17 Dec 2013

Samoan grandmother breaks new ground

7:02 pm on 17 December 2013

A Samoan grandmother has become the first student to graduate with a PhD from Victoria University of Wellington's Pacific Studies programme.

Dr Esther Tumama Cowley-Malcolm's doctoral research explored Samoan parents' perceptions of and responses to aggressive behaviour in young children and the usefulness of an intervention tool.

The 60-year-old told Bridget Tunnicliffe when she registered for her PhD in 2008, she had no idea she was breaking new ground.

ESTHER TUMAMA COWLEY-MALCOLM: I think as I was doing my PhD I didn't actually realise that that would be the case but I was very happy to see I guess as a mature student that it kind of fitted being a mature student because your elders kind of lead the way.

BRIDGET TUNNICLIFFE: Tell us about your research topic, it was something quite specific.

E C-M: It was to do with childhood aggression and what it read in my citation was that unresolved childhood aggression is often a precursor to adult physical aggression. And the response of parents to early signs of aggression particularly between the ages of one and three is critical to behavioural stability in later life. So my research was an in-depth exploration and analysis of Samoan diasporate parents' perceptions and responses, including the trial of an intervention tool named 'Play Nicely' so that kind of gave parents strategies around dealing or managing their children's behaviour.

BT: The Play Nicely tool, how does it work?

E C-M: Well there are strategies within the tool that kind of guide parental responses to children's behaviour. Certainly in my study it suggested that effective intervention programmes with Samoan diasporate parents need to include these strategies because they are important for children to learn how not to resolve conflict in a violent way.

BT: Samoan parents have been perceived over the years as being quite disciplinarian and when we had the anti-smacking Bill come in a few years ago there was a fair amount of opposition from segments of the Samoan community. Do you think that attitude has changed a little among the Samoan community about how to deal with their children?

E C-M: Absolutely I think the new generation of New Zealand born have many more tools in front of them to use when applying disciplinary measures and certainly they are much more technologically literate so access to the internet, access to knowledge is far greater today than it was for our parents and grandparents. And certainly I think the stereotyping of Pacific parents as wanting to use hitting or heavy discipline for their children did not apply to these parents in this study.