The other day a woman asked me how she should respond when people commented on the cuteness of her three year old daughter adopted from China. She believed that these comments could be harmful for her daughter because they are highlighting that she looks different and single her out as adopted. I heard a similar remark a few months ago from a mother of an Ethiopian toddler. She said, “White Americans seldom comment on how cute a kid is unless they look obviously different from the norm.” And then this week I saw the same comment on a Guatemalan adoption forum. It seems we have an onslaught of cuteness comments regardless of the shade of brown.
I don’t think commenting on the cuteness or beauty of a child is limited to transracially adopted kids. The young of all species are cute. We live in a semi-rural setting, and our neighbor raises cows. We ooh and aah over his crop of newborns every spring and laugh at their antics as they grow that first year. After that– not so much. I suppose beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but to my eye, adult cows are about as far from cute as you can get.
I read somewhere that the young of a species that requires sustained care for survival are cute to insure that the adults of that species will care for them. It is probably no accident that human babies start to smile at around three months since this is just about the time when their parents are getting really worn out from sleep deprivation. An infant’s smile is a powerful motivator to get up out of a warm bed and deep sleep.
One time, my three year old son decorated our brand new leather sofa with a red permanent marker. When Peter came home that evening the artiste ran to greet him and threw his arms around his legs. Gazing at the ruined sofa, Peter sighed, “It’s a damn good thing you’re cute.” It’s hard to sustain fury while being hugged by a sweet-smelling, footy-pajama clad child who is thrilled to see you. (The big kid who left the marker within reach is another story.) Cuteness is one of God’s best survival mechanisms.
Adoptive parents, especially if they don’t have other children, often think it’s just their children who are being singled out, but this is not the case. Throughout the years, people have commented that all four of my children are cute. Now, of course, I think they are, but I suspect an impartial observer would say that are about average in cuteness. (Now, if you throw in all their other superior attributes, they are definitely above average!)
People remark about the attractiveness of children in part to pay a compliment to the child’s parents. Everyone likes to hear that their child is pretty. We bask in the reflective glory even if our genes in no way contributed to the glow. These comments serve as a conversation starter and predispose the parent to think the commenter has discerning taste.
Cuteness and Curiosity
But no matter that all children receive these comments, children adopted across racial lines receive more notice. Let’s face it, transracial adoptive families stand out, and our children represent a different kind of beauty. If you are white, your brown or black or Asian child may be the first child of this hue and race that many people you rub shoulders with everyday have seen up close and personal. Something different attracts attention. But the parent of the Guatemalan child was suspicious that more is at work here than simply looking different. She said that there is an unspoken part to cuteness comments: “She’s so beautiful, what is she?” I imagine she’s right, but so what?
Commenting on our child’s cuteness may well be a fishing expedition for information, but this is not necessarily a negative thing. People who don’t know us naturally are trying to figure us and our kids out, and complimenting our child’s looks is a safe way to do this. Like it or not, that is part of being a transracial family, and we have to model how to handle these comments and stares for our children. How much information to share is a personal decision, but I don’t think we help our children be taking easy offense.
I also think that Asian and Latina girls receive more than their share of comments on their beauty. Americans are intrigued by the type of beauty they represent and seem to associate it with fragility and calmness. It happens often enough to earn a name—”the China Doll Syndrome”. My own rough and tumble soccer player belies this myth, but still it persists. One of our jobs as parents is to help our girls realize that in addition to being pretty, they are also smart and capable people. But hey, there are worse problems they could have in life.
What Adult Adoptees Say
I interviewed a number of adult adoptees for The Complete Book of International Adoption for the sections on growing up adopted and transracial adoption. I don’t pretend that my survey was scientific or a representative sample, but when I asked them about social life and dating, most of the Asian and Latina woman, commented that at some point in their life –usually in high school–they realized that their looks could work to their advantage, especially with dating. (A finding that made my husband shudder and resolve that our daughter would be 25 before she was allowed to date.) This comment by a 32 year old Vietnamese adoptee, who is not the stereotypical Asian beauty, was typical.
“From my earliest memory I knew that I looked different, but as I grew older I realized that I could use this fact to work for me. People noticed me, and many guys thought I looked exotic. It was an advantage in dating, but later it also helped with getting my foot in the door for jobs. You know, we all have to work with what we got.”
I don’t know whether this is typical of all adult adoptees. I discuss the latest research on transracial adoption in the book, but generally the research shows that transracial adoptees are faring well as teens and adults. Group research does not negate the pain that individuals may feel, and it is possible that the adults I interviewed were blessed by a healthy self esteem that helped them turn lemons into lemonade. But shouldn’t that be our parenting goal for all our kids?
If we have adopted transracially, our children look different from us and often from most of the other children in their community. Raising a child of a different race presents challenges. I think these challenges are greater the darker your child’s skin tone. I’ve talked about this with experts on several “Creating a Family” shows and if you’re interested you can listen to them at www.findingyourchild.com, click on radio. The entire July 2 show of “Creating a Family” will focus on these issues when I interview Judy Stigger, author of Conspicuous Families, and Susan Cox, an adult Korean adoptee and adoption worker. I also have an extensive section of free resources on transracial adoption for parents at www.findingyourchild.com. But my bottom line is that I don’t think we help our children by taking offense, subtlety or obviously, to well meaning people who say they are cute.
When people tell me my daughter is pretty, I say “Thank you, I agree.” And now that she’s 13, I usually add, “And if I don’t kill her first, she going to be a terrific adult.”
Image credit: merlinprincesse