The formal Hawaiian term for grandmother is kuku wahine, but tutu is used most commonly for grandparents of both genders. Although the conventional wisdom is that there is no “t” in the Hawaiian language, in actuality the “t” and the “k” are somewhat interchangeable.
Kapuna is a term sometimes used for grandparents, but it more accurately translates to “elder” and is most often used for one upholding and teaching traditional Hawaiian culture. Kapuna wahine is another term for grandmother, however, and it is sometimes shortened to puna and used as a nickname.
Learn about Hawaiian names for grandfather.
Hawaiian Family Culture
Although Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders only represent about one-tenth of the current population, their culture is still what comes to mind when Hawaiian culture is mentioned. Although many traditional practices have been abandoned, it can be argued that the basic beliefs of Hawaiian culture still have a strong influence all over the islands.
In traditional Hawaiian culture, grandparents and other members of the extended family are important, as are “intentional relatives” — those who have been invited into the family circle. This family circle is known as ohana. This extended family is responsible for child care and for teaching the young.
Another important concept in Hawaiian tradition is hanai. This is the custom of allowing a child to be raised by someone other than the biological parents, sometimes the grandparents. At other times a baby might be given to a childless person. Sometimes a child would be given away because the parents were not in a position to raise it. In all cases, the child was seen as a gift, not as a burden to be assumed. Hanai children retained ties with the biological parents. Traditionally, there was no stigma attached to the status of hanai children.
In old Hawaii, the first male child was given to the paternal grandparents and the first female child to the maternal grandparents. The grandparents could decide to let the parents raise them, but those first offspring belonged to them.
Traditionally, family harmony was aided by the practice of ho’oponopono, which can be loosely translated as forgiveness. It was believed that disharmony could result in physical illness, so it was especially important that any family disputes be resolved. In the time-honored method, the most senior member of the family, usually a grandparent, would call the family together to resolve conflicts. Family members were expected to participate in the process with a willing heart and not cling to their own particular points of view. If a solution could not be devised, a respected outsider, usually an elder, could be called in to assist. In the modern era, this process is sometimes used as a form of dispute resolution or mediation.
When the Census Bureau tallies grandparents who live in households with grandchildren, Hawaii consistently tops the list, When asked whether they are the primary caregivers for those grandchildren, Hawaiian grandparents drop considerably in rank. So while there are many multigenerational households in Hawaii, responsibility for children is still shared by many rather than falling primarily to the grandparents.
Clashes With Modern Culture
Conflict sometimes arises in social welfare settings due to a clash between Hawaiian traditions and Western practices. For example, the transfer of hanai children is traditionally done orally, without paperwork. Modern practice is for the adoption of children to be formalized and legalized. When families are resistant to filing the proper paperwork, confusion about who is responsible for children can arise.
Another issue is schools that do not teach the Hawaiian language or support the culture of the indigenous people. This conflict is being overcome in some areas with immersion schools that do not introduce English until around the fifth grade. These schools also emphasize the outdoors and traditional customs. Standardized testiing can be a problem, however, as tests are invariably written in English.
In a related issue, Hawaiians may be resistant to formal early education programs, feeling that this is a time for family members to teach children. Specifically, they may prefer for young children to spend time with their grandparents.