Since our own adopted children are Chinese and came to us a number of years ago when adoptions from other countries were very rare, my husband and I became “pioneers.” It seemed perfectly logical to us that we add to our family by adopting children already born who would otherwise grow up in a crowded, poor orphanage. No one could tell us what having a “transracial family” really meant or what type of challenge it would be.
Those parents who are fair, who take an African American, Asian, or Hispanic child into the supermarket, may get tired of the stares or gushing remarks they get. Our daughters came as preschoolers. As they grew, we met a number of “incidents” the best we could, often having to make judgments on what we said or did on the spur of the moment. Of course a sense of humor about transracial living situations is absolutely necessary! We have a number of very amusing happenings, as well as some when we had to stand up for ourselves in the face of discrimination.
Along the way, my husband and I did some deep thinking about what our goals should be for our girls. These goals could apply to all children being raised in a caring family.
Children should have confidence in themselves, believing they are worthwhile people.
Our daughters came to us with the “orphanage syndrome”, meaning they had to be aggressive to get what they wanted. (Such as attention, physical touch, and food.) Looking out for oneself from babyhood can be used to foster a solid self-esteem; one that will not accept discrimination or being ignored. It does, however, have to be tempered with a concern for the rights of others, and a sense of kindness. In the orphanage our tiny 18-month-old would push and kick other children aside in order to hold the hand of the worker! The orphanage child may come with the knowledge of how to be absolutely adorable, or to cry louder than the rest to get what is their right to have: acceptance, love, and care.
Children should have confidence in their talents and abilities.
One thing that we thought was very important was to raise all our children to pursue whatever interests, dreams, or talents they had. Parental support is crucial.
Of course, I couldn’t see ahead to how much work this would be for parents! We did pursue many interests our children had in areas we never would have pursued otherwise. This included learning to play a variety of musical instruments, museum visits to see an Egyptian mummy, lots of trips to local historic sites, waiting patiently (sometimes) at the library, dance classes, Little League, and field hockey games. We became group leaders when no other parent would, transporting our children and myriads of others to school events, scouting activities, field trips, etc. Sometimes our children’s interests lasted two days; others are still being pursued as my children move into their 30’s.
Every child can become competent at something. It’s crucial that parents be willing to expose them to lots of different hobbies and interests. All this adds to their feeling good about themselves. It helps them find friends with the same interests, and shows them that their parents love them and support them in following their dreams.
Children should have a positive attitude toward adoption.
Our American culture is ambivalent toward the whole idea of adoption. Some feel that being born into a family is best, while others recognize the need to love and help a child without parents. Being adopted may be perceived by some as “second rate.” (Perhaps this comes from English law, which very strictly separates the legitimate heirs of a person from those born to couples who are not legally married.)
Also, the majority of other cultures in the world emphasize taking responsibility for those needing help only when they are related by blood; there is little/no responsibility toward people of a different bloodline. This is one reason why there are so many thousands of orphaned children from other countries who need parents. (Not only are the child’s birth parents unable to care for their child, no one else among their relatives is able to help.) It is obvious that adoption by non-relatives isn’t a universally accepted custom as a way to solve the problem of orphaned children.
Having the adoptive family continue to be active in an adoption support organization is the primary way to show their children (both birth and adopted) that adoption is a very positive way to form a family. The adopted child hears parents speak positively about other kids and their adoption experience. At support group family activities, they discover that lots of other “neat” kids are also being adopted. The non-adopted siblings exchange ideas with others like themselves. They often acquire ideas about how to handle incidents when other children or adults ask about an adopted brother or sister. One parent told me that she found her young children “playing adoption.” One was the social worker and the other was a mother consulting with the “worker” about adopting a child. They used the state adoption exchange book (which happened to be kept in that house) to look for a child to adopt! Our birth son had a girlfriend at one point who wanted to tell him a secret. “I should tell you I’m adopted,” she said. “Will you still call me?” He laughingly explained that he had a couple of very nice adopted sisters. She was so relieved!
Children should be comfortable with their physical appearance.
There is a Korean church in our community that has been very welcoming to Caucasian families who have adopted Korean children. They have special services for them a few times a year. Some adoptive families have given the altar flowers at a service at Thanksgiving time. On one occasion I ran up the church steps and saw a large crowd of parents standing uncertainly in the vestibule. One mother said she was so glad to see me. “The Korean people are very welcoming, but it feels strange to be in a church with so many who look very different. We waited for you.”
Later I told them that what they had experienced was what their child experiences often, living as a minority person in a predominantly Caucasian America. The experience would help them understand what their children face every day.
Look to your adoptive parent group, to some specialized magazines, and to culture and ethnic family groups for support. Caucasian parents need to be especially tactful in asking these groups for help, and be very willing to help with group events. One blonde mother of two Korean children at a local Saturday morning Korean School became president of the school’s PTA!
Children should be comfortable with their heritage.
Adopting a child of another race and culture is an additional challenge to the family, but it positively opens the perspective (and the world) to all family members. American citizens can often be very insular in their outlook and assume all the rest of the world is exactly like that, or should be! Maybe TV news is changing us somewhat, but it is an educational and interesting experience to learn about those of other backgrounds with whom we share this planet. Everyone in the family benefits when parents share their own backgrounds and information about the heritage of their adopted child. Once they adopt, they are obligated to look for opportunities to do this, to have books and objects in their home, and to support the interests of their children.
Children should have a positive attitude toward planning the future.
Parents will need to encourage their children to think ahead, not only in family matters but also as far as the child’s future is concerned. Holidays, vacations, school and religious events are “milestones” that are important to all children. Their ideas of what they want to be when they grow up can be strange or fantastic, depending upon their ages. These dreams should be taken seriously and supported, if at all possible.
“Role models” are very important. Look to your organizations, church or temple fellowship groups, summer camps, sports teams, conferences of adoptive parents, and your child’s racial group. Investigate special magazines, newsletters, and new books by authors of your child’s race. If your community isn’t multicultural, make special efforts to have your children meet and come to know those of other backgrounds, especially the adult leaders of the children in these various organizations.
Children should have the ability to handle racial incidents appropriately.
There’s a country-western song about a card player that “has to know when to hold ’em and know when to fold ’em.” Anyone in the U.S. who “looks different” needs to be aware that, unfortunately, they are going to have times when a person doesn’t like them because of the way they look. They need parents who can help them distinguish when they need to stand up for their rights and when to ignore a situation where the other person is a racial bigot. Helping to build a child’s self-esteem over the years is extremely important for all parents of all children.
You need to emphasize that it is the other person who has the problem with accepting someone of a different race; either judging your child in a stereotypical way or assuming their own appearance is the only “normal” one. When the child is young, the adoptive parent needs to be the watchful person and not let a racial incident be ignored. Your child needs to see you stand up against destructive discrimination of race or ethnic background.
Parents need to set the stage for their children when they are young and encourage them to be in multiracial groups. Keep open communication with them when they get older. When a racial incident happens, encourage them to act in a calm way. Insist it is their right to be treated with respect. Be a visitor to your child’s school and get to know their teachers each year. Offer to present a program on your child’s cultural heritage. Be aware of class schedule choices in junior high and high school, to be sure your child’s abilities are recognized by the teacher and they aren’t being judged by skin color or eye shape. For post high school education, encourage your young adult to attend an educational program where there are students and faculty of a variety of races. Look for a place where a wide variety of resources are available, even semesters abroad or in other parts of the U.S.
One of our adopted teenage daughters said thoughtfully one afternoon, “You know, Mom, the kids at school say I do so many goody-goody things. I’m in Scouts, in the church fellowship, on the field hockey team, and volunteer at the museum.” I re- plied that she seemed to like these activities. She said, “Oh, yes, I do, and I’m not going to give them up. The kids wonder how I ever got this way.” I kept a straight face, bit my tongue, and then said I supposed it was because she was following her interests. She agreed. Parents of teens will have sore tongues as their children sprout wings and begin to be independent. You swallow hard and let them fly!