Preparing to adopt a child from another race or culture

When you adopt a child, you’ll be doing so with a wealth of love. This will be your bedrock, and will be immeasurable in helping to cement your family’s bonds and carry you through the challenges that life as a parent will surely throw your way. But experts agree that if you’re adopting a child of a different race or background than your own – a transracial or transcultural adoption, you also have to make a deliberate effort and proactive choices to ensure that your child will grow up with a clear sense of their cultural, racial, and ethnic identity. Fortunately, experts also agree that there is plenty you can do to help your child have a healthy sense of who they are and where they come from.

  • Speak openly about race, ethnicity, and cultural differences: Living in a race-blind or color-blind way might seem like it may help your child avoid hurt, but ignoring the reality that your child is of a different race or background than you does little to prepare them for the world that they will actually grow up in. This certainly doesn’t mean you need to talk racism with a toddler, but you do want to have regular honest conversations about cultural differences and your child’s background in a way that makes sense for their age.
  • Interact with people of your child’s race and background on a regular basis: One of the best things for your child is to see and interact with other people who look like them and share their background – so that that they don’t feel alone, see themselves reflected in the world, better understand this part of who they are, and start to form bonds with people they relate to in this one specific way. This might mean signing your child up for particular playgroups or sports teams, frequenting particular grocery stores, making a point to go to a new hairdresser or barber, or visiting or attending a new church or community center.
  • Seek out both role models and mentors for your child who reflect their own race or culture: This, too, will help your child feel less alone, see themselves reflected in the world, better understand their background, and, in the case of mentors, form important bonds. If you’re making a point to interact with people who have a similar background to your child on a regular basis, finding mentors may come naturally, but you may have to be proactive. You can also use media, music, movies, sports, toys and the like to expose your child to role models who they can see themselves in. Being a part of a diverse community can also do wonders for a child. Being part of a diverse community teaches children that the world is made up of people of varied backgrounds and diverse families – and that there are a whole lot of people who they have a lot in common with. This will also give them ample opportunity to make friends of the same race or background.
  • Create a home environment that celebrates your child’s background: This might include incorporating new family traditions or everyday rituals into your daily life that will help them have a strong connection to their culture, such as food, music, books, movies, or holidays that reflect their background.
  • Carry on their native language: If your child has a different native language than your own, you can help them feel at home by making sure they continue speaking it with other native speakers. This may mean that you should learn the language too.
  • Care for your child’s hair and skin in appropriate ways: If your child has skin and hair care needs that are different from your own – if, for example, you are white and the child you are adopting is black – you should learn how to care for their hair and skin in appropriate ways. You can do this by seeking out the expertise and guidance of individuals of the same race or ethnic background as your child or pay for specialized services, such as hair care.
  • Seek out experiences outside of the home: This will help you and your child continue to explore and understand your child’s background and will also allow them to forge friendships with other people of that background. Museums, concerts, camps, and the like are all great options.
  • Don’t pretend that the world is color-blind or that racism doesn’t exist: Even though you might like to hope that your child will never have to deal with this, racism does exist in the world. One of your biggest jobs as a parent is to prepare them for the world that they will actually grow up in. As they get older, you should introduce these ideas in a way that doesn’t overly upset or frighten your child, but that also doesn’t leave them surprised when they learn about it out in the world.
  • Be an advocate for your child: This might mean asking for more diverse reading lists at school or standing up for your child if you witness or are made aware of discrimination or bullying. Some of this might come naturally, and some of it may be outside of your comfort zone, but if operated in a way that prioritizes your child’s well-being, you can’t go wrong.
  • Celebrate diversity: One of the best ways you can show your child that difference is a thing to be celebrated and embraced is to celebrate all cultures in the way you live your life every day. Do you get to interact with people who your child can identify with? Do you have diverse friends? Does the media that you all consume celebrate diversity?
  • Note similarities too: As you do this, balance it by noting similarities so your child doesn’t feel singled out. Encourage friendships with children who share the same background as your child, but also friendships bonded by similar interests like music, sports, art, games, and the like.
  • Start early and be consistent: Children are immensely perceptive, and start noticing differences earlier than you might imagine. Studies show that even babies will react differently to racial differences, and toddlers might ask about physical differences as young as ages two and three. So it’s actually a great idea to start having conversations about race and culture when your child is rather young, and these conversations can, of course, become more involved as your child gets older. And keep in mind that you need to go beyond the basics. You can’t simply buy your child a doll that looks like them or attend one festival – your family’s commitment to embrace your child’s background and incorporate that into your daily life should be deep and ongoing. Over time, this should become something totally natural – as much a part of your family’s days as silly inside jokes, a favorite dish, or the bedtime story you’ve read a million times.

As with a many of the more challenging parts of parenting – where regular and consistent effort is hard, but does have a huge payoff – bit by bit, little by little, all of this makes a big difference. If you do all of the above, there’s still no guarantee that your child won’t encounter some amount of discomfort related to their race and culture. It is, of course, immensely hard to think about this as a parent. No parent wants their child to experience any amount of pain, but all children, at some point, do work through issues of identity. These growing pains are, in fact, important for your child to understand who they are, and you, of course, are a huge part of that, as is the background they’ve come from. This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t do all you that you can to make this experience easier for them. Lead with love, be honest and open, listen to and never dismiss your child’s concerns or discomforts, and be proactive about the ways in which you can help your child better understand all the amazing parts of who they are.

  • Tonia Jacobs Deese. “Parenting a child of a different race.” Fostering Perspectives. 20(1). November 2015. Retrieved September 20 2018.
  • Karen Valby. The realities of raising a kid of a different race.” Time. Time. Retrieved September 20 2018.
  • “Cross-cultural adoptions raise sensitive issues.” Stanford Children’s Health. Stanford Children’s Health. Retrieved September 20 2018.
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