Today, families are made up of all different dynamics. There are single parent-headed households, same-sex parents, stepfamilies, and adoptive families, to start the list. In many homes, there are transracial families or relatives who may not look alike. At the end of the day, all of these families are built on love. They are not defined by DNA. That sentiment is core to adoption.
Adopting a child of a different race from the parents is very common in the United States. We are all so unique and come from so many backgrounds. However, adopting a child of another race can raise some challenges for adoptive parents. Between uninformed comments from strangers and questions that arise from the child, there are many conversations that come up in the transracial family’s home.
In a perfect world, racism would not exist. People would always be treated equally, without any prejudice or bias based on skin color or ethnic identity. Racism, however, is a very real issue, and it is important for parents – particularly parents of children of color – to talk about it with our children.
If you have adopted or are planning to adopt a child of a different race than yours, you may need help in this area. Speaking to children of color about race and racism is important, but it is often an uncomfortable topic, particularly for Caucasian parents. It is important, however, to set aside your feelings of discomfort and speak up, so that your child will have the tools needed to face any moments of microaggressions and racism that they will encounter. When adopting a child of a different race than yourself it will open your eyes to racial issues that you may not have been aware of before. Open and ongoing communication will also help your child learn that you are a safe space to have honest and sometimes uncomfortable discussions. It is also important to listen first and react second to your child.
Talking about race with your child goes beyond racism, however. Becoming a transracial adoptive family means that your child’s racial and ethnic heritage becomes interwoven with your own family heritage. This means that just like you may celebrate your Irish or Italian culture you should also be celebrating your child’s racial and ethnic culture. It is important to push yourself out of your comfort zone, which may mean attending cultural events or becoming active in communities where you may the only Caucasian people. This may not always feel comfortable but that is okay. By being actively involved you are not only learning more about your child, but it also shows your child that it is okay for him/her to explore their racial and ethnic heritage, and that no matter what you love and support them unconditionally. Talking about the differences in your family is essential for your child as they build their identity. If you are white and parenting a child of color, your child may feel out of place at times. It is important for them to know that being different is okay and that your family embraces this! By recognizing and celebrating your differences at home, you can help your child feel seen and develop a greater sense of belonging. In turn, this can also lead your child to be more accepting of others – of all colors and backgrounds – at school and in the future.
Talking About Race with Your Adopted Child
No matter your concerns, starting the race conversation as early as possible with your child is important.– even before your child is able to engage. Read on, as we share tips for how to talk to your child about race, at every phase of childhood.
Birth – Toddler
The pre-verbal phase of life goes by in a flash, but it is an important time to lay a solid foundation for future conversations surrounding race, racism, and identity. Just as talking to your children about adoption at the infancy stage is important, it is crucial that you get comfortable talking about race, as well.
Be sure you and your family understand the difference between race, ethnicity, culture, heritage, nationality, and identity. Start simple with board books and children’s educational TV shows. Sesame Street, for example, has covered race before and put out a special to cover racism in 2020, amidst the renewed calls for social justice reform. The special may be found online.
Even though your child is not as verbal in this phase of life, the bonds formed during this early phase of life are powerful. Be sure the other adults in your child’s life can serve as positive role models. It is harmful – even at this early stage – to have grownups around who use racially insensitive language. If there are terms you are not comfortable with make sure that all adults, actively involved in your little one’s life are aware and respectful.
Preschool and Kindergarten
Between ages three and five, as children start preschool and kindergarten, their vocabulary explodes. Children at this stage start to notice and point out the physical differences between people. They take note of gender identities, skin colors, and hair textures. This means they are developing the cognitive ability to explore race, and they are ready for more conversations about these topics.
At this stage of life, your child may ask why you two do not look alike. They may also notice when strangers comment on the physical differences. As tempting as it may be to water down the subject, distract or even ignore their questions, it is important to take this as an educational opportunity. Be sure to use proper terms, such as “biracial,” “transracially adopted,” and “racism,” as this will empower your child in the long run.
When your child asks you why you look different than them, ask your child for feedback and feelings on the topic, and show that you are open to listening. It is important for your child to feel confident that they can trust you to listen with a calm, open, and understanding heart. No matter what your child says, reassure them that it is okay for family members to look different from one another.
When asked invasive or racially insensitive questions by strangers, let your child hear you answer in a manner that you would want them to respond. A response like: “I understand your curiosity, but that question is personal (or inappropriate), and I am not going to answer it.” This gives your child reassurance that he does not have to engage with others if not comfortable doing so. If it is a relative or friend asking the question, you may want to share resources to help them learn to do better in the future. You should also speak up and correct any inappropriate language used.
At these ages, your child will begin to have more conversations and experiences surrounding race, ethnicity, and racism in their school environment. Still in the young, formative years of learning, it is important to continue the conversations and remind your child that you are always open to listening and talking about race and racism.
In dealing with school settings, it can help to be proactive in building a strong relationship with your child’s educators. You can get involved by joining the PTA to help ensure there are plans in place to deal with teasing and bullying. You can help inspire school faculty to positively talk about race at school, as well as talk about adoption and adoptive families in the classroom.
This stage of life can be tricky because it is impossible for you, the parent, to be present for every conversation (as much as you would like to be). Children in this age group begin to hear and understand racial stereotypes and slurs. Be mindful that, while you cannot protect your child from being offended or hurt by the ignorance or insensitivity of other children, you can be their sounding board. You can always work through their feelings together and remind them that they can always talk with you, and it is not okay for someone else to make them feel less than they are worth.
Children at these ages begin to answer more questions surrounding their identity. They may come home from school and ask if they are “all black,” or “mixed,” or belong to particular ethnic group. This is where that solid foundation laid in the infancy and toddler phase will help. Remind your child that all people look different, and not only is that okay, but that it should be celebrated. How boring of a world would we live in if everyone looked the same? Your child is uniquely and beautifully made, and your frequent reminders will help them stand tall and feel pride in their race or ethnic group.
If your child tells you about a racist comment or incident, do not dismiss it as your child being “oversensitive.” Let your child know that home is a safe space for conversation. Acknowledge the feelings first before taking any action. You are your child’s advocate, and it is important to speak with a teacher or parent about every incident that has affected your child. Taking this important step will show your child that it is important to stand up for oneself and to never sit quietly while others cause harm with hateful language. When appropriate, include your child in the discussion of how to address any incidences. By including them into the conversation it will help your child not only find ways they feel comfortable addressing acts of discrimination and racism, but also help them feel somewhat in control.
Childhood and Beyond
This ongoing personal journey that your child is on will continue to evolve and develop throughout his/her life. By setting clear boundaries with strangers, relatives, and friends, by building strong connections with the transracial adoption community, and by being open and honest about your own feelings of race and racism, you are helping your child nurture and develop a sense of self-awareness and self-pride, as they grow into a confident adult.
Before you begin any conversations with your child, start with the right resources. Books about race and transracial adoption are a great place to start. Find books for yourself and your family members, and then find age-appropriate books that will benefit your child.
For more information about transracial adoption, reach out to Adoptions With Love. Call us at 800-722-7731, text us confidentially at 617-777-0072, or contact us online. You may also read our free eBook: A Guide to Transracial Adoption. Download for free below!