Whether your child was adopted from Houston or Hangzhou, chances are, her ethnic heritage is not the same as yours, and may be different from that of her brothers and sisters, too. Incorporating our children’s birth cultures into our families seems pretty straightforward at first–heritage activities, like celebrating holidays, attending festivals, and making traditional foods, are things that everyone can enjoy. But as kids grow, it becomes more difficult to balance cultural activities with homework, after-school sports, and friends–not to mention accommodating siblings of different ethnicities. In our busy lives, we might wonder, is it really worth the effort?
When Shelly Stackhouse’s three children, adopted from Korea, were young, the family looked forward to an annual event at a Korean church near their Connecticut home. “My children enjoyed the food and dance demonstrations,” she recalls.
Now that they’re older, they don’t attend the event anymore, but their early exposure to the culture has made them more comfortable with their ethnicity. At 15, 13, and 10, the kids say the activity that they like the most is eating at a local Korean restaurant. “I can cook Korean food, but it means more to them to go to a restaurant staffed by Koreans,” says Stackhouse. And they take pride in having Korean items as decorations around the house, too. “They will object if something is moved from its place!”
They are all proud of their heritage, says Stackhouse, mainly because the family has treated their culture as part of everyday life. “We haven’t made a huge deal about Korea; we have simply included it in our family life, just as we eat food, celebrate holidays, and have stuff around the house that reflects my husband’s Scottish and Dutch and my German heritage. We take on each other’s cultures because we are a family,” she says.
Food, holidays, and decorations are aspects of culture that all of us incorporate into our lives. And although our efforts may, on occasion, feel forced, or even artificial, adoption experts and adult adoptees alike report that learning to be proud of one’s culture of origin at an early age pays dividends in self-esteem over a lifetime. “When adoptees grow up, we want them to be comfortable in their own skin, and have a positive feeling about their identity,” says AF‘s transracial parenting expert, Deborah Johnson, an adoptee from Korea and the director of a heritage travel company, Kindred Journeys International. And introducing children to their adoptee heritage helps them feel comfortable among their ethnic peers as adults. When our children are young, they are seen as part of a multiracial family, but after they grow up, they are viewed by the world as a member of their racial or ethnic group. Heritage activities don’t make them experts, but they do make their culture more familiar.
So how can you help your child think positively about his ethnicity throughout his life? We asked parents, adoptees, and adoption experts to share ideas for celebrating heritage at every stage.
Kids know if they’re different, so let them know it’s cool to be different.” –Deborah Johnson
After we bring our children home, we focus on their heritage of birth. Celebrating adoptee heritage is fun–we hang ethnic decorations, connect with other families who have adopted from the same country, and celebrate holidays. Some families form culture playgroups, with toddler-level language lessons and songs. At this age, children are happy to participate in introductions to the sounds and tastes of their culture of origin.
However, we shouldn’t stop at our child’s birth culture–we should also introduce the idea that we live in a multicultural world. Preschoolers notice differences, and it’s key to let them know that the way our families are formed is normal and acceptable. “Often, we try so hard to be politically correct that we don’t talk about skin color, and kids may see color as a negative thing,” says Johnson. This is the time to expose them to a variety of people and give them the language to describe the differences they see. Ask, What color is Mommy’s hair? What shape are your eyes? What about our neighbors? This lets children know that it’s acceptable to notice differences, and helps them normalize any “differentness” they might be feeling.
By exposing children to many cultures, we help them appreciate the differences in our world. Surround them with multicultural books, toys, and dolls. Watch TV shows and movies that show different cultures, and talk about them together. Kids this age also love attending a Martin Luther King, Jr., parade, a St. Patrick’s Day festival, or a Cinco de Mayo meal at a restaurant.
Alexis Itoh, of Portland, Oregon, is introducing her daughter, Ellie, to several cultures. “My daughter is of African-American and Hispanic ethnicity. We take part in family events with friends from Africa, and she goes to a daycare center with other African-American children. This will give her a sense of belonging and help her understand her origins.”
But Itoh also wants Ellie to feel at home in her family’s culture, which includes Persian and Japanese roots. “Our daughter belongs to our family’s culture, as well, so there’s no need to submerge her in African culture. Our goal is to experience a variety of cultures, to give her respect for all of society.”
Your child won’t say, I wish I were white,’ she’ll say, Let’s skip culture day, I’d rather play soccer.'” –Jane Brown
While preschoolers are proud of their differences, school-age kids hate feeling different. They may hear racist comments and teasing at school, and this can lead them to reject heritage activities. “Once children experience racism, they may begin to reject their heritage, unless they have close relationships with adults and families who look like them to counter the negative views,” says Jane Brown, MSW, founder of Adoption Playshops. “Your child won’t say, I wish I were white,’ she’ll say, Let’s skip culture day, I’d rather play soccer.'”
Though your kids may start to pull away from heritage activities, you can still expose them to activities with kids and families that share their ethnicity. And that may mean going beyond our neighborhoods to befriend people of their ethnicity. Laralee DeHart, of Shreveport, Louisiana, wanted her African-American children to know adults who looked like them, so she searched for an African-American church that would welcome families like theirs. They found one, and they are grateful to the church members who interact with their children. “We are thankful for the people at church who build relationships with our kids,” she says. “Our children are still very young, but it has become normal’ for them.”
Adoption groups can provide opportunities for our kids to be with others who look like them. Carrie Hamm, of Stillwater, Minnesota, and her family are part of Harambee Village, a group that is part of the North American Council on Adoptable Children, whose members have adopted black or biracial children. She knows the family activities there help her seven-year-old son feel that he fits in, but she sees how much her Caucasian daughter enjoys the events, as well. “Our strawberry-blonde daughter loves being with the little girls who look like her brother, and she gets to be the minority child’ for a few hours,” says Hamm.
Elementary school is an ideal time to study a language–children pick up unfamiliar words more easily than adults do. Even minimal study helps our children when they, as adults, face expectations based on their ethnicity. “We’re expected to know everything about our birth culture, even though we did not grow up in it,” says Hollee McGinnis, an adoptee, and policy and operations director for the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute.
Even benign assumptions are annoying. “People who don’t know me assume I speak Spanish,” says Marissa, age 21, an adoptee from Colombia. “Normally, when this happens, I politely correct them, or simply answer them in English. But sometimes, I find it irritating.” Marissa remembers an incident when she was at a club near her college and a fellow student–who was white–came up to her and started speaking in broken Spanish. “He assumed that I was Latina, and that I spoke Spanish. I wish people would respect my privacy,” she says.
Adoptee Kris Pak wishes she had learned Korean as a child, to help her connect with other Koreans in America and Korea. “For adoptees, knowing the language offers access to our ethnic communities like nothing else can,” she says. “I went to language classes, with little progress, as an adult. I can at least order food and ask where the bathroom is.”
Language classes also provide our kids an opportunity to be with children who look like them. Laura Manville, of Hartland, Wisconsin, says her daughter, Sara, gets more out of Chinese school than language. “Participating in a school where others look like her is key to her sense of belonging,” she says. Families who don’t have a local language school may consider sending their child to a language camp. Concordia Language Villages, for example, offers language camps for kids ages seven and up, as well as “immersion weekends” for families.
Having role models of their own ethnicity has helped our children become more self-confident, and proud of their culture and our family.” –Mary Coyle
When children reach the tween years, it’s important for them to see what they’ll look like and act like as teens. Preteens often have a hard time finding mentors in their everyday lives. “Kids don’t often have cool role models, like older cousins, who look like them and relate to their experience,” says Johnson. Role models are key to forming identity. In a survey of adult adoptees, conducted by the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, having mentors of their own race was more influential than visiting a birth country or going to a culture camp.
Johnson says that her son didn’t see many children of different ethnicities, growing up in Minnesota. So when he went to culture camp, he was thrilled to meet the counselors. “At camp, there were older guys who were surfers, and my son went gaga,” says Johnson. “Suddenly, there were these cool guys who looked like him.”
Many adult adoptee groups have mentor programs, in which preteens are matched with young adult adoptees. Look into your local Big Brother/Big Sister programs–your child probably won’t be matched with another adoptee, but he can learn a lot by spending time with an older teen.
Hosting an exchange student from another country is a good way to expose children to teens of their own ethnicity, as well as to the modern culture of their birth country. “We have hosted three exchange students from Korea, to help the kids see what they will look like as teenagers,” says Mary Coyle, of Ashburn, Virginia. “It has helped them become self-confident, and proud of their culture and of our family.”
As do younger children, preteens hate to feel different, and they thrive in places where they can hang out with other kids of their ethnicity. This is the time to expand your child’s horizons beyond the adoption community, and into the community of African Americans, Latino Americans, or Asian Americans. Julie Michaels, who lives in a primarily white community in western Massachusetts, began sending her daughter, Lily (now 17), to a one-week Chinese-American summer camp when Lily was in elementary school. Lily was one of the few adoptees and one of few campers who did not hear Chinese spoken at home. Michaels is grateful for the cultural experiences Lily has had at the camp, but she values her daughter’s time with other Asian-American peers even more. “After 10 years at camp, with the same kids, she has a gang of friends to hang out with, chat and share makeup tips with. And they happen to be Asian-American.”
Jana Wolff, of Honolulu, Hawaii, traded homes with a family in Oakland, California, for two weeks, so that her African-American son could spend time in a community with a large African-American population and attend the local YMCA day camp. “My son had a great time with his new friends, and gained an understanding that there are places in this country and in this world where people of color are in the majority,” says Wolff.
It also helps children to see faces like theirs in magazines. Check out Mei, for Chinese adoptees; Footsteps, for African-American children; and Faces, which has a multicultural focus.
The ongoing support of my family gave me the confidence I needed as a struggling adopted Filipina American.”–Lorial Crowder
Don’t take the eye-rolling at face value: Teens are sometimes more interested in learning about their culture than they let on. “Teens do have an interest, but have a hard time expressing it in a positive way,” says Johnson. “Engage them without putting on the pressure.”
Be creative about defining “culture,” and encourage your teen to explore what he’s interested in. That might mean following the stats of Colombia’s top soccer stars or downloading Indian hip-hop. This kind of cultural fluency will be especially important when they become adults and interact with other Latinos or Indian Americans.
Filipina adoptee Lorial Crowder began to connect to her birth culture as a teen, through food. “I befriended a Filipina American in high school, and she gave me my first exposure to Filipino culture. Her mother introduced me to traditional Filipino cuisine,” says Crowder. As an adult, Crowder was thrilled when her family members joined her at a Filipino restaurant. “It made me realize how supportive my family was and continues to be,” she says.
The teen years are a good time for a homeland trip, since teens are able to reflect more deeply on such an experience than a younger kid. If a heritage trip isn’t doable, our choices in family vacations can have an impact, too. “Instead of traveling to a place where you’ll mostly encounter people like yourself, go where there will be families of color,” says Brown. Plan a trip to a diverse city, and explore the ethnic neighborhoods, or head for a part of the country where there are lots of people of your child’s ethnicity.
Leslie Kizner, of Long Island, New York, and her daughter, Emily, vacationed in Emily’s city of birth, San Antonio, Texas. Emily was thrilled to be among that city’s large Hispanic population. “Being part of a majority culture, even for a few days, was a powerful experience for Emily,” says Kizner. “She talks about moving to Texas as an adult.”
Perhaps the best thing we can do is just to be there for our children, and be open to any way they choose to connect with their heritage. “My parents encouraged me to seek my own answers about my heritage,” says Crowder. “Undoubtedly, the ongoing support of my family gave me the confidence I needed as a Filipina American.” Our encouragement can help them feel proud of where they came from.