travel in the boat when there's no moon at night;
  6. what to do when stranded in the boat; and
  7. which place to go fishing or diving for clam and trochus shells, etc.
Sex-related behaviour can be seen very clearly in the role of siblings because boys are said to have more strength than the girls. Hence, the boys' tasks include fishing, cutting the wood, and helping dad with odd jobs. They are allowed the freedom to visit either the mother's sister or father's sister, whichever they feel comfortable with. The girls help the mother with the cooking, washing, collecting wood, raking the yard, and minding the baby. They also go wherever the mother goes and are not allowed to go wandering off on their own to another village unless accompanied by the mother or brothers.

The extended families play an important role in child raising. Mother's sister looks after the child if the whole family needs to plant and clear a garden but the father's sister always cares for the baby and other siblings when mother goes away to Thursday Island to give birth to another child. Both the mother's sister and father's sister visit regularly and have a say in the upbringing of the children. Sometimes they tell the parent of any misbehaviour of the children if they think that any of the children has done something which might cause scandal to the family in the community.

The Grandparents - Mother's mother and father and fathers' mother and father - also care for the siblings and the baby during the day but, only for short times when mother goes shopping. If the children want something or do something wrong and are punished by the parents in the presence of the grandparents, it always causes an argument between the father and his mother and father or the mother and her mother and father. The grandparents visit the house regularly and have a say in the upbringing of the children. Their teachings always concern all the family. Some of their teachings are as follows:

  1. Be certain to bath and feed the child at the same time each day.
  2. Mother with child must take a bath too so the baby, after the bath and feed, will not cry during their sleep period.
  3. The baby must be dry at all times.
  4. Don't let a small child hold the baby for protection against sickness. A small child may hold the baby while mother is present. However, if she is deep in conversation and suddenly hears the baby scream, she will not know what is happening. When the small child is questioned to determine what caused the baby to cry, the little child might not tell the full details.
  5. Always discipline children while they are young, otherwise it will be too late when they are older.
The mother's role is the most important one in the child-raising. The mother does such jobs as caring for the whole family, cooking, and washing, but she has only a little say in the decision-making. She sometimes works with the child held against her. If the child is upset, the baby will only settle down when being held by the mother. She also cares for all who are sick in the family and when she complains about her own sickness, no one seems to show any sign of worry. To them, mother can do everything and knows everything, and so she should not be sick. When she is, it usually goes unnoticed by all the others in the house.

Some of the teachings that are taught to the girls are:

  1. how to cook all food;
  2. how to harvest all crops;
  3. how to plant some crop because it is said that sometimes the father's hand may not be suitable to plant them. {The result is shown when a banana tree doesn't have a large bunch of bananas or none at all. They'll know after a certain number of planting has taken place.);
  4. how to keep the yard clean;
  5. how to collect shells from the reef;
  6. how to make island crafts (e.g. basket, hat, fan, etc);
  7. to be sure she has clothes on all the time. (Less care is given to a boy concerning this matter of clothes).
Another issue relating to child rearing is Island adoption. This is still common today on all the islands in the Torres Strait. Island adoption is a term used for a child that has been given away. If it is the child of a married woman, the baby is given to the mother's mother and father, the mother's sister and brother, the father's mother and father, or the father's sister and brother. If it is the child of a young unmarried girl, the child is given to her sister or brother if they are married. The child can also be given to her mother and father, aunt and uncle (her mother's brother and wife) and daughter's father and ama (her father's brother and wife). The child is kept by the young mother only if the father of the child will marry her. There are many reasons for the child of a married woman to be given to the specified people. They are as follows:
  1. The child can be the first born of the mother before she got married so the baby is given to the mother's mother and father but seldom to the father's mother and father.
  2. The child can be given to the mother's sister or brother and the father's sister or brother to start off their family if they still haven't got children of their own.
  3. The child can be given to the mother's sister or brother and the father's sister or brother if their family consists of girls only or boys only.
These reasons can apply to the unmarried girl's child but, on most occasions, her child is kept and becomes part of the family so the girl is no longer the mother but becomes the child's sister.

Naming the child commences as soon as it is known that the mother is pregnant. During that time, the mother and father start thinking up names to be given to the baby. The mother's sister might say, "If a girl, call her after me", and the mother's brother will say, "If a boy, call him after me". The same applies for the father's sister and brother but they will tell the father. Before the baby is born, all the names are already lined up, even names of dead relatives. It will all change, if, during the birth, a sick relation (mother's sister and brother and father's sister and brother) dies. Then all the names lined up will be disregarded and the baby will be called after the dead person. All the people who asked for their names to be added to the list will understand and show appreciation for the chosen name although they make remarks, when talking to the baby, such as, "You should have been called ... (their name added in a very soft voice)". This can go on until the child is grown up and each time the tone of voice is changed but it always ends with laughter after the remark is repeated.

During pregnancy, the mother starts talking to the baby (e.g. stop kicking; go to sleep; wait until you come out). The elders start telling the expectant mother what to eat and what not to eat, what chores are suitable and unsuitable for them to do around the house. The baby is considered very important from the very early stage. Even today, the other siblings ask their mother, .'What will it be, brother or sister?" The boys always wish for boys and girls always wish for girls. After the baby is brought home, it is admired by all and great care is taken during the stage from birth to six months. The people allowed to hold the baby during this stage are mother, mother's sister, and father's sister and older daughter. Men are afraid to hold a young baby. Six months to one year is the stage when the baby is handled by all except the very small children. Funny names are given and a certain whistle from a certain relation is passed on to the child. As soon as the baby hears a familiar whistle, he/she gets so excited to see the familiar face the baby starts to push the person who is holding him/her. From one to two years, they are attached to the mother and everyone is considered strangers except for the immediate family. The baby keeps a close watch focused on mother. Her every move is watched and, as soon as she moves away, the baby cries. The baby also recognises the father but still the important person is the mother. Once the child turns three years, he/she joins the peer group but still seeks mother's attention. If the child wants something he/she saw the others with, the child will demand it from the mother, mother's sister, or father's sister. The child can only play with the peer group if they are in short distance to their yard or in the yard. The mother is worried because, once the child turns four or five years, they can go to another friends' house and play there for as long as they like. Young boys also play with older boys, learning to make spears and go out to the reef to look for fish. The young girl needs to play with other girls near where the mother can see her. Their behaviour begins to show differences because, during this stage, many things are taught to them by the father and mother, the father's brother and sister, and the mother's brother and sister. The boy, at this stage, is sent on errands to a village where the mother's mother and father live but the girl is not allowed to go unless accompanied by her mother or brother. Both are still called 'baby', although they are given responsibilities during the day. However at night, they display different behaviours especially towards the mother. Children begin to learn things at a very early age, and, throughout the child's life, they are repeated by the mother, father, and grandparents.

I hope this study is interesting and will help others see how children are reared in the Torres Strait. Some of the child raising practices mentioned here are changing with new circumstances. (For example, my brother has been looked upon by his children as being the most important figure in the house).

Please cite as: Anson, E. (1988). Child rearing on Darnley Island: An Islander's account. Queensland Researcher, 4(2), 67-74. http://www.iier.org.au/qjer/qr4/anson.html

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Created 9 Mar 2008. Last revision: 9 Mar 2008.
URL: http://www.iier.org.au/qjer/qr4/anson.html