Adopting a child from another culture is not the same as adopting a child from the same culture. It’s just not–for some obvious and not-so-obvious reasons. And while many prospective parents are excited and open to the prospect of growing a family in this way, it is important to note that adoption is a two-way street, and you do bear some responsibility to your child and your family in general in making sure that you are incorporating his or her culture into your lives together.
Many adoptive parents might be tempted to say, “I don’t see color.” However, we know that no matter well-intentioned that sentiment may be, to a person who does not look like you, it may sound something more like, “then you don’t see me,” as is pointed out by author Sam Louie MA, LMHC, S-PSB in his minority report on the pyschology.com blog, I Don’t See Color.
Acknowledging the differences between you and your child is not negative, racist, or wrong and, in fact, presents an amazing opportunity to learn about and explore your child’s culture in ways that will help to bring you together and closer than you otherwise could ever imagine. More so, you are letting your child know that, in fact, you do see him and should be proud of who he is–no matter how different the two of you may be.
Rather than trying to force a circle into a mold, adopting a child of a different race or culture is an opportunity to open new doors and to grow and learn new things while most importantly incorporating your child’s culture within the place you call home.
Before you adopt a child from another race or culture, you should take the time to do your research on how you can best support your child by understanding the challenges transracial and multi-cultural families may face, its impact on children, and how you can help to more easily transition your child into your family while not ignoring or avoiding his or her rich cultural history. The adoption.org article, What Are Some Tips for Navigating Transracial-Adoption, offers an overview of what transracial adoption is–both on an international scale and domestically, from an insider’s perspective.
Some might say adoption itself is a bit of an adventure. Those of us who have taken the path know that no two paths are the same, no two journeys are alike, and no two adoptive families will match up just so.
As my husband and I set out on our adoption journey, which took an international turn, we were fortunate enough to pair up with a local support network of other families who had adopted from the same country. Before we even knew what hit us, we were learning about the culture from which we would soon be introducing into our home. From the people to the land to the food, music, and political and social history, we found ourselves learning about the place we would travel to meet our daughter well ahead of our referral. The group not only introduced us to their families and how they were incorporating their children’s culture into their lives, but encouraged us to participate in gatherings and meetings where this shared culture was encouraged, including an annual Culture Week where children gathered to learn about and celebrate the culture. Parents and other family members were also invited to see what the children had learned and celebrated together through art, song, and dance.
This embracing of culture prepared us for our eventual trip to our children’s birth country where we were able to see firsthand the beautiful homeland from where our children are still considered dual citizens over a decade later. It was recommended that while we were in country, rather than fret about what were were going without, we embrace the opportunity to explore the land on behalf of our then young children, meet the people in the community where they were born, eat the food, tour the museums, frequent the markets, and document as much as we could until a return journey someday.
Coming home did not mean the end of our journey of learning, but, in fact, set the tone for how we’ve chosen to raise our children in a home that not only involves the culture of my husband and my ancestors, but of our children’s as well.
Resources and Support
If you’re not sure where to start, reach out to your adoption facilitators, social workers, and peers (other adoptive families). Because, let’s face it, if you’ve never adopted a child of a different race or culture before then, you don’t know what you don’t know. Ask all the questions. It’s okay not to know. What’s not exactly appropriate is not bothering to reach out for support, not just for yourself, but for your child.
Nobody expects you to understand the ins and outs of multicultural adoption. That is why most adoption programs today require parents to complete training and education on topics that will be important early on and later on down the road. Adoption is not a one-day thing, but an ever evolving journey for both you and your adopted child.
According to the child welfare, Preparing Families for Transracial and Transcultural Adoption page, “some families need additional information and support to help them raise children from a different racial or cultural background. These families may face unique challenges as children, youth, and young adults develop their own identity.” The site provides links to several helpful articles to help your family navigate transracial and transcultural adoption.
Your child’s understanding of adoption and his or her place within your family and community will change as he or she grows. As a parent, you can stay a step ahead by setting in place the resources and support he or she will need. Part of incorporating his or her culture into your life together requires you to first understand what transracial and transcultural adoption is and what it will mean for your family.
Acknowledging Birth Family
Part of adopting a child is understanding that you are going to be his or her knowledge base when it comes to talking about the birth family. While this may sound intimidating, especially in the case of international adoption where records are often more tightly sealed, it is your duty to learn what you can and eventually disseminate this information in a respectful and loving manner to your child.
No matter the reason that your child’s birth family decided on an adoption plan, your paths have crossed as a result of adoption. Whether this subject comes up early on or years down the road, you should be ready, respectful, and supportive of your adopted child’s curiosity, feelings, and the questions he or she may have. The adoption.com article, Talking With Children About Their Birth Families, offers insight into the importance of starting the conversation at a young age.
That being said, one way you can let your child know that it’s okay to think about or have feelings for a family they may or may never come to know, depending on your particular adoption circumstances, is to honor the culture from where they have come. While you may not know very much about your child’s birth family, by doing a little research you can make sure that as a family–you do not erase the branch that led your child to you.
Get OUT to Get IN-volved
The internet is a great place to start your research on a rainy day, but it’s limited. Take advantage of brick and mortar organizations within your community where you and your family can learn in-person and hands-on. It could be in the form of a social group, support group, or faith-based group.
It’s easy to forget, especially when you have a healthy family dynamic, to take inventory of the places your family frequents–where you shop, eat, hang out. But, consider stepping out of your comfort zone and trying a hair salon in a different zip code, a new cuisine, stay on top of the news for community events and festivals, and look for opportunities to teach your child about famous and notable people from his or her birth country and community that he or she can look up to and be proud of. Do not underestimate the power of being around and/or learning about people who look like us.
There is a reason the media is finally making strides to make sure movies and television provide equal screen time to people (and characters) of all colors and backgrounds. An article from theconversation.com, Why It’s So Important For Kids To See Diverse TV- And Movie Characters, points out that research indicates that up until recently (not surprisingly), “children need a diverse universe of media images. And for the most part, they haven’t had one.”
While we can’t control the media, we can take steps within our own households to ensure that our children who may not look like us meet, know, and grow up with others who do. It is on us, the parents, to make sure this happens.
Consider your demographics. When my husband and I first moved to our current home, we knew the percentage of the population was mainly caucasian, but with some diversity–not something we based our move on, just the reality of it. When we decided on international adoption, it didn’t occur to me that this might be an issue down the road. As time went on, however, there was a change in the demographics within our school district and we are now very rich in many different cultures.
And while this may not seem like a big deal, it is. Research has shown that minority children attending predominantly caucasian schools are less likely to speak up, participate, or feel as comfortable as peers, especially without seeing staff and teachers who look like your child.
One option that some families opt for is to search for a school district or private school opportunity where your child may feel more comfortable. No matter what you choose, be sure to weigh the pros and cons. Know that most schools these days are making efforts to make sure all children feel comfortable, accepted, and heard. By all means, if you’re not satisfied with how diversity is being handled in your child’s school, make an appointment to talk to someone. You will find that in most cases, schools want to be inclusive, but do not always have the information or the tools to make changes.
Be the Change
Not finding an organization or community group in your immediate area? I’m going to bet that you’re not alone in your quest. I have found that even when a support group does exist, not everyone feels comfortable sharing all experiences or feelings–be it an adoption support group or otherwise. While you’re not going to share all the same thoughts and feelings as every other adoptive parent, do not be afraid to voice yours. Seek out parents you feel comfortable talking with and make an effort to be there for each other. Sometimes, having the courage to speak up gives others the courage to do the same. You’ll be surprised.
Don’t judge. Remember that no two adoption scenarios are the same, no two birth families or adoptive families are the same, not all adoptive parents are the same, and no two adoptees are the same either. Acknowledging our differences, as well as our difference of opinions, holds more weight and can lead to more positive change than parent shaming and judgement ever will.
Just because you’re excited to introduce your child’s culture into your family life does not mean and should not mean that you throw your own traditions to the wind! Our children love the traditions both my husband and I bring to the table and insist we carry them out year after year. That’s what happens in families. Still, embracing new traditions into your family norm is a must!
In addition to talking to other families, run some Google searches. Typing in “Cultural Traditions Around the World,” for example, will lead you to pages and pages offering history and overviews of how different cultures celebrate different holidays and celebrations, including birthdays and religious sacraments. It can sometimes feel difficult or overwhelming to take the time to learn about, plan, and implement a new twist to an old tale, but time goes by quickly. Don’t put it off until next year when you’ll have more time. Next year will come and go! Live in the now and have some fun.
In addition to cultural traditions, adoptivefamilies.com suggests creating new family traditions and rituals into your family in the article, New Baby, New Family Traditions.
Not everything you learn or discover on your path to incorporating your child’s culture into your will be rainbows and unicorns. The truth is, racism and prejudice still exist in big and small ways. While nobody wants to dwell on this fact, until we all do–adoptive parents, too–we’re going to continue to kick a very important problem down the road for yet the next generation to deal with.
Accepting the fact that these issues exist may not be easy and may even cause you to reevaluate family and friend relationships. However, recognizing that other people outside of the love and safety of your home may not be as excited or supportive of your family as you are, is important.
By making an effort to inclusively celebrate your child’s culture–letting her know these traditions and customs are important to you sends a positive message that your child can take to build up self-worth, self-esteem, and appreciation for his roots. Incorporating her culture into your lives is not just about looking back, but looking forward.
Do It for You, Do It for Them
Taking the time to acknowledge your child’s culture is just as much about him as it is about you–stumbling through and figuring it all out. Not only will this strengthen you as a family, but possibly more importantly, you will be strengthening your child’s sense of identity, belief in himself, and his or her connection to the pieces of his life he may choose to put together later on in life.
Embracing your child’s culture rather than running from it will be powerful for your entire family and bring you together to experience new things in the world around you in ways you can not imagine.
Sue Kuligowski is a staff storyteller at Adoption.com. The mother of two girls through adoption, she is a proposal coordinator, freelance writer/editor, and an adoption advocate. When she’s not writing or editing, she can be found supervising sometimes successful glow-in-the-dark experiments, chasing down snails in the backyard, and attempting to make sure her girls are eating more vegetables than candy.