Ask the Transracial Parenting Expert: Findings Role Models
by Deborah Johnson
Q: "We’ve been told we should diversify our family’s friends, now that we’re parenting a 10-year-old son from Ethiopia. How do we begin?"
A: Broadening your circle of friends can be a daunting task, but it is important if you’re parenting a child of a different race (or even if you’re not). Cross-cultural friendships will reassure your son, perhaps more so than anything you could say to him, that he belongs both in your family and in a larger African community. The "how to" will be challenging. As adults, most of us are not actively seeking new friends—let alone stepping outside of our community to do so.
It may be difficult to find a community of Ethiopian adults in your city. This is OK. What’s important is for your son to see you forming and enjoying relationships that cross racial and cultural barriers. Your example will give him permission to explore his ethnicity, and will encourage him to befriend a diverse group, as well. So, how do you get started?
Meeting multicultural families
Begin by exploring activities that reflect your family’s interests, rather than by searching for an organization based on racial or cultural similarities. This will ensure that you’ll have something to talk about, and the basis for a genuine friendship, from the start. But, instead of looking within your neighborhood, find a group in a different area of town, or a nearby city, where the population may be more diverse. For example, do you regularly work out at a health club? Visit some fitness centers in an area with a greater mix of families and cultures.
One of the YWCAs in my town holds a monthly swimming event for multiracial families. It is a social event that, depending on the time of year, may include a picnic or an art activity. When I took my then five-year-old biracial son to his first event, he liked the fact that all the kids there were brown, like him.
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One of my clients enrolled her son in a cub scout troop that is affiliated with an African-American church. All of the troop leaders are fathers from that congregation. It has been a wonderful mentoring experience for her son, particularly since she is a single mother. These "Dads" have played a critical role in the boy’s life. Volunteering your time with such organizations will provide you and your child with some great new friends.
You may be able to find a mentoring program designed specifically for multicultural youth—it’s becoming common for adoption agencies, community centers, and colleges to offer such programs. Even programs that are not adoption- or country-specific can make a positive difference for your son. If you find a mentoring program close by, however, this should not preclude you from finding a diverse group of friends for yourself!
Forming firm friendships
As you explore these events or join a new group, remember that this is just the beginning. The next step is to work at building relationships. Don’t assume that, because you want to befriend someone, he or she wants to hang out with you and your son.
Years ago, a movie called The Tic Code featured a young character with Tourette syndrome. His well-meaning mother dates a man who also has the disorder. She pursues him with the idea that he will be her son’s role model—but the man is in denial about his diagnosis and is offended by her motivation. Do not pursue a "token" friend to turn into a mentor for your son.
Cultivate relationships that will be mutually beneficial and that are based on more than cultural curiosity. And, even with the best of intentions, prepare yourself to occasionally be made to feel like an outsider. Consider your pursuit an empathy exercise. Your goal is to help your son to feel more at home in his own skin, but this may require you, at times, to feel less comfortable in yours.
Deborah Johnson is an adoptee from South Korea and a Minneapolis-based social worker with 25 years of experience working with adoptive families.
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