The man stared at the family as they slid into the booth at the pancake house. “Why is that man looking at us?” one of the children asked her mother. The mother knew. She’d seen that look before, as she carted her kids through the store or walked them to their classrooms on the first day of school. It was the look of someone surprised to see an interracial family.
“Why do you think he’s looking at us?” the mother asked.
“Because we’re different,” the daughter said.
“I guess he doesn’t get out much,” the mother replied with a smile, letting her daughter know whose problem it was.
For children, every aspect of their lives that differs from what society considers “the norm” requires some sifting through, such as being adopted or being non-white in a society where whites are the majority.
Anything that causes classmates to ask your child, “Are those your parents?” — being of a different race than their parents; being raised by grandparents, by gay or lesbian parents, or by a single parent; or staying involved with birth parents through an open adoption — can become sore spots which children must deal with themselves.
But here’s the good news. While a parent’s differences may evoke some questions on the playground, they can also be the base of a powerful bond. If we, as parents, can recognize and embrace the ways we are outside the norm, we can use that experience to help our children develop empathy and compassion for others.
By instilling in our kids the feeling that our “abnormal” family is perfectly natural, healthy, and joyful, we can help them understand from a young age that what makes something the “norm” doesn’t necessarily make it the “best”; it just means it’s the most common.
Around age seven, children start to notice and understand differences. Children quickly realize that the majority of their peers are being raised within biological families, and may wonder what it means to be among the few who are not.
The teasing that children of this age group engage in, sometimes to the point of cruelty, is their way of finding out which differences matter. Freckles? Glasses? Gay parents? If the teasing elicits a reaction from the object of the ridicule, children understand: This is a difference that matters.
In discerning these differences and noting what “matters,” children start identifying the deeply held assumptions of their culture. They may not yet understand the full consequences of narrow thinking, but a child of this age can begin to recognize that sometimes, people are treated differently because of their race, their income, their intelligence, or their family’s makeup.
Levels of culture
Edgar Schein provides a useful framework for understanding culture. In his book, Organizational Culture and Leadership, Schein writes that culture is visible at three different levels.
Artifacts are the most obvious expressions of culture — clothing styles, language, rituals and ceremonies, and other such observable phenomenon. Underlying these are espoused beliefs and values. These are the norms and rules that guide and predict behavior within a group. The deepest level of culture is that of basic assumptions. These are the beliefs, thoughts, perceptions, and feelings that the group has come to think of as objective measures. They reflect a society’s ideas about the most fundamental aspects of life: its concepts of time and space, the “proper” roles for men and women, and what “family” looks like.
These assumptions are often held at an unconscious level. Any challenge to them is a threat to the belief system upon which a society has come to depend, a loss of predictability, and, perhaps most important, an affront to established meanings of the fundamental aspects of life.
Sometimes, behaviors that are — in theory — embraced by a culture don’t match up with these basic assumptions. This happens when a society articulates what its members want to believe or think they should believe, but do not believe at the deepest level. For example, the idea that women are capable of working and have the right to earn a living is an espoused tenet of our society. Yet, the fact that women’s wages are still, on average, lower than men’s is indicative of a more deeply held assumption. These cracks in the culture show us where there are tensions — and where there is hope for change. It is from these fissures that new ways of being or thinking can emerge. Sometimes these new ways of thinking become full-blown efforts to change underlying assumptions, as did the civil rights movement.
Beliefs about family
Schein’s model shows how American culture views adoption. When adoptive families notice strangers’ assumptions that children must be born into their families, when they have difficulty finding birth announcements appropriate for their families, or when they find themselves adapting or creating rituals suited to their families, they are noticing that the artifacts of our culture tacitly favor biological families. We don’t have to read Schein’s book to know that this absence reflects beliefs about “the nature of family” that are held at the deepest levels of our culture.
The support for adoption that’s expressed at the level of espoused values and beliefs often reflects what people think they should believe and say, not their deepest beliefs about what makes a family. The same is true of political statements that support civil unions for gay and lesbian couples but stop short of supporting same-sex marriage.
When children begin to process “differences,” the ones that pose the most difficulty are the ones for which what is expressed and what is believed don’t match up. How can a child make sense out of something that the culture has not yet figured out?
Adoptive parents know intuitively that if they can change those deeply held assumptions, their children would have an easier time of it. We chip away at the assumptions by calling attention to the lack of artifacts that relate to our families, but it is a slow process. We are often successful at persuading people that they should be more accepting of differences, without actually raising their level of tolerance. Meanwhile, when we express outrage in the face of prejudice, we may create an atmosphere in which it is so unsafe to acknowledge one’s own prejudices that they are never admitted or explored.
What to do
There are no shortcuts for someone who is trying to make his place in a culture that is threatened by the differences he brings to it. We have to understand that the process by which we created our families threatens some basic assumptions about the nature of family in ways that are deeply troubling to some people in our society.
And we should remember that each of us has a point at which our own assumptions would be threatened. Acknowledging this is the first step toward having compassion for those who don’t understand us and our families, those who make this world confusing for our children.
We need to remember the anger and confusion we may have felt when we considered adoption. We need to bring compassion into discussions with those whose beliefs are less tolerant than our own, so that real change can take place. When someone asks, “Are those your children?,” consider whether your response invites that person to reflect on her deeply held assumptions. As tempting as it is to reel off a snappy comeback, that is likely to keep people on the defensive. On the other hand, replying with, “Why do you ask?” can be a non-threatening way to start a constructive dialogue — even an internal dialogue.
We need to talk with our children about the fact that our families or lifestyles are outside the norm, but still natural and joyful. We need to create a safe place for our children to explore their confusion and hurt in a world that is often not as good or compassionate as we want it to be and believe it is. And if we can do that without being cynical, we have demonstrated for our children an extraordinary way of being in this world.