Teaching Adopted Children About Their Native Heritage

When adoption involves children from other ethnic groups, races or countries, each family must decide how much of the child's native heritage to teach and how to incorporate this learning into family life.

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Foreign adoption
Cathy Downs (Carolina Parent contributing writer)
CARY, N.C. — After having four biological sons, Diane and Charles Kunz, of Durham, adopted four girls from China. Since then, the Kunz family has incorporated Chinese culture into their home life with Chinese art, posters, maps and Chinese history books alongside Western items.

The Kunzes also are a host family for graduate students through the International Friends Program at Duke, and about once a month they get together for a meal or local trip. The family actively participates in the Triangle Families with Children from China group and the Triangle China Waiting Families Yahoo group, as well as Duke China Care, a service organization at Duke.

“Our children are Chinese and American, and we’re respectful of both cultures,” Kunz says.

There are as many ways to make learning about a child’s heritage a natural part of family life as there are families. Strategies may include reading books, taking language classes, incorporating items into the household and participating in international groups.

“Different children will have different perspectives of being adopted and being adopted internationally. A lot depends on the child’s personality and temperament, as well as the family environment,” says Kelly Eppley, director of social services at Mandala Adoption Services in Hillsborough.

Eppley notes that interest may wax and wane over a lifetime, and following the child’s lead is the real key.

Sally Fessler and her husband, David Kirkpatrick, of Durham, adopted their daughter, Grace, now 10, from China. When Grace was 3, she attended a Chinese language class. She also watched “Play and Learn Chinese with Mei Mei” videos.

Although school, homework and extracurricular activities now leave no time for Chinese lessons, Fessler says Grace gained basic understanding of the language and can pursue it again later.

Through the International Friends Program at Duke, they are frequently matched with women graduate students from China. Fessler says this interaction is great because it gives Grace wonderful adult role models.

“It’s nice for her to have ‘big sister’ relationships with Chinese women,” she says.

Fessler is helping Grace learn to be proud of her native country and wants to give her a sense of where she came from and help fill in the gap of not knowing her specific story.

“I think for kids adopted from China, they don’t know their birth history. There are certain things that just aren’t known,” Fessler says.

David Drooz and his wife, Elisa Wolper, of Raleigh, who adopted their three children, ages 6, 9 and 13, from South Korea, have posters and a map of Korea on their walls, and they occasionally cook Korean food at home and go to Korean restaurants. They also take the kids to Korea Culture Camp in Raleigh each summer and hope to take a “homeland tour” in a few years.

“As their personal identities develop, an understanding of their ethnic heritage helps ground them,” Drooz says. “This seems to have special importance for adoptees, who may be particularly curious or concerned about their origins.”

Adrienne Ehlert-Bashista and her husband, Mark, of Pittsboro, adopted their second son, Jamie, now 5, from Russia. Ehlert-Bashista teaches Jamie about his heritage by reading books to him, talking about Russia and answering his questions about his adoption or Russia.

“I think it’s a disservice not to help him know about his native heritage,” she says.

Jamie has five biological siblings still in Russia, and Ehlert-Bashista hopes that some day he will be able to connect with them. She says Jamie is so young that any learning comes naturally. In fact, her biological son, Jacob, is more interested in learning about Russia than Jamie.

Adopting From Different Countries

Terry White and Roxie Gold, of Cary, celebrate Chinese holidays as well as significant family celebrations, such as referral day, adoption day and citizenship day, with their daughter Katherine, 9. They attend performances by Chinese artists, read Chinese- or Asian-themed stories, and eat at Chinese restaurants. They wear “red thread” bracelets (named for the Chinese proverb) as a reminder of their connection. And they have Chinese paintings and souvenirs scattered throughout the house.

When Katherine discovered pandas come from China, she started collecting stuffed pandas. She appreciates learning about her heritage.

"I think about China because I am Chinese, and I think about America because I’m here and that’s what I am,” Katherine says.

Catherine and Steve Foscato, of Raleigh, adopted their four children from three different countries — Jake, 7, and Marie, 6, Romania; Nicholas, 5, Russia; and Ky, 23 months, Vietnam.

“All of our children have their birth names as part of their names and have chosen to go by the names we gave them. We named Ky Elizabeth, but Ky fits her right now,” Catherine Foscato says.

Even with three countries represented, she says teaching their children about their birth countries hasn’t been too difficult so far for the Foscatos, since Romania and Russia have similar cultures. The children enjoy looking at books with many photographs about each country. They also pick a tradition, mostly holiday traditions, from each country to follow. They even attended the Romanian Christmas party at the Romanian Embassy in Washington, D.C., one year.

The Foscatos get together regularly with other families with children adopted from Russia, Romania and Vietnam, as well as other countries.

“It’s nice for the kids to have a connection,” Catherine Foscato says. “As a matter of fact, Ky’s crib-mate was adopted into Greensboro, and we get the girls together often and keep in touch sending gifts and photos. That’s a wonderful connection for Ky.”

Although the Foscatos don’t make it part of their daily lives or push a lot of the different cultures on the children, they do want the children to be aware and proud.

“We feel that the children should be just as proud to be born into another culture as it is for them to be proud to be an American,” Catherine Foscato says. “They already feel the pain or sadness of living in poverty and being abandoned by their birth parents. They should feel happy and proud to be born where they were born and love both countries.”

To Teach or Not

Families with very young children don’t necessarily need to focus much on cultural issues.

Heather and Mike Bradley, of Raleigh, feel that it’s their responsibility to raise their daughters, a 2½-year-old from China and a 9-month-old from Vietnam, to be well-rounded children. Their older daughter is the only non-white in a toddler music class, and the Bradleys want to ensure she feels comfortable whenever she encounters this type of situation.

The Bradleys participate in a local support group called Our Asian Kids where they see other families like theirs, and they have Chinese and Vietnamese decorations and souvenirs at home.

Heather Bradley says that learning about birth countries stays in the background of their lives. “We’re not opposed to teaching our daughters about their countries, but we’re not totally focused on it either,” she says.

While there may be some families that choose not to teach their children anything about their native culture, the vast majority incorporates at least some learning into their family life.

“It’s not a matter of if, but when the child faces adoption-related questions or cultural-identity issues and asks, ‘Why was I adopted? Why didn’t my birth family want me?’” says Michalina Miller, executive director of Frank Adoption Center in Raleigh.

Frank Adoption Center tries to help families deal with the various issues related to their child's adoption as they prepare for placement. During the pre-adoption process, they ask families how they will integrate the child’s culture into their family life.

“This is one way we are able to find out where the family is in the emotional process that has led them to adoption,” Miller says.

In the pre-adoption process at Mandala, the staff educates parents about the importance of teaching their children about their heritage. Eppley says there are many ways to teach children about their native culture, and parents need to ensure that information remains available and accessible.

“The parental focus needs to stay on the child’s needs, not their own,” she says.

“Adoption, by definition, entails loss. So, as the adoptive parent, you’re not responsible for it, but you are responsible for recognizing that loss and being aware of it and enabling your child to develop an understanding of the meaning of the loss,” says Kristin Paulig, a licensed clinical social worker in Durham with expertise in adoption and child development issues.

Adoptive children often yearn for more information, Paulig says.

"It helps to work with them in constructing a framework around what’s not known and offer comments such as, ‘It’s really sad we don’t know who your birth parents are. I, too, wish we could know,’” she says. “Cultural awareness can help with identity formation and help to fill in the gap of the unknown, giving a sense of who they are in the absence of other information.”

Heritage Tours

Some families are able to take heritage tours to their child’s birth country. These trips provide children with a deeper understanding and appreciation of their heritage that is impossible to obtain by reading books.

Lisa Dukelow, of Durham, along with other family members, took her daughter, Kathryn, now 5, to Guatemala when she was almost 4 years old. Part of the trip included a week-long language immersion school and a stay with a host family.

“It was a very positive experience for my daughter being in Guatemala,” Dukelow says. “She convinced her friends that Guatemala was better than Disney World!”

The Dukelows were there during Lent and experienced religious processions on Sundays through various neighborhoods. Part of the celebration includes making alfombras, carpets of real flowers or colored sawdust.

“It was very culturally significant for Kathryn to witness these activities,” Dukelow says. “When I chose to adopt a child from another country, making sure she was connected to her birth culture was an added layer of parenting that I took on. As her parent, it’s my responsibility to teach her about and help her embrace her birth culture.”

Sally Fessler and her family returned to China in 2005. During a reception in Beijing with the China Center of Adoption Affairs, Grace was the only child who did anything Chinese. She performed a traditional ribbon dance and sang “Xiao Yan Zi” (The Little Swallow, a children’s song). Fessler said this performance really touched the Chinese officials.

According to Fessler, CCAA considers it very important for the children to know about their heritage. “It was clear they wanted the children to learn and appreciate the traditions of China,” she says.

No matter how it fits into family life, learning about their heritage plays a crucial role in helping adoptees develop into emotionally healthy adults.

As Roxie Gold says, “We don’t want Katherine to get to be 13 or 14 and ask, ‘Why didn’t you teach me about China?’”

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