This mo‘olelo is about Kamehameha, the infant son of Kekaulike, a Maui Island ruler. It is also an infant feeding lesson.

Kekaulike’s infant son was named Kamehameha and he grew up on Moloka‘i. (Please do not confuse this child with Kamehameha I, the great warrior king of Hawai‘i Island.) One day, the infant’s personal attendant on Moloka‘i had to leave for the day, so he left the royal child in the care of his own two young sons. His sons carefully prepared and cooked kalo greens to feed the royal child. Unexpectedly and unannounced, Chief Kekaulike himself arrived and was displeased to see only lū‘au and poi were being fed to his son.

The caretaker’s sons did not recognize Kekaulike. When they were asked about the food, the boys explained that this was a very precious child. And the lū‘au was tender, easy to swallow and did not have bones that could lodge in the child’s throat and harm him. Kekaulike was very pleased with this response. The little chief became known as Kamehameha nui ‘ai lū‘au (great Kamehameha, eater of kalo greens).

Assuring proper growth and health of children was important to our ancestors. We know that ali‘i valued height in their children, thus great care was taken with an ali‘i child. Children’s diets were planned carefully to assure best outcomes in growth and development. Today, science confirms that brain development is rapid in the first months of infancy. The rapid physical growth during these first weeks of life is impressive. However, few are aware of the growth rate of the brain. During this period, brain cells divide at an accelerated rate, forming large numbers of brain cells, then brain cell-division stops and brain cells grow in size. During the child’s entire growth, increases in bone structure, size of internal organs, lymph system and all body systems continue. Adequate calories, protein, minerals and vitamins are “musts” for optimum development during growth. Daily rest and exercise are essentials, as well.

Ancient Hawaiian cultural wisdom, values and eating practices are guides for us today. These values assure the right food, daily exercise, lots of sleep, as well as stimulation of thinking and responsibility. In ancient times, the new mother’s daily diet emphasized greens and herbs through the nursing period, restoring her strength and resistance to illness. For Hawaiian newborns, mother’s milk was the initial source of nutrients. Further on in development, mother’s milk was supplemented by soft cooked vegetables, appropriate for each developmental period. Later, small amounts of fish were added, assuring sources of protein, calories, calcium and vitamins required to assure good brain and physical development.

Photo: Poi Kneading
Poi has been used as a milk substitute or baby food for babies. -Photo: KWO File

In old Hawai‘i, toddlers and young children thrived, grew tall, straight and muscular by eating lots of poi and lū‘au (taro leaves). Later, sweet potato, taro, ‘ulu and other vegetables and reef fish were added.

Considering a child’s food as important as medicine was the practice of our ancestors. It is still valid for our children today. Exercise and sleep, as well as mental stimulation were daily practices. Infants and children were massaged for body alignment to assure growing straight and balanced. Little keiki (toddlers) were taught family responsibilities by kupuna and were guided by older children to live up to these family expectations. Spanking and beating of children was unheard of, as children were carefully taught behaviors expected of them. Our ancestors strictly forbade hitting, and often even touching, a child’s head. Much about infant’s and children’s diets and upbringing has changed. Adults lives have changed, too.

We can relearn and use the basic cultural practices, instead of lamenting their loss. We can also restore and practice cultural ways and preventive health measures of our kūpuna. Hawaiians have a very positive cultural heritage, particularly in child-rearing practices. That includes loving our children – not indulging but teaching them early to do things in a safe and practical manner. We should guide older siblings to keep family kuleana (responsibilities) and guide their performances with aloha, as well. Children need parental guidance and love far into their adulthood. Reward appropriate behavior and correct the inappropriate softly, with love. Losses are not losses if we give them light and life. Finally, purposefully shed ways that are without aloha.