Strategies for Parenting a Racially Different Child
Your challenge will be to demonstrate to your child that you cherish her differences because they are part of what makes her a special individual. Short or tall, fair or dark skinned, curly or straight haired, a child's physical appearance should be taken for granted; never say anything that disparages characteristics that cannot be changed.
Stress how your child is similar to you and the rest of the family. Come up with two or three similarities for every difference that you comment on, so your child can feel firmly connected to her place in your family. For example, you might say, “Your hair and eyes are darker than mine, but we both love strawberry shortcake and you and Dad like to watch the Discovery Channel together.” These kinds of statements emphasize your similarities and your bond as a family unit.
Your child makes your family different; be ready to deal with the reactions of people who are uncomfortable with or even afraid of differences. If you and your family obviously enjoy not only your own blended culture, but others as well, you will provide a positive example to your extended family and community.
Although most people in the adoption world believe it is more crucial to find homes for children that need them than to limit adoptions within races, there are some impediments. The Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) mandates that every attempt be made to place a Native American child into a Native American home. Groups such as the National Association of Black Social Workers (NABSW) have taken a public stand that adoption be along racial lines, “unless no other situation is possible.”
By demonstrating that you are interested in the cultural heritage of your child, you are accepting everything about her. You are also validating her lineage and her physical realities. Doing so may not be easy, but it will be worthwhile.
Try to find an adult who comes from the same culture as your child. For example, if your daughter is Black, enlist the help of Black friends as mentors. Your child needs to see other faces and body types similar to hers, especially as she becomes an adolescent. There are many ways to help your child connect to her cultural or ethnic heritage. You could:
Celebrate Chinese New Year (or other cultural holidays) each year with traditional foods.
Buy books about your child's country of origin and read them to her.
Attend an ethnic festival together, such as Cinco de Mayo or Kwanzaa.
Plan a family vacation to your child's country of origin.
Some families make an effort to incorporate celebrations and traditions from many countries, ethnicities, and races into their family, so that they can all feel truly connected to people all over the world.
Some adoptive parents worry that separating their children's specific heritage interferes with family solidarity and bonding, but talking about differences can be helpful. Adoptive father Sam said that his son, Brett, was two when adopted. With his dark skin and straight black hair, he was obviously not born to fair-haired Sam and his wife. Sometimes, Brett would put his hand on top of Sam's and say, “You and I are different colors.” Sam would answer, “Yes, we are. Your Indian birth mom gave you that great tan.” Then they'd go on with what they'd been doing. Sam says that he never notices Brett's physical differences and loves all his children equally.
Your heritage will be important and become part of your child's own heritage. Your child will grow up eating your family's foods and celebrating your holidays. These things will belong to her just as they belong to you. With a little encouragement and enthusiasm, you can let your child know that she is a very real part of your cultural line, while still helping her feel a part of her birth family's heritage.
Most experts, as well as many adoptive parents of grown children, caution against overemphasizing your child's racial heritage over your family's culture. You should trust your instincts and knowledge of your own child as you raise her to be the best person she can be. Don't go overboard — take your clues from your child, especially as she approaches adolescence. In the words of one twelve-year-old Hispanic girl, “Why does every meal have to be about something? Let's just be normal!”
Every race and culture has unique and special things to offer. Talk about George Washington Carver, Chief Joseph, Martin Luther King Jr., Cesar Chavez, and others so they become personal heroes and not just figures in a history book. Try to make sure your children have friends that are of the same race as well as other races.
Adolescents can be very sensitive about being made to feel different. Some children will express curiosity about their birth families at this time and others will prefer to settle into their school and social lives. They may even become hostile if you bring up their culture outside your family, and you may have to back off. There are many resources available to you for learning and teaching about a specific heritage. An annotated list is included in Appendix A.
Experienced adoption professionals and adult adoptees advise you to really get to know your child, to observe her and figure out how she's different from and similar to you in personality, and not make assumptions based on her heritage. They suggest you consider such things as her taste in food and music, whether she has a relaxed or intense personality, her body type, etc. As you notice differences, you should acknowledge them in a loving, validating way, just as you would notice and cherish differences between you and your biological children. Your children, adopted or biological, are totally different people from each other and from you. Be careful not to overemphasize distinctions, or your child may feel odd and disconnected.