For many families who adopt children who have different racial or cultural backgrounds, you may ask yourselves: How do I promote my child’s racial/cultural identity? Is this something we can even address?
Although discussing the difference of race and ethnicity in your families may seem complex at first, it is extremely important for every child. It has been found that transracial families who do not emphasize the importance of racial identity or do not attempt to connect the child to other figures in that racial group (i.e. mentors, role models), result in the child learning to devalue and ignore their unique racial identity. The child may even grow up to have negative feelings about their own race if they are not provided opportunities to engage with other individuals and groups of that race or culture. Alternatively, when transracial families openly discuss and promote the child’s unique identity, the child develops a positive concept about their connection to that race and their own self-image. Furthermore, we know that both transracially adopted children and children adopted into families of the same race have no differences in feelings of self-esteem when racial identity is discussed (McRoy, et. al, 1982). This implies that families who don’t have prior experience/participation in the cultural practices of different groups are still completely capable of promoting such opportunities for their children; this then promotes the child’s positive self-image and self-esteem.
Once we recognize why these discussions of identity are so important for transracial families, we can then highlight the variety of ways to explore this with your child. According to Ung, O’Connor, & Pillidge (2012), racial identity is influenced by four different pathways:
Within the family level of influence, parents should incorporate key values and traditions from the child’s background into parenting practices, celebrations and rituals, and diet. For example, parents may research and ask individuals from their community, support groups, or even online about important holidays, and practices on that holiday within the child’s culture; additionally, parents may select one night a week to make a traditional or common dish from the child’s cultural background. Incorporating these values and practices into your family dynamics and even making it regular part of your routine unconsciously sends the message to children that their culture, their background, their racial identity are validated and normalized. As a family, you allow these customs to be something that is easily maintained in the child’s life, which further supports their racial identity development. Parents should also consider their openness towards other races or cultures – not just their openness to the child’s own racial background. Parents model ways of viewing the world to their children, therefore children may learn to be more open or accepting towards other races and cultures if their parents are as well. If parents model judgement and prejudice against racial groups, transracially adopted children will also learn to be overly-critical, even sometimes to their own racial group. This again emphasizes the importance of openness among transracial adoptive families.
For any children who have a mixture of cultural or racial influences in their life, it is crucial to encourage their growth and understanding, while supporting them in both private, family-centered and public, community-based activities. At home, families can motivate children to openly discuss and understand their racial heritage, how it may be different from your own, and recognize that as a positive thing about your family. In promoting positive self-image and self-worth, ensure that you are setting positive expectations about your child’s behavior and that you are setting aside time each day where your child knows they can come to you. Both of these practices remind your child of their unique worth, how they positively add value to the family, and that they will always be supported and respected by Mom and Dad. Regarding school or community based practices to promote a child’s racial identity, families may explore integrated schools or neighborhoods for the child to feel that their racial identity is modeled in their environment. This immersion in racial groups on a routine basis is extremely positive for transracially adoptees to feel “seen” in their identity and not feel as an “outsider” where they live and learn. Additionally, families should seek out community role models, support groups, or peer groups that value and promote the child’s racial and cultural identity (Hud-Aleem & Countryman, 2008). Such role models and groups can be extremely helpful when families do not live in a very integrated or diverse community; having at least one or two people for the child to connect with about their shared race and/or culture can be significant for positive identity development. Beyond your connections with the child’s unique racial heritage, families should be open to discussing and building relationships with other cultures and culturally dissimilar peers. This brings us back to the concept of openness among families. Again, we emphasize that parents should model openness towards various races/cultures in order for children to form openness towards their own and other groups.
Despite knowing the importance of developing your child’s unique racial identity, it may still feel complicated and challenging. If so, remind yourselves that this new territory is something you will navigate together as a family. You’re not alone in navigating this or feeling nervous or intimidated about this. It may be best for transracial adoptive families to start slow. You can commit to incorporating one dish every couple weeks or going to one cultural event in the community each month (it can even be a simple book reading at the library!). No matter how you choose to approach the development and encouragement of your child’s racial identity, remind yourself of the importance. Your efforts to support and validate your child’s background and identity is something that will be invaluable as they grow into your family, and one day, their very own.
View these Nightlight blogs for more tips and considerations when raising your transracially adopted child:
Talking with Kids About Racism