Adopting a child of another race or culture—and embracing the culture and history of your child—adds a new dimension of adventure to family life. The diversity now found in your family can also be seen in the beauty of our physical world—in communities, people, cultural practices, language, the arts and more. It is easy to find examples of the richness of diversity all around us.
At one time, adoptive parents, and society in general, were encouraged to ignore race with transracial or transcultural adoptions. It is now well-recognized that differences can and should be recognized and valued. When children grow up knowing that their parents truly see and love them for who they are, including their race, ethnicity, and culture, it creates an atmosphere of honesty and acceptance.
Adoptive parents can take steps early in their child’s life to welcome a variety of cultures into their family.
Tips For Thriving As a Multicultural Family
- First, recognize that your entire family has now taken on a multicultural identity. Look for opportunities to learn about and celebrate other cultures together rather than just looking for activities for your child to do. Honor the variety of cultures and ethnicities in your family, not just those of your child, by learning more about your own culture and how it influences your perspective and practices.
- Your family is going to be identified as multicultural, so be sure that your home and community reflect that reality. This can involve making changes as simple as including art, music, toys, and literature from cultures around the world (including, but not solely limited to, your child’s culture) in your home. If your church, schools, friends, and neighborhood lack diversity, you may want to make more significant changes, such as changing where you worship, learn, socialize, or even live.
- Children adopted into a family of a different race, ethnicity, or culture also need to learn skills to deal with the racism that they will face in life. You can teach your child only so much about racism. They will need teachers, friends, neighbors, and mentors from within their birthculture who have faced racism personally, so they can learn from others’ experience how to respond to and overcome prejudice and discrimination.
- When racist, bigoted, or uneducated remarks are made in front of you, even if in jest, lovingly but firmly confront the people who make them—and not just when your children are with you. Children absorb more of what is being said than we often realize. They will expect you to stand up for them. You may have to make changes in your relationships with some extended family members or close friends because of this.Remember, your children’s hearts are your first priority. Show courage by having difficult conversations and by drawing boundaries, when necessary.
- Incorporating diversity into your life from a variety of places creates ways to naturally find role models who can guide your child in what it means to be a man or woman in their culture. Sometimes parents indirectly discourage role models like this because they fear that their child may reject their adoptive family. It is important to know that your child understands you are his family but he may develop his identity by immersing himself in a different culture—his birthfamily’s yours or another altogether. This is an exciting time of cultural exploration and identification for your child, and it usually does not lead to rejection of the adoptive family.
- Do not minimize or dismiss your child’s experiences with racism. Because it is a painful subject, you may be tempted to change the subject or offer alternative explanations for another person’s remarks, thinking that it will somehow “soften the blow.” Instead, use the experience to talk with your child about racism1 and how being singled out or discriminated against made them feel. He needs to know that he can trust his feelings and that you will agree with him that the remark was wrong, and he is worthy of better treatment.
- Honor your child’s birth name2. Keeping or incorporating it into the name given by you can have a powerful impact on your child’s identity. It honors the child’s birth or foster parents who gave her the name and the cultural origins of the name. If your child was older when adopted, keeping her name helps her maintain a consistent sense of identity. If you change her name, she may feel deeply rejected or experience some identity confusion later in life.
- Participate in cultural activities with or without your child. A normal part of child development, especially during middle childhood, is desiring to fit in and be like everyone else. Do not be surprised if your child suddenly no longer wants to participate in cultural activities or to talk about her birth culture. This does not mean that she no longer thinks about her culture, but for now, she is more concerned about minimizing differences and being a part of the crowd. You can use this time to demonstrate that diversity is truly a part of your entire family and not just something that is done for her. So continue to attend cultural events and enjoy a diversity of experiences, even if she chooses not to share in them.
- Understand that part of what makes transracial/transcultural adoption difficult for some children is not the racial/ethnic differences—it is the loss of privacy about their adoptive identity. The child’s adoption is always public and he does not have control over being able to choose with whom and when to share that he was adopted.
- In addition to celebrating diversity, look for ways to celebrate the similarities your family members have in common. This can mean commenting on the interest in baseball that a son shares with his father, or the fact that a mother and daughter both love strawberries. Recognizing shared characteristics helps reinforce a sense of belonging among all family members.
Understanding Race and Adoption (by Joan D. Ramos, M.S.W., for Adoption Todaymagazine)
Cultural Issues for Transcultural Adoptions, a guide for developing a multicultural family from Adoption Resources of Wisconsin
Visiting the Land of Your Child’s Birth, a guide that includes information regarding local tours, the advantages and disadvantages of taking them, and the emotions they often elicit, from Adoption Resources of Wisconsin
Holt International Heritage Tours for adoptees and their families who want to visit South Korea
The Ties Program leads tours for adoptive families to 12 countries–Cambodia, Chile, China, Guatemala, India, Paraguay, Peru, Philippines, Romania, Russia, South Korea and Vietnam. The website also includes articles on what to consider before making a trip, the reasons for making a trip, and a listing of some of the emotions one of these trips can trigger in your family.
Adopted is a powerful film that explores issues of transracial and international adoption through the experiences of adoptees and adoptive parents. It is available for purchase from Point Made Films. Clips are available to preview on the site here.
Reel Works: A Girl Like Me is a short film by Kiri Davis. In this film, young African American women share what it means to try to have a positive self-image in a culture that often portrays negative images of African Americans identity, especially for girls. There is strong language in a few places that reflects the raw emotion and impact the stereotypes have had on these young women. A Girl Like Me shows the importance of providing positive African American role models and as much information about culture and heritage as possible.
Online Training/Education Classes:
The Center for Cognitive-Developmental Assessment and Remediation offers educational courses online and on CD for parents and professionals who want to learn about the needs of children adopted internationally. Many course offerings deal specifically with learning and school readiness. There is a small fee to enroll in each course.
Conspicuous Families: Race, Culture and Adoption is an online class for parents fromAdoption Learning Partners that teaches parents how to help children deal with insensitive comments and racism. The class also offers ways to incorporate more diversity into a family using suggestions from adoptive families and adoptees. Adoption Learning Partners also offers two China-specific courses: “China: Her Land & People, History, and Philosophies” and “China: Language, Festivals, and Traditions.”
For a full list, visit Resources
Supporting Transracial Adoptive Parents
By Robert O’Connor
Robert O’Connor has been leading transracial adoption training sessions for more than 18 years. An adoptee of African American descent, he has used his life experiences to move from state ward to state ward administrator; from special education student to college professor; and from cultural isolation to practice innovation.
1. Successful adoptions are more likely to occur when the parents have:
- Realistic expectations.
- Enough information to make a fully-informed decision.
2. Be prepared to become a conspicuous family. You will need to learn how to respond to culturally insensitive comments. Keep these points in mind while you consider whether to respond:
- Safety: Is it safe to respond to a comment, gesture, or nudge? Consider your surroundings and the number of people involved.
- Relationship: What is your relationship with the person? Is this person a stranger, a grandparent, or a teacher of your child?
- Educability: How likely is it that the person who made the remark is able to be educated about the facts and the appropriateness of his comment?
- Confront With Love: If you decide to respond, do so in love not with malice in your heart.
- Protective Stance: Responding to the question or comment by providing little to no information. Consider whether your child is witness to this event and needs to know that you are there to protect him.
- Educative Stance: Responding to the question or comment with education about adoption or the appropriate correction, without your child feeling that the education is happening at his expense, i.e., embarrassing him or putting him on the spot.
- Individualism vs. Institution: Is it a person who did this or an institution? Your response may change depending on which it is.
3. Help your child to externalize (talk about, share) any negative experiences with racial comments rather than internalize them, understanding that the other person has the issue, not your child.
4. Avoid the Mascot Effect, if possible. This occurs when your child is viewed as obviously different from other children to the point where everyone in a group knows him, but your child doesn’t know the members of the group. In effect, your child is always on display, like a mascot. Help your child to create healthy boundaries around his difference.
5. By seeking appropriate, ongoing, authentic experiences with your child’s birthculture and integrating them with your own family culture, you can teach him to become bicultural, rather than simply assimilating into your family’s birthculture. This creates a new home culture that affirms everyone in your family and is a useful life skill that will allow him to adapt to his circumstances.
6. Avoid Cultural Tourism. This is when a family provides cross-cultural experiences for the adopted child, but the rest of the family does not participate. An example would be dropping the child at a camp for international adoptees but the parents do not attend the camp or attempt to learn along with the child. When a child sees a parent regularly preparing ethnic food, attending multicultural events, or enjoying multicultural media, then he knows that the family embraces his birthculture, too, and by extension, embraces him.
7. Transracially adopted children report that their most painful racially insensitive memories involve the way extended family members treat them differently from the other children in their family and not the way they were treated by acquaintances or outsiders.
8. Encourage your child to master some skill, whether it is related to the arts, athletics, or academics. This mastery will help him to differentiate himself in a positive way from others.
9. Consider making the Transracial Parenting Pledge™. The Transracial Parenting PledgeTM is a mini-poster that identifies 15 things that parents can pledge and do to support a stronger adoptive placement.
By Sarah Zuidema, LMSW, Adoption Supervisor for Bethany in Holland, Michigan
Culture and heritage camps provide a great opportunity for children to explore their heritage. The camps are typically offered for a week during the summer and are targeted for the adopted child. I have found that most culture camps are organized on a grassroots level by adoptive families.
I have spent time talking to adoptees who have experienced these camps, and I get a variety of opinions. Some say: “I resented going to culture camp. I just wanted to do what my friends were doing.” Others say: “I am really happy my parents sent me. I did not want to go, but looking back, it was a great experience.”
It is important to recognize that children will have different opinions at different developmental stages regarding their heritage. There are, however, a few common themes that I often hear from both adoptees and their parents.
1. Heritage and culture camps cannot be reserved for one week during the year.
When children are minorities in their family and community, one week of celebration and learning is not enough to provide them with a positive self-identity. A child is aware of his (or her) race, ethnicity, and heritage on a daily basis. Whether the child’s heritage is celebrated or viewed through the lens of a stereotype, every adoptee I have worked with states that he is always aware of “the differences.” For a child to truly embrace his heritage, parents need to provide diverse and ongoing experiences related to that heritage.
2. Heritage and culture camps are not only for the adoptee.
When a family sends their adopted child to heritage camp, they are sending the message that it is important for the child to know about his heritage, but the rest of the family does not need this experience. Transcultural adoptive families not only adopt a child, they also adopt another culture. One way for a family to embrace this diversity is by participating in cultural activities, including culture camps, together.
One of the Colombian adoptive families I have worked with shared their culture camp experience with me. They flew their family of six to a different state to participate in a Hispanic culture camp that was created for the entire family.
They described the week as informative, and the parents were happy with the variety of experiences for the entire family. They made many friends with whom they remain in contact throughout the year. The parents concluded that this weeklong experience was worth the financial investment, and they look forward to attending the camp each year.
3. Children will embrace and deny their heritage at different stages in their development.
Cultural interest and excitement cannot be forced upon a child. There may be times in a child’s life where he is not interested in a week at culture camp. One South Korean adult adoptee told me: “Every time I had to do a report or presentation for school, it was always assumed that I would do it on Korea. I was just tired of always having to focus on Korea when there were so many other cool places to learn about!”
Children learn from the examples of their parents and their community. When a family is excited about and invested in cultural awareness and learning, a child typically has the variety of experiences he needs to help form positive identity.
What a child learns at heritage camp also needs to be reinforced in the home. When a family has a negative view of their child’s birth country, the child will be more impacted by this negativity than by the few positive experiences he has had.
Keeping all of this in mind, it is important for parents to remember that a positive view of their child’s culture and heritage is closely related to positive self-identity. Adoptees often struggle with their identity, especially during the teenage years. This is the time when all children spend time on identity development, so it becomes a crucial time for adoptees to have built a strong cultural foundation. Positive role models and friends, and relevant cultural experiences throughout a child’s life will help create a strong foundation for positive identity development during the often tumultuous teenage years.
There are many creative ways to foster a positive cultural identity, including culture camps, but unless a family provides continuous and diverse interactions with their child’s culture, a one-week culture camp will not have the desired impact.
Black Baby, White Hands: A View from the Crib
By Jaiya John • Lightning Source Inc, 2005
Black Like Me (50th anniversary)
By John Howard Griffin • WingsPress, 2011
Growing Up Black in White
By Kevin D. Hofmann • The Vine Appointment Publishing Company, 2010
In Their Own Voices (Available through the Bethany bookstore: www.bethany.org/store)
By Rita J. Simon and Rhonda M. Roorda • Columbia University Press, 2000
This movie reveals the grit rather than the glamour of transracial adoption. Director Barb Lee goes deep into the intimate lives of two well-meaning families and shows us the subtle challenges they face. The results are riveting, unpredictable, and telling.
A Girl Like Me is a short film by Kiri Davis. In this film, young African American women share what it means to try to have a positive self-image in a culture that often portrays negative images of African Americans identity, especially for girls. There is strong language in a few places that reflects the raw emotion and impact the stereotypes have had on these young women. This movie shows the importance of providing positive African American role models and as much information about culture and heritage as possible.
Wo Ai Ni, Mommy
This documentary explores what happens when an older Chinese girl is adopted into an American family. This film reveals the complicated gains and losses that are an inherent aspect of international, transracial adoption.
Beyond Culture Camp: Promoting Healthy Identity Formation in Adoption
From Adoption Learning Partners
In a first of its kind study, more than 450 adult adoptees were surveyed to better understand the complex and interrelated impacts of being adopted and being raised by parents of a different ethnicity. Respondents reflected on their childhood, adolescence, and adulthood, giving powerful insights as to what helped them gain a positive sense of self and what hindered that development.
Transracial Adoption: Becoming a Multicultural/Multiracial Family
From Christian Alliance for Orphans
This webinar explores social definitions within the context of adoption to include race, ethnicity, nationality, and culture. Participants will become informed about the joys and challenges of expanding families through transracial adoption, aware of the sensitivities to the lifelong impacts of adoption, and receive tangible suggestions for the community to help support and embrace families.
Race and Culture
Heart of the Matter Seminars
Explore the concepts of race and culture as they relate to adoption and foster care. This course discusses topics such as addressing racism, looking at culture in terms of larger culture and subcultures, talking with your child about race and culture, white privilege, and more.
- Kevin D. Hoffman, author of Growing Up Black in White www.mymindonpaper.wordpress.com/
- Robert O’Connor has been leading transracial adoption training sessions for more than 18 years. An adoptee of African American descent, he has used his life experiences to move from state ward to state ward administrator; from special education student to college professor; and from cultural isolation to practice innovation: www.transracialadoptiontraining.com
- For intercountry adoptees: www.camps.adoption.com
- For domestic & intercountry adoptees: www.adoptivefamilies.com/calendar.php?cal=camp
- Understanding Race and Adoption (by Joan D. Ramos, M.S.W., for Adoption Today magazine)
- Cultural Issues for Transcultural Adoptions, a guide for developing a multicultural family from Adoption Resources of Wisconsin
Online Training/Education Classes:
- The Center for Cognitive-Developmental Assessment and Remediation offers
- educational courses online and on CD for parents and professionals who want to learn about the needs of children adopted internationally. Many course offerings deal specifically with learning and school readiness. There is a small fee to enroll in each course.
- Conspicuous Families: Race, Culture and Adoption is an online class for parents from Adoption Learning Partners that teaches parents how to help children deal with insensitive comments and racism. The class also offers ways to incorporate more diversity into a family using suggestions from adoptive families and adoptees.
- Adoption Learning Partners also offers two China-specific courses: “China: Her Land & People, History, and Philosophies” and “China: Language, Festivals, and Traditions.”
- Visiting the Land of Your Child’s Birth, a guide that includes information regarding local tours, the advantages and disadvantages of taking them, and the emotions they often elicit, from Adoption Resources of Wisconsin
- Holt International Heritage Tours for adoptees and their families who want to visit South Korea
- The Ties Program leads tours for adoptive families to 12 countries–Cambodia, Chile, China, Guatemala, India, Paraguay, Peru, Philippines, Romania, Russia, South Korea and Vietnam. The website also includes articles on what to consider before making a trip, the reasons for making a trip, and a listing of some of the emotions one of these trips can trigger in your family.