When describing my family, I often use the word “eclectic.” I am white. My husband is half Filipino. Our biological children are ¼ Filipino and ¾ white; their skin tones range from very olive to just a tad darker than mine. Our youngest son is black. We have a lot of differing shades of skin tone happening at our house and it’s not something we shy away from discussing. It makes our family unique and is something we are proud of.
But for others, discussing differences in skin color can feel awkward. Transracial adoption has become increasingly common, and many parents will be having conversations about skin color with their children. So, what do you say when your child asks, “Why is my skin different than yours?” Here are a few ideas.
- First off, make sure the topic of adoption is a regular, normal piece of your family’s story. I always smile when someone asks me if or when I will tell my youngest son that he’s adopted. I mean, come on. He’s a smart boy. There is no way his white mom and Filipino dad could have produced a black child. Even if we never said a word about adoption, I’m pretty sure he would figure it out. So, yes. He has been learning about adoption from day one. At the age of three he can tell you his birth mother’s name. He knows he grew in her tummy, and that she chose me and my husband to be his family. By laying the ground work of his adoption story, it will be much easier to explain our differing skin colors someday.
- Start talking about skin color in positive ways from day one. When my son puts up a fuss about moisturizing his skin after a bath or before he gets dressed in the morning, I always explain that it’s important to protect his beautiful skin. Our son will often point out that “Mommy’s skin is pink, Daddy’s skin is brown, Sister’s skin is tan . . . ” Though he can’t quite comprehend it exactly, he recognizes that there is a difference in every one’s skin color at our house.
- Lay the groundwork for the answers to the questions. When the day comes that the question is vocalized: “Mommy, why is my skin different than yours?” We will be able to go back to the basics of adoption and the conversation will sound something like this: “You grew in [your birth mother’s] tummy- right? She is black, and so is your birth father. They have beautiful skin like you do, and because you grew in her tummy, your skin is dark like theirs.” Because we have an open adoption, I would follow up our conversation by pulling out pictures of his biological family and looking at them together. I would point out specific features he inherited from them and talk about how handsome he is.
- Do your best to have an age appropriate discussion. When a child is very small, the answer can be simple, but as a child grows, your answers will need to adjust to deeper questions and concerns. Be prepared to have this conversation many times, from multiple angles as your child ages.
- Understand that talking about differences in skin color doesn’t always have to be a formal, serious thing—but it can be. Some children won’t be too concerned with it, while others may feel troubled by it. Let your child lead the conversation and react appropriately. If it’s a simple question, the answer can be light and easy. If your child seems more troubled, the answer will require more time, love, and compassion, allowing for your child to work through the grief that may come from the loss of their biological ties.
- Provide opportunities for your child to interact and develop friendships with children and adults who share their race. This helps to build confidence in who they are and provides direction towards who they can become. Help them learn about their history: read books, watch movies, attend lectures. Let them discover their own personal heroes and role models from the past—not just athletes, but scientists, activists, politicians, classical musicians, professional dancers, opera singers, and inventors.
When having these discussions with your child, the ultimate goal is to build confidence in who they are. Your child’s race is very important and should never be ignored or swept aside. It should be celebrated. Don’t be afraid to talk about it.
Have you had this discussion with your children? We would love to hear your thoughts!