raising transracially adopted kids

When my daughter was little, I spent way too much money and way too much time finding just the right Asian baby doll.  When she was old enough for Barbies, I broke my “I don’t buy Barbies” rule to buy her the Asian one (although it hardly looked Asian) to go along with the three traditional ones she got from friends for her birthday.  Her lunch box was adorable with its politically correct picture of kids of all colors and ethnicities holding hands in a circle, proclaiming something like unity and world peace.  I was thrilled; my daughter was unimpressed.

She wasn’t a baby doll playing type of girl, preferring her trike or anything that moved to cuddling with a doll, Asian or otherwise.  She couldn’t have cared less about the ethnicity of her Barbie, so long as it had the outrageous chest and feet, and could fit into all the clothes. (I, on the other hand, had heck to pay with my older daughter for buying her younger sister a Barbie when I had subjected her to my “Barbie represents all that is evil” speech when she requested one when she was seven.)  As to the cute-as-a-button lunch box?  Well, truth be told, she really wanted the one with Batman, just like her friend Jodi.

Who are the Culturally Specific Toys Really For?

The irony was not completely lost on me.  An objective person would have to ask exactly who all this culturally specific stuff was bought for.  My kids showed no preference for the Asian themed toys, and yet I continued to buy them and most of the time paid extra for them.

I had read all the books (heck, I even wrote one of them) and believed that culturally specific toys were important for children who were a different race or ethnicity from their parents or were the minority in the culture where they lived.  I had read the research on transracial adoption and seen that one of the measures of a well formed racial identity was a child preferring to play with a doll of her own ethnicity.  I wanted to do right by my child. And yes, if I’m being honest with myself, I wanted to be the good adoptive parent, the one who aced it.

What Should Transracial Adoptive Parents Do?

I think that most of us transracial adoptive parents want to do what’s best for our kids if only we knew what that was.  As always the best advice comes from those who’ve walked this path before—adult transracial adoptees.  The Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute published a study on how to create health racial identity in cross racial and cultural adoptions titled “Beyond Culture Camps: Promoting Healthy Identity Formation in Adoption“.

We summarized the research here, but the part of this report I found most helpful was the list of specific things the adult transracial adoptees thought was helpful.  Alas, only 49% found a doll from their birth culture was helpful, and I’m pretty sure Mildly Asian Barbie doesn’t qualify.  Lunch boxes, not surprisingly, didn’t even make the list.

The Best Thing I Did

One of the best things I think we did was have books of many nationalities, including that of our kids’ birth culture in the house.  When they were younger, we read a lot of folk tale books, including Tales from A Korean Grandmother and Korean Folk Tales.  For good measure I also read them Tatterhood and Other Tales, which featured tales with feisty strong heroines.  As they got older, we made sure that they had books with Asian main characters to read, such as books by Linda Sue Park (e.g. Single Shard).  Being surrounded by books that honor your birth culture wasn’t specifically listed by the adult adoptees, but I am convinced it has had a big impact on our whole family’s identity as a transracial family.  We include a list of some of our favorites on our Suggested Book for Kids pages divided by country and type of adoption.

As with most things in parenting, the older my kids get, the less sure I am of most things.

I would buy the Asian baby doll again.  In case my child had turned out to be a baby doll loving girl, she might as well attach to a doll that looked like her.

I would probably hold to my Barbie is the source of all evil rule knowing now how short lived the Barbie phase would be, and how long my eldest daughter would use this as fuel for her “hypocrisy” speech.

I would absolutely buy every book again since they enriched every member of our transracial/transcultural family.  Plus, I’ll keep them to read to my transracial/transcultural grandkids.

Sadly, I now have to admit that the children of the world lunchbox was all for me.  No first grader really cares about world unity, especially when the alternative is Batman.  I wonder if there is any way I could talk her into a Mulan lunch box?  Humm, that’s a thought.

First published in 2011, updated in 2015.
Image credit: Scott Rubin