Many adoptive families are transracial and intercultural, bringing together 2 or more different backgrounds under the same roof. I have had many adoptive parents ask for simple ways to teach their children about their cultural heritage, when it is different than their own. Here are 14 ways you can incorporate culture TODAY into your children’s lives- but this is not an exhaustive list! Please add your comments after the article and share ways you incorporate culture into your family:).
1) Snuggle up with a book. As parents, we read to our kids all the time. By carefully choosing the books, we can
* explore our children’s homelands and culture (such as these books about Ethiopia)
* read stories about adoptive families (such as , Tell Me Again About the Night I Was Born by Jamie Lee Curtis, Goyangi Means Cat by Christine McDonnel, or my favorite A Mother for Choco by Keiko Kasza)
* share stories about families who happen to look like ours, especially when the story is not about adoption. For example, my kids are convinced that the boy (African-American) and girl (blonde) in “The Cat and the Hat Knows a lot about That!” are siblings, and he must be adopted.
2) Feast. Searching out restaurants and supermarkets from your child’s culture has double the benefits: not only will you be exposing her to ingredients and flavors from her heritage, you also will meet people who share the same culture. Learn to make dishes from their homeland- not only for dinner. Try to find out typical snacks or breakfast foods. My boys are extremely proud to announce to the family “we’re eating kinche from Ethiopia!” or “tonight we’re having dumplings from China!”
3) Become part of the community. Community centers and churches are gathering places in the local community for many ethnic groups and immigrants. We have been welcomed into our local Ethiopian church, who recently invited adoptive families to their Easter feast. The outdoor buffet was brimming with injera and different kinds of wot, and crowds of kids were running around playing basketball, soccer, and visiting the face-painting clown. For Chinese New Year, the Chinese Consulate opens their doors for the celebration: dancers, music, games (how many grains of rice can you pick up with chopsticks?) copious amounts of food, and a gallery of photos from China. I have heard parents express their discomfort at being in the minority at such events: step out of your comfort zones and experience what minorities (and your children) may experience on a daily basis. My children love being surrounded by people who look exactly like they do.
4) Celebrate! Learn the traditions and customs for festivals, celebrations, holidays, birthdays and select some favorites to incorporate into your family. Start small: research the top holiday (or top 2, 3, etc) and find out where the closest celebration is. If possible, attend the event, parade, or party as a family. If there is nothing close-by, re-create it in your home: watch clips on youtube, talk to friends of the same culture to gather details, research it on-line to learn more. Don’t stop at home- bring the celebrations to your children’s school- who doesn’t love a reason to party? Here’s an example lesson plan that I created for preK- elementary school for Chinese New Year.
5) Learn some new words. Language is such an important part of any culture. If you cannot enroll your child into a language class, try to learn some conversational phrases: Hello, How are you?, What’s your name?, Thank you, I love you, etc. Use apps, CD’s, web sites, books, DVD’s to showcase your chosen language.
6) Surround yourself with cultural beauty. Appreciate the artisans typical of your child’s country with by hanging and displaying art and artifacts from your travels there. Cultural home decor, eclectically mixed in with your other art shows your children some of the beauty from their country.
7) Naming fun. Names are a part of our identity. Parents have the right to name their child, and sometimes adoptive parents change their children’s names when they bring them into their home, for various reasons (such as passing on a family namesake). Consider keeping part of their name intact by using it as a middle name, or nickname. My son Tonito was swimming when a little girl at our pool asked him his name. He told her, and then asked hers. She replied “My name is Sarah, but my Chinese names is Ju Fang” (a common practice among Asian immigrants is to maintain their birth name, but take on an “American” name for school). He was ecstatic to tell her that he had a Chinese name too! Anyone can incorporate names from your children’s culture by giving your child a nickname. Our son Ricky was called “Ato Konjo” in Ethiopia, which means Mr. Handsome:). We love it and still call him that (much to his delight!). Find out what “sweetie” or “honey” or other lovey names are in your child’s native language and begin to use them. Another fun idea is to find the most popular names in their native language, and begin to use them as characters in stories you tell, or as names for their stuffed animals and dolls.
8) Diversify homework. Diversify “school” subjects is as easy as a visit to the library or a quick look-up on google. Your kids have to read a non-fiction book in first grade? Check out an easy reader about the Terra Cotta Warriors. They need to read a chapter book? Try a Magic Tree House book, which frequently visits other countries. They need to research a famous person? Look for someone from your child’s native country. Sprinkle in lessons, combining what they are already learning with cultural figures. Having to make a poster or travel brochure for social studies? Pick a favorite destination in their home country.
9) Dance and sing. Kids don’t need a reason for a dance party! Pump up the volume after dinner with some World Music. Try Putumayo for wonderful collections from specific regions of the world, or watch youtube videos of traditional dances. My kids love to try to imitate the dancers we find!
10) Spice up movie night. Who doesn’t enjoy popcorn and a movie? Try to include some foreign films in the mix. KidWorldCitizen is slowly building up a database of foreign films appropriate for kids- leave your favorite in the comments section and I will add it to our list! Films offer us the rare chance to watch kids in their natural environment: what do their bedrooms look like? What do they play after school? How does school look? An example example is the Mongolian film The Story of the Weeping Camel.
11) Make some new friends. Make sure your kids have friends that look like them: adopted or not. Kids don’t ant to feel different- they want to fit in. Make an effort to maintain relationships with other kids who are adopted from the same country, and reach out to new friends of the same culture. Search and join a yahoo group in your area for the culture you are interested (for example, search “chicago+korean+adoptive+families”).
12) Look for role models. It is helpful for your kids to see you respecting and interacting positively with authority figures of the same culture. I was recently speaking with a friend who had adopted from Guatemala, who lamented that the only contact her daughter had with Hispanic culture were her housekeeper and her gardener. I was taken aback because I could imagine the message her daughter was getting. Expose your children to diverse environments, including situations where authorities are of a minority race. For example, choose an African-American doctor or dentist, visit an international festival, attend Korean church one Sunday, or sign-up for a basketball team in a Hispanic neighborhood. Your children will observe your positive, respectful interactions of the Korean pastor, or the Latino coach and get the reinforced message that our racial background does not determine the quality of our character.
13) Go to camp. Culture Camps are becoming more and more popular as a way for families to get together with other families of the same backgrounds and instill cultural pride in their children. Common activities are arts and crafts, sports, music, and food of the intended culture. Not only is it an incredible learning experience, but also for one week your kids will be surrounded by other kids who are part of transracially adoptive families.
14) Host culture at home. Exchange students, nannies, or babysitters all bring an added element of culture when you invite them in your home. Not only do you get to learn about their cultures, but you also can set up a language exchange: our friends hosted a wonderful girl from Taiwan, who tutored their kids in Mandarin twice a week. You can host exchange students (or sometimes host a teacher from another country!) for as long as a school year, or as short as 1-2 weeks on special summer program. By contacting your local university, you could even become a mentor family for host students by allowing them to share Thanksgiving or Christmas holidays with you while their dorms are closed for the holidays. Our exchange student is Ethiopian, but born and raised in Norway. She teaches us about how it is to balance her double identity, and shows how she incorporates Ethiopian traditions into her life abroad.