How Do I Connect With My Adopted Child’s Culture?

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Transracial adoptions are the wave of the future! Transracial adoption occurs when adoptive parents of one culture adopt and raise a child from another culture. These types of adoptions used to be rare but now are more commonplace. It takes tremendous courage, sacrifice, and humility in order to do this because, in most cases, these adoptive parents are entering foreign territory. As these parents enter unknown lands they need to be flexible, teachable, and open to suggestions. This article endeavors to explore the territory of learning about your adopted child’s culture and keeping him connected to it.

But before we jump into it some questions must be asked: Why adopt across racial or cultural lines in the first place? Isn’t it better for a child to be adopted and raised by his own culture? The short answer is, “Yes!” Child welfare workers believe that when a child needs to be moved from one home to another that child should be moved to the “least restrictive environment.” Meaning, “How can we make the move with the least amount of trauma to the child?” Keeping a child in his own family, for example, through adoption by relatives would be the least restrictive environment because it is the same culture, same race, and possibly the same geographical location. But when there is no relative willing or able to do so, other plans must be made. And so, ideally, it would be best to preserve the adopted child’s culture. But sometimes it is not always possible to do so because there are not enough African American and Native American adoptive parents to go around. In an ideal world, blacks ought to adopt blacks and Native Americans ought to adopt Native Americans and so forth. However, we live in a less than ideal world. The fact is transracial adoptions are necessary in order to preserve permanency for adoptable children.

Why it is important to stay connected

There used to be the feeling, years ago, “If we don’t talk about it, the topic won’t come up.” But race and culture are the elephants in the room. If an adoptive family is in public and a black child calls his white mom, “Mom,” don’t most people do a double take? It’s only natural. If a child is adopted into a family of another culture, sooner or later, he begins to wonder, “Why don’t I look like my mom and dad?” It is up to the adoptive parents to give his/her adoption story often. Tied into that story is the story of the adopted child’s culture. Not in arrogance, “See what we rescued you from?” but, rather, “Here is your culture; here is what your birth family was raised in.” Why even cover this area? Why keep a child connected to his culture?

For the child. You owe it to your child to keep her connected to her culture. Imagine adopting a Hispanic child, but never telling her that her birth parents were Spanish. Or the Native American child whose culture was ignored. Or the African American child who was never taught about the great contributions of African American men and women throughout American history? Wouldn’t they feel as if a part of who they are was ignored? Wouldn’t she feel that a part of her was missing?

When we adopt a child from another culture, we adopt them, their family history, and their culture. When you adopted that child, they received your name, legal rights to your family, and financial and emotional support. That’s easy. What’s not so easy is keeping them connected to their culture. Celebrating the original culture of your adopted child is like finding the missing piece of a puzzle.

For the culture at large. Did you know that one of the main concerns of the Navajo community is the loss of the Navajo language? Or that one of the main concerns in the African American community is the state of public education? Or the main concerns for the Asian community are learning about ancestors and respecting elders, and the centrality of the family. These things are good to know, especially if you plan to adopt across cultural lines. We were all raised with a set of core beliefs and values. Each culture has different core beliefs and values. It’s important to pass that along to your child.

For the family. When you adopt a child from another culture that child does not automatically become a part of your culture nor do you become a part of your adopted child’s culture. You now have the best of both worlds! You are now a transracial family! It will greatly enhance your family to blend the two cultures. This doesn’t mean compromising your core values but, rather, seeing another culture from a different perspective.

International adoptions

International adoptions weren’t always as popular as they are today. Prior to 1950, most adoptions took place primarily within the U.S. only domestically but that changed after World War II. The wealth created after World War II afforded Americans the opportunity to adopt in places where Americans would never have thought of before. The Korean War, the Vietnam War, and the Cambodian crisis created thousands of orphans in Southeast Asia. Because of the increase in wealth, transportation and communications, Americans were now able to be aware of and to adopt these children. And thus began the trend of international adoption in the 1960s through the 1980s! International adoption agencies were created in order to stem the tide of Asian orphans across the world. Transracial adoptions were no longer a thing of the past.

Then, in 1989, something unthinkable happened. Communism fell! Once Communism fell in the 1990s, Americans started adopting children from the former Soviet Union from countries like Poland, Romania, and Ukraine. Other nations such as Haiti, Mexico, Kenya, and Nigeria also became adoption-friendly to the United States. China and Russia used to be adoption-friendly nations to the U.S., but in recent years, the number of adoptions from those countries has greatly declined.

So, how do you keep your child connected to his culture if he was born overseas? That would be a bit tricky. Difficult, but not impossible. Here’s how.

Research your child’s country of origin. Are you old enough to remember encyclopedias? They were huge books sometimes 25-50 volumes in length. These encyclopedias contained information about nearly everything under the sun including every nation in existence! The problem with encyclopedias was that they took up too much room, and the information they had quickly become outdated.

But in today’s internet age, encyclopedias are no longer needed. We have the web! There is no excuse for not being educated. What with websites, podcasts, radio programs, and good ole’ books, there is a plethora of information out there for an adoptive family to have!

Research to your heart’s content! Research information about your child’s country of origin. Such as history, religion, dress, food, language, philosophy, political structure, geography, etc. Watch YouTube or Vimeo travel videos from videographers who put you in the middle of that country in real time! It will give you a taste of what it feels like to be in that country. It is like taking a virtual tour!

Ask your adoption agency. The agency that helped you to adopt overseas should have information about your child’s country of origin. And if they don’t then they should be able to point you in the right direction.

Other adoptees. The best experts on international adoption should be adult adoptees! Perhaps they may not always remember what their culture was like as a child. But try to find an adoptee who has reunified with his family or who keeps in touch with people from his country of origin. They would be a treasure trove of information. Connecting your child with adoptees would be an excellent connection. As a matter of fact, the adult adoptee doesn’t always have to be from the same country. Just by picking his brain about the process of how he kept in touch with his culture would be an invaluable resource!

Visit that country! Lastly, if you have the resources then visit the country of origin! Planning a trip to Asia or Europe or South America would be an awesome life goal and something to check off the bucket list! Of course, care must be taken when planning a trip of reunification is not possible. It may be a fantasy of your child that he will meet his birth family. This may be possible, it may be not. Also, great care must be taken to be aware of the development of your child. If he is not able to emotionally process the trip, then it may be better to wait until they are older. In any event, this option should not be dismissed out of hand.

Domestic adoptions

Americans have always adopted children. Orphans have always been at the heart of the compassion of Americans. The prevalence of relative or step-child adoption gave hope to many children. But, by and large, Americans adopted within their own culture: whites adopted white children, blacks adopted blacks, and so on. However, a drastic change came in the 1980s when American started fostering more children and restrictions on adopting foster children became more relaxed. In the 1990s, legislation made it easier for whites to adopt blacks. As a result, cross-cultural or “transracial” adoptions became the norm.

So, how do you keep a child connected to his culture if he was adopted domestically? Keep reading!

Open adoptions. The most obvious way to keep a child connected is to have an open adoption; this is when contact between the child and a family member is kept on a regular basis. At adoption, your attorney can draft a Post-Adoption Communication Agreement. This is a contract that outlines who, when, where, and how frequently contact can be made. Keep in mind that this agreement can include anyone, not just the biological parents. Also, in some states, this agreement is enforceable and in other states, it is not. Check your state’s regulations. The bottom line should be the best interest of the child.

One significant person. Is there a special person from your child’s culture that they can connect to as a mentor? Seek out that person’s advice. Listen and learn! You’d be amazed at how much you and the child can learn from someone who has been immersed in that culture. Something like not looking into an elder’s eyes to stay respectful is significant to Asians and Native Americans. Another example is Asians take off their shoes at the door, this is important to know.

Road trip! Lastly, if you adopted your child from another part of the country, then go back and visit! It may look different, but the sights and sounds should still be the same even after 10 years or so. Breathing in the air of the place of origin works wonders!

Cultural considerations

So, practically speaking, what should you consider when keeping a child culturally connected?

Food. No, taking your kid to Taco Bell is not a cross-cultural experience. But giving them a taste of huevos rancheros might be. If you adopted a Native American, try some frybread. Or if you adopted an Asian Indian, try some naan bread. You may find that, depending on the country of origin, your child may crave spicy or bland foods. Try something different!

Religion. If your child has a Jewish heritage, then teach him about Passover or consider a Bar Mitzvah( or a Bat Mitzvah for a girl). If you adopted a Native American then consider attending a powwow.

Complexion. Most likely, your child will have a different complexion than you so consider that when outdoors. And yes, children of all complexions still need some type of sunscreen.

Hairstyle. Lastly, consider hairstyle. Native Americans have traditions centered around their hair. Likewise, consult another African American about your child’s hair. A black child’s hair cannot be groomed the same way a white child’s hair is.

Lastly, please consider this: your child will have to decide which culture to follow when they grow older. But that is their decision. It is your job as an adoptive parent to educate them in their culture. We will all be the richer for it!

 

Derek Williams is an adoption social worker and has been in the field of child welfare and behavioral health since 2006, where he has assisted families in their adoption journey. He and his wife started their adoption journey in 1993 and have eight children, six of whom are adopted. His adopted children are all different ethnicities including East Indian, Jamaican and Native American. He loves traveling with his family, especially to the East Coast and to the West Coast and is an avid NY Mets fan! Foster care and adoption are his passions and callings for Derek, and he is pleased to share his experiences with others who are like-minded.


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