Children Learn From Parents’ Messages

by Michele Fried

The adoptive mother of a Caucasian little boy sent me a note recently, “The moment for me that really brought home the idea of “adoption as a melting pot” was when I was at the agency picnic and overheard two big tough dads– both Caucasian– discussing hair tips for their African American children! Just another way that adoption makes life more interesting and wonderful.”

This mom continued to say that she often hears that her son looks like her husband. While that is a wonderful compliment, she stated that many people then add that “it was meant to be” because they look alike. “We usually chuckle and say he also has striking similarities to his birth mom, so he gets the best of both worlds.” What a brave and beautiful response.

The messages children receive come from their parents; and from the way they see them respond to others. Many years ago when I was a very young adoptive mother, I attended a national adoption conference. In a very large auditorium the topic of transracial adoption came up and a woman in the back of the room raised her hand to share what she thought was a wonderful response to annoying onlookers. She said that she is a mother of children who come from diverse ethnic backgrounds and she is often asked how could they all look so different from each other? Her response was, “I am a sloppy prostitute.” She laughed and expected the crowd to giggle along with her, but instead she got the message loud and clear: “While you think you are retorting with a cute response, what message are you sending to your children?”

Certainly most of us would never think to respond in that manner. But sometimes it is the slightest comments that we may not be aware of that can send the wrong message. Often, without thinking, adoptive parents speak about wanting their own children before they adopted. They have their own children. They may not have been born to them, but they are truly their own. Sometimes, without realizing it, adoptive parents talk about a birth parent that gave up their child, when they mean to say, “Made an adoption plan” or “Placed her baby.” I tell waiting parents that we are not spouting political correctness with our words, but rather introducing terminology that helps our children feel wanted, safe, and respected.

Those of us who have biological and adopted children should be aware of the comments received by family members and friends. Often the non adopted children are told how much they look like mommy or daddy and of course, mom and dad get a kick out of that response. What does the adoptee hear? What does the adoptee think? He does not resemble his parents, he wonders does he belong?

We need to work hard to identify similarities between us and our adopted children. “You have beautiful big brown eyes like your daddy.” “You draw very well; mommy is good at drawing too.” “You have feet just like daddy.” “The minute Grandpa saw you he said you arrived with his nose!” Of course for very little children it’s also important to point out simply that you each have two eyes, a nose and a mouth. Uncomplicated statements like that also help provide connections. When you speak of differences, speak of them as positives not negatives. “You have a beautiful voice. I remember learning that your birth mother loved to sing.” “You have beautiful brown skin. You are so lucky.” When discussing your African American or Biracial child’s hair, remember not to speak negatively about his or her hair being hard to manage or a challenge for you. I know that this is a common issue especially for Caucasian parents, though I have also heard many African American parents refer to their children’s hair as “bad.” Your child’s hair is not bad. It is simply different. Not something you may be familiar with yet, but with practice and patience you will be. Then you will be able to point out the differences between yours and your child’s hair rather then one type of hair being better than the other.

The messages you send to your children help shape their self esteem and reactions to others. The way you respond to others also will affect your children. Though you may not have desired to become a teacher, you have become one if you are a parent. You have the awesome responsibility to guide your children, but also to educate others on the ways they respond to your family and your children.