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Bringing Heritage Home

Your child's cultural pride will be rooted in the way you acknowledge his heritage on a daily basis. Here's how to blend your child's background into your everyday family life.

by Lisa Milbrand

Whether your child hails from Rhode Island or Russia, or is of Asian or African-American or Latin-American descent, odds are, his heritage is different from yours. You know that your child needs to understand where he comes from to build a strong sense of self, but it's often hard to figure out exactly how to do this -- and how to walk that line between "too much" and "not enough." While culture camps and heritage tours can help kids feel proud of their history, these activities are the proverbial icing on the cake; your child will build pride in his heritage based on his family's everyday attitude toward it. How do you mix your child's background into your family's life? Here's how to get started:

Make connections with other adoptees.Whether through a culture camp, a playgroup, or a dance class, it helps to bring your child together with other kids who share his life experiences. "It doesn't matter what the activity is -- they could be knitting together," says Deborah Johnson, a social worker and director of Kindred Journeys International, a heritage tour company, and a Korean adoptee. "It helps them to see kids who have the same questions they do, and whose families look like theirs." For many children adopted transracially or transculturally, finding a place to "fit in" is hard, but regular meetings with others like them will help. [Find a listing of camps, tours, and other heritage events at adoptivefamilies.com/calendar.]

Make cultural activities a normal part of life.Cultural activities shouldn't be reserved for holidays or special events. "It may feel forced at first, but you need to make culture a part of the fabric of your daily life," says Johnson. There are many ways to do this -- put ethnic dishes on your weekly menu, display artwork or crafts that you purchased or photos you took on your adoption trip, watch movies and TV shows that include characters who share your child's background, or have your child play with dolls and toys that reflect her heritage.

Most children go through a phase when they want to deny their heritage -- they want no reminders that they're "different." Often, this phase comes during the late elementary-school years, when teasing and cliques begin, and "being like everyone else" is the key to popularity. Continue to make your child's heritage an active aspect of her life by saying it is a "family" thing -- "Our family always goes to culture camp," or "Our family always eats at Ethiopian restaurants on special occasions." But don't force it. "I think you have to be in tune with your kid on the too-much or not-enough issue," says Pam Sweetser, director of Colorado Heritage Camps. "My daughter doesn't want to go to Korea, but she likes her Korean friends from the camp. If I had forced her to do more, she would have rebelled against her culture."

Explore the current culture. "Many families focus on dressing up and eating traditional foods," Johnson says. "Don't fall into the trap of just talking about what life was like there -- talk about what's going on in the culture now, or the American version of the culture." Find ways to connect the culture to your kid's personal passions. "Take what your child is interested in -- music, movies, fashion, food -- and use that to introduce the culture," Johnson says. "If he loves movies, show him Bollywood movies, or take him to an African-American film festival. Take an artistic kid to a gallery that's exhibiting a contemporary artist who shares her heritage." And remember: Your child won't be living in Africa or Asia, so he needs to understand what it means to be African-American or Asian-American.

Blend a family culture. While cultural education is valuable, sometimes parents can be too passionate about connecting their child to his or her heritage. If your child's schedule is filled with cultural activities and classes, you may need to add a little variety to the mix. "Some people go too far, and it starts to displace everything else," Johnson says. "It's important, but you need to customize it to your child's needs and interests."

Along with teaching your child about his own background, you should celebrate the customs from his birth culture alongside the traditions you cherish from your own heritage. "Just as we have integrated African-American culture into our lives, we have also expected our children to embrace the parts of our cultures that we hold dear," says domestic adoptive mom Gaby Johnson, who writes the "Familia Means Family" blog on adoptivefamiliescircle.com. "For example, my children speak both English and Spanish, because their mother is Hispanic, and they attend a mostly white church, because their father is the pastor." By teaching children to respect and value different cultures in the world, you can help your children -- and yourselves -- to become more compassionate world citizens.

Lisa Milbrand is a freelance editor and writer. She is the adoptive mother of two, and lives with her family in New Jersey.

Photo: Kiya (3, Ethiopia) sees her shade reflected in her many dolls.

 

MULTICULTURAL READS

Storybooks are wonderful ways to connect young kids with another culture. Here are some of our favorites.

AFRICAN-AMERICAN

  • Brown Like Me, by Noelle Lamperti (Dingman/McKay). Noelle, an African-American adoptee raised by a white family, identifies the color brown in everything around her.

  • Bippity Bop Barbershop, by Natasha Anastasia Tarpley (Little, Brown). The story of a black boy's first haircut.

  • I Love My Hair! by Natasha Anastasia Tarpley (Little, Brown). A tender tribute to African hair, and the bond formed between mother and daughter through the rituals of combing, parting, oiling, and braiding.

  • Faraway Home, by Jane Kurtz (Harcourt). When Desta's father decides it's time to go back to Ethiopia to care for his ailing mother, she learns how different his life was from her comfortable life in America.

  • The Perfect Orange, by Frank P. Araujo (Rayve Productions). A beautifully illustrated Ethiopian folktale that gently reinforces the value of generosity.

ASIAN

  • Orange Peel's Pocket, by Rose Lewis (Abrams Books for Young Readers). This story about being born in one place and blooming in another will connect children adopted from China to their birth country's special qualities, and to their own.

  • Thanking the Moon, by Grace Lin (Knopf). A Chinese-American family celebrates the mid-autumn moon festival with a nighttime picnic.

  • Happy, Happy Chinese New Year! by Demi (Crown). Gorgeous illustrations accompany an explanation of Chinese New Year rituals.

  • Mama's Saris, by Pooja Makhijani (Little, Brown). On her seventh birthday, a little girl gets to dress up in a sari, just like her mama.

  • Bee-bim Bop!, by Linda Sue Park (Sandpiper). A Korean girl helps her mother shop for and prepare a delicious dinner.

LATINO

  • Marina's Muumuu/El Muumuu del Marina, by Evangelina Vigil-Pinon (Arte Publico Press). A bilingual story about Marina, who lives with her Mexican grandfather and Hawaiian grandmother.

  • Rain Player, by David Wisniewski (Clarion). A story that combines Mayan history and legend. Abuela's Weave, by Omar Castañeda (Lee & Low Books). In this Guatemalan tale, Esperanza's grandmother teaches her to weave rich tapestries.

  • Biblioburro, by Jeanette Winter (Beach Lane Books). Luis, a Colombian schoolteacher who loves to read, decides to share his massive collection of books with children in faraway villages.

EASTERN-EUROPEAN

  • The Littlest Matryoshka, by Corinne Demas Bliss (Hyperion). A set of six nesting dolls makes its way from Russia to America.

  • Babushka's Doll, by Patricia Polacco (Aladdin) The story of a special doll that comes to life and a little girl's desire to control its wild behavior.

  • The Tale of the Firebird, by Gennady Spirin (Philomel). The Tsar's youngest son goes on a quest to find the magical firebird.

 


HOW WE DID IT

Raising a child of a different race requires conscious parenting. Three families share the practical steps they took to meet some of the challenges head on:

 


Connect with other Transracial Families on AdoptiveFamiliesCircle

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