Ask AF: Encouraging a Cohesive Racial and Cultural Identity

Q: We adopted our eight-year-old son internationally as a baby. We have always tried to make sure he feels proud of his heritage and birth country. This year, his teacher told us that he has repeatedly explained to classmates that his home country is _____. When the class was writing about Thanksgiving, he asked the teacher if he could skip the assignment because people from his country do not celebrate Thanksgiving. I know I need to talk to him, but I’m not sure where to start.

A: It sounds like you’ve done a wonderful job at helping your son embrace his multi-layered racial and cultural identity! It’s a great sign that he feels comfortable enough to explore and talk about it, and include it in his everyday life.

You may have two worries. The first: That he is identifying himself only as _____, not _____-American. Know that it’s common for children whose background includes more than one race or culture to go back and forth, moving from one to the other as they develop their identities. Another concern might be that your son is using his race and story as an excuse to get out of responsibilities. When children this age use the “race card” or “adoption card” to get out of something, it’s often pretty transparent—something like, “Koreans don’t like spinach,” or “Chinese people need less sleep than Americans.” This seems different.

One option is for your son to write about a holiday from his country of origin in addition to Thanksgiving. You might consider broaching it with him this way, “Thanksgiving is a holiday that would be good for you to learn and know about, since we celebrate it in the country where you live and in our family. But, what if you also talked about a holiday in ____ for this assignment? That way, your class could learn more about you and where you came from!”

Expanding the assignment in this way feels respectful and inclusive to everyone involved. And, it could be an important part of the process in helping your son develop a cohesive identity that understands and integrates his race and both of his cultures.

—KATIE NAFTZGER, LICSW,
works with adoptive parents and adoptees through the life cycle in a private psychotherapy practice in Newton, Massachusetts, and speaks nationally about adoption, race, and parenting. In her professional work, she also draws on her personal experience as an adult transracial adoptee. Naftzger is the author of Parenting in the Eye of the Storm: The Adoptive Parent’s Guide to Navigating the Teen Years. She leads online and local groups for adoptive parents. Learn more and join her mailing list at adoptiontherapyma.com.


Copyright © 1999-2017 Adoptive Families Magazine®. All rights reserved. For personal use only. Reproduction in whole or in part without permission is prohibited.

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