- Aminah Ali, LMSW, works in foster care and adoption and advises parents to embrace rather than ignore 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.
- Addressing your own implicit bias will help you educate yourself about unfamiliar experiences your child might have on the basis of their skin colour.
Being an adoptive parent comes with its own unique set of challenges. If you’re adopting a child of a different race or ethnicity than your own, this is even more true.
Aminah Ali, LMSW, is the clinical supervisor of the Therapeutic Foster Care program at Klingberg Family Centres, a non-profit agency in New Britain, Connecticut, that serves children and families through various programs including foster care and adoption resources and education and guides new parents on this often.
Ali advises that acknowledging the racial and cultural difference between parents and children – adopted, as well as those in interracial biological families – is a bigger part of good parenting than some might assume.
“Some [adoptive parents] are really honest and say, ‘I thought as long as I give them love …I didn’t know it would be that important to keep that cultural connection,’ but later on they realise it was.”
While of course love and support are important in raising children no matter how they came to be a part of your family, there are unique things that parents should keep in mind when their child comes from a different racial or ethnic background than themselves. Here is Ali’s advice for mistakes to avoid when raising children of a different 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. While this comes from a place of love and protection, it can have damaging consequences.
“They don’t want them to feel different or to stand out,” Ali says 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. Rather than try to totally assimilate a child into your own way of life, Ali advises adoptive parents to educate themselves on their child’s birth parents’ culture and make it a part of the family life.
“Maybe you find out about a particular tradition … that’s not too far off from one of your own, so you integrate that into how you celebrate holidays. And you explain to the child, the mummy’s tummy that you came from, this is her tradition,” Ali said.
“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.”
Don’t withhold information. Build an honest narrative.
Ali advises all adoptive parents to 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.
“It’s not about, ‘obviously she’s not your biological child,'” Ali told INSIDER. Adoption can be treated as a positive, and no less normal or valid than biological families. “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.’ And then gradually increase the information.”
Ali says she has even seen parents make storybooks for their children explaining how their family came together and expressing gratitude that they get to be a part of one another’s lives. 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 says. “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. Even if your family has a beautiful origin story, you’re probably not going to feel like telling it to every nosy person who wants to know if your baby ‘is yours’ or ‘where she’s from.'”
“Parents have to come into their own with how they talk about their family to their network,” Ali said. “I’m an advocate for telling all of your support people, but if it’s someone whose support you don’t need, then it isn’t their business. We don’t want to get in the habit of answering everybody’s questions.”
“I really would say, ‘I don’t talk to strangers about my kids.'”
Boundaries are important, even with people in your community like parents of your children’s classmates.
“It’s the same format even with teachers,” Ali says. “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.'”
Don’t say anything to other people that you wouldn’t want your child to hear.
If you do 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 you’re having a playdate and you say to the other child’s mother, ‘I adopted her from DCF [Department of Children and Families],'” or something to that effect, “her child might hear it and will think that’s common language. If she repeats it to your child, she may feel like she’s being talked about behind her 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 notes that this is a good rule of thumb for parents with biological children as well. For adoptive parents, she encourages them to 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 says.
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. It’s important for parents to educate themselves so they can prepare their children for what they might encounter in the world.
“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,” Ali said.
Don’t go it alone. 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 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 hair stylist, 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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