Hawaiian scholar Mary Kawena Pukui wrote extensively about child-rearing and the education of children amongst Native Hawaiians. Many of these practices and beliefs are evident in Hawai‘i today.
According to Pukui, a Hawaiian child was rarely spanked or hit. He was talked to and if he did not heed he was soundly scolded. If he was still stubborn, he might have his knee pounded. The word deaf and knee is the same, “kuli.” The gesture signified, “You are a deaf, heedless child.” Favorite children were never slapped or spanked and Pukui wrote, “I cannot recall the day when my grandmother ever slapped me no matter how naughty I was.”
Pukui stated that Hawaiians liked boys very much but were a little more partial to girls. There was a saying, “He mālama mākua ka wahine; he mālama mākua hunowai ke kāne,” (“Girls take care of parents; boys of parents-in-law”). As a general rule, a young man went to the house of his bride to live with her people.
Pukui notes that children were taught to observe: “If we wanted to know things it was up to us to use our eyes and ears and listen when we had a chance. Talking too much was squelched with the ‘Pua‘ohi!’ (‘Shhh, chatterbox!’), for children were not allowed to monopolize the conversation of grownups.”
Children were taught early not to ask rude questions, such as “Where are you going?” Such a question brought bad luck to fisherman or to anyone starting a particular activity. Pukui writes, “It was kapu to ask unnecessary questions. A small haole child seeing a man put a shrimp on a hook often asks, ‘What are you doing? Is that a shrimp? Are you jamming it on the hook? What are you doing that for? etcetera.’ If a Hawaiian child did that he would hear the word ‘Nīele!’ Nīele is a word that means too many questions are being asked which nobody particularly cares to answer… A child watched and said nothing. If there was something that he did not understand, he waited for a quiet opportunity to ask why or how that particular thing was done. When it was done again, he was given a practical lesson.”
A practical education began early in life. Whatever the old folks did, the children did too. If there was any fish scaling to do, a child sat by her mother or grandmother and learned by imitation. Children were allowed to hear anything discussed and nobody ever gave a warning look.
Kūpuna (grandparents, elders) were considered to be the best teachers of children because of their lifetime of experiences and wisdom. Having kūpuna care for a child freed parents to complete heavy manual work which was sometimes difficult for kūpuna to do as they aged but necessary for the family and community. In this arrangement, grandparents often remained with the parents until the child was old enough to wean off of a mother’s milk. After this, the grandparents took the child with them anywhere they went. The custom in Hawai‘i was that the firstborn son belonged to the father’s parents or nearest relative and the firstborn daughter to her maternal parents. Several generations of people often lived together; it was not rare to see four or five families all in one place.
In mele, children were often fondly referred to as pua (flowers) and mamo (descendants). A famous ‘ōlelo no‘eau, “He lei poina ‘ole ke keiki,” (“A child is an unforgettable lei”) was said of a beloved child. Above all, children were treasured among Hawaiians.