- Insider spoke to Aminah Ali, a licensed master social worker who works in foster care and adoption.
- She advises parents to embrace diversity within their families.
- Parents should learn about the heritage of their child’s birth parents and find ways to incorporate it into family life.
- Strangers are not entitled to information about your family’s makeup and Ali encourages parents not to feel pressured to answer nosy questions.
- Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.
Being an adoptive parent comes with its own unique set of challenges, and you may have even more questions if you’re adopting a child of a different race or ethnicity than your own.
To answer some of these questions, Insider spoke to Aminah Ali, a licensed master social worker and the clinical supervisor of the Therapeutic Foster Care program at Klingberg Family Centres, a nonprofit agency in New Britain, Connecticut, that serves children and families through various programs including foster care and adoption resources.
Here is Ali’s advice for mistakes to avoid when raising children of a different racial or ethnic background.
Don’t ignore differences. Embrace them.
Some adoptive parents might be inclined to insist that their adopted children are no different from them or any biological children they may have.
Although this comes from a place of love and protection, it can have damaging consequences.
“They don’t want [their kids] to feel different or to stand out,” Ali said of these adoptive parents. “They always feel like, ‘I love this child, this child is mine,’ and most of them would never ever allow the child to be treated differently. But they don’t realise that the elimination of where they came from is not really going to help them in the long run.”
As children age, they may feel a sense of alienation from their heritage. Ali told Insider that adoptive parents should educate themselves on their child’s birth parents’ culture and make it a part of the family life.
“It starts very young on that road to knowing that they have a right to this information and that you’re willing to be a partner in that,” she added.
Withholding information can sometimes be harmful, so try to build an honest narrative instead.
Ali said she thinks all adoptive parents should establish open and honest communication about how their families came to be, whether or not parents and children look like they could be biologically related.
“Some parents will come up with these wonderful stories like, ‘God blessed me when he let me pick you,’ or ‘You picked me to be your mum, but at the same time we’re grateful for your mum who gave you away,'” Ali said. “And then [they] gradually increase the information.”
She said she’s even seen parents make storybooks for their children that explain how their family came together.
Rather than looking at adoption as something that can be hidden and revealed at a certain point, treat it like you would any other family formation story: Be age-appropriate and honest early on to ensure that trust is always a part of your family dynamic.
Don’t feel pressured to overshare with strangers.
Even if your children are too young to notice that their skin is a different colour than yours, strangers at the grocery store or neighbourhood park may take an interest.
“I always tell parents to tell others it’s not their business,” Ali told Insider. “No one has the right to any kind of knowledge about your family, and it’s up to you to decide what you want to share.”
“I really would say, ‘I don’t talk to strangers about my kids,'” she added.
Boundaries are important, even with people in your community – like parents of your children’s classmates or educators.
“It’s the same format, even with teachers,” Ali said. “If you don’t have a need to know, I don’t need to tell you. You can say, ‘I appreciate you wanting to network, but it’s not to discuss my child’s origin.'”
Avoid saying anything to other people that you wouldn’t want your child to hear.
If you decide to share family information with others in the community, make sure the language you use matches the language you use around your child.
If this information is repeated to your child, Ali explained, they may feel like they’re being talked about behind their back.
It’s best not to give out information that your child is not privy to, or discuss things in a way that is unfamiliar to them.
Ali said that this is a good rule of thumb for parents with biological children as well. She said adoptive parents should think in advance about how they will respond to situations like these.
Don’t ignore your implicit biases.
Despite best efforts, there are bound to be some nuances about moving through the world as a person of a particular race that you will not be privy to if you haven’t experienced it.
Ali urges parents to examine their “implicit biases” about how race functions in the world in order to learn about how things may be different for their child.
“Push away the implicit bias, push away the privileged piece, and just really look at everything. Once they learn that, it will be easier for them to educate themselves. If they have a loving and nurturing relationship with their kids, it won’t be hard for them,” Ali said.
One pertinent example is preparing children, especially children of colour, for the ways they might encounter racism or differential treatment in the world.
She shared an anecdote about a black teenage boy raised by a white father who never thought to talk to him about how to engage with law enforcement until he had a frightening encounter with a police officer.
“He didn’t know that he had to give him the talk. In that moment, it didn’t matter that his dad was a lawyer,” Ali said. “Your child will be perceived as a black person. If you don’t teach them, they will automatically think ‘I can behave the same as my white friends.’ It’s sad, and maybe one day ‘the talk’ won’t be necessary, but we know that right now it’s very relevant.”
Remember that you don’t need to go at it alone — you can reach out for community resources.
There probably isn’t anyone who loves your child more than you do, but if you’re adopting a child of a different race or ethnicity, there’s no shame in not immediately being an expert on the place your child came from or what might lie ahead.
Ali said she encourages parents to seek out books, movies, support groups, cultural centres, and professionals who can help fill in gaps in your knowledge. Don’t hesitate to seek out a hairstylist, for example, who specialises in your child’s hair texture.
“Just be honest. ‘I’m a little out of my comfort zone right now because I never walked this walk. Can you help me walk this walk?'” Ali said.
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