Wearing Adoption on Your Sleeve Doesn’t Help Our Kids

Dawn Davenport

17

Adoption: Wearing Your Heart on Your Sleeve

By wearing our hearts on our sleeves, are we jumping the gun and getting offended too easily?

When I was a kid, I was what the grownups called “overly sensitive”.  More than once I was told that my feelings would be less likely hurt if I didn’t wear them on my sleeve.  Life has proved this accurate, and it is not just feelings that can be worn on our sleeves.  Within the last several months, I’ve heard the following:

  • A mom was at the grocery store and overheard a fellow shopper comment that he wouldn’t buy the cantaloupe because it was from Guatemala.  As the adopted mom of two sons from Guatemala she took offense.
  • Zoë’s mom reported the following comment she heard while debating private versus public school education with an acquaintance.  The private school they were discussing was hard to get into.  The acquaintance remarked that Zoë would likely have an easier time getting into this school because she was African American and the school prided itself on diversity.  Zoë’s Caucasian mom was offended.
  • And then there is the perennial favorites asked of all parents who have children with non Caucasian skin coloring or eye shape:  “Where is your child from?”  I was on a radio show once (other than Creating a Family) talking about “comments” adoptive parents often hear.  A woman called in to say that she responded to the “where is he from comment” with an incredulous and loud “You mean to tell me that at your age you still don’t know where babies come from.”  She was practically gleeful at her witty put-down.

I’m as protective of my kids as the next mom, but I wonder if we are doing our kids any favors by being offended so easily.  I’m not even sure that the above remarks reveal any prejudice.  I try to shop local and eat in season.  I make an effort to not to buy cantaloupes from Guatemala, unless I’m in Guatemala.  Does that make me a racist or foreigner phobic or some patriotic nut job?  I don’t think so, but I’ll admit to being a little pesticide paranoia and a proud, if somewhat wayward, advocate of the locavore movement.  (I tell my kids that we should eat what’s in season until we’re so sick of it that we’re more than happy to not have it again until next year.  Just this weekend at the grocery store one daughter bemoaned the length of our local apple season and begged for some other fruit.  I relented with kiwis and grapes—the polar opposite of eating local and in season, although my happy daughter remarked that they were local and in season somewhere. That was too close to the “it’s five o’clock somewhere” thought for me to not give in.)

The second remark is trickier since the whole affirmative action debate can cut both ways.  The acquaintance’s remark may indeed have been accurate, but it implies that Zoë wouldn’t be accepted without being a minority.  If Zoë were truly not capable, I doubt she’d be accepted, but let’s face it, she might get the second interview because of her race.  I’ve got no problem with that since I think all schools benefit from having children of all races, backgrounds, cultures, and socioeconomic levels.  Not all education takes place in the classroom.  But does acknowledging this reality expose a closet bigot?

No doubt asking where a child is from is often a fishing expedition.  The questioner is probably trying to figure out if the child is adopted and if so, from where.  Fishing expeditions can be intrusive, but the motivation is seldom prejudice.  Maybe they are looking for a conversation starter or maybe they are thinking about adopting.  Although the question is often ill timed and sometimes crosses privacy boundaries, I’m not so sure it merits a bristly response.

As parents through transracial adoption we have to help our kids handle remarks like this, and offense doesn’t seem the best approach.  Going through life pissed off just isn’t healthy for us and certainly not for our kids.  Life is easier if you give people the benefit of the doubt.  In my experience, most people who make comments are more curious than racist.  I suggest assuming the best in people unless proven otherwise.

I’m still what some people would probably call “overly sensitive”.  I suspect it is part of my temperament.  Like all personality traits, there are positives (tuning into the feelings of others) and negatives (getting my feelings hurt even when that wasn’t the intent).  But life has taught me to at least try to keep things in perspective.  As adoptive parents we have to help our kids develop this perspective.  They’ll face enough prejudice on their own without going to look for it.

Image credit: kurichan+

01/12/2009 | by Dawn Davenport | Categories: Adoption, Adoption Blog, Blog | 17 Comments



17 Responses to Wearing Adoption on Your Sleeve Doesn’t Help Our Kids

  1. Yolande says:

    Thanks for this post, it made me feel better.

    I recently went to a parents’ dinner and was asked intrusive questions. I found the situation very hard to handle. My children look different from me. From their birth dates everyone can tell that they aren’t bio sisters (they are in the same class). They have taken Romani books to school and the teacher has read them to their class. The class has also talked about adoption. So a lot of information is on the table already.

    However, at the dinner a parent told me my kids are good at music, because it is “in their genes” (cringe) plus asked a zillion other questions and comments. I should have just said that I don’t want to talk about it. But then I am also trying to educate people about adoption. I tried to remain general in my comments, but I doubt that was always clear. In the end I felt terrible.

    I talked to a friend about it afterwards and she told me to start seeing myself as a family – just a regular family – first and foremost. That was good advise. By trying to do the best by our kids, we get our knickers into a twist. We worry about every comment and question we get and every answer we give. I am torn between telling people a lot about adoption in general and protecting the privacy of my kids.

    For me adoption is a big part of our family. I talk about it with my children, I explain some of their behaviors to them based on their history, they love reading books on adoption, we have direct contact to their birth family. I find it impossible to cut all of that off from my interactions with people who are not part of my family.

    Yes, some of them make inappropriate comments, but basically they are just interested and positive about it. Ever since our daughters joined us, we have had nothing but supportive and kind reactions. Where they all PC? No. But they were all well-meant.

  2. Australia says:

    Today, I went to the beach front with my kids. I found
    a sea shell and gave it to my 4 year old daughter and said “You can hear the ocean if you put this to your ear.” She placed the
    shell to her ear and screamed. There was a hermit crab inside and it
    pinched her ear. She never wants to go back!
    LoL I know this is totally off topic but I had to tell someone!

  3. Tara says:

    A good friend told me that it might be easier for my son to get into her very expensive school because there are not many African American males there and the school is committed to diversity. I was happy to have that information and plan to apply for admission when the time comes. Maybe it depends on who you are talking to, I know she isnt racist so I knew she meant the best for my child.

    • Dawn says:

      Exactly! The intent is what matters. And why not take advantage of any opportunities he might get because of his skin color. There will surely be some disadvantages along the way to act as counterbalance.

  4. I have had folks say that my daughter is "doing well, under the circumstances," and it is about the assumption that because she is African American and adopted that she was exposed to drugs and was either abused or neglected. My daughters circumstances could not be further from the truth! And no one is served well by having these stereotypes not challenged.

  5. Hi Susy, great comment. If you have time, please leave it in the comment section of my blog as well, so that others will see it.

  6. Dawn- I completely agree with you. I try to always think about where the person is coming from when they make remarks. Stevie (my 11 year old Korean daughter) always answers the questions openly and willingly, knowing that her response might help another baby find a mom and dad.

  7. Aus says:

    Good morning Dawn – The Gang’s Momma referred me re: the family picutre post – and you are now on my ‘regular read’ list! This post is a great one as well. If I might share a quick story…
    As a proud papa after our 1st international adoption (4 child overall at the time) I was holding our Korean daughter while my bride was shopping somewhere for kids stuff, a new mom (pretty obvious) was there as well and we were chatting. She asked a number of really good questions about adoption, then asked for permission to ask a ‘personal question’. Permission granted by me – she simply asked “Did your daughter cost a lot?”
    Had we not had a pleasant few minutes of conversation I probably would have been ticked at that – but I laughed and answered “Our daughter was free, but the shipping and handling was a b#%$h!” 🙂 She rephrased after a laugh and I was happy to talk about the finances of adoption as well (a real consideration for folks too!)
    My point – she was really curious and lets face it – most of us who have grown our families through adoption are advocates for adoption. If we get overly upset we run the risk of alienating not only who we are speaking to but many of their families and friends (Those kind of folks are just snobby and rude?) Take a breath – ask folks if that’s really what they meant to ask / say – and then respond from there….most folks really are just unthinking or so worried about ‘appearing’ to be racist / prejudice that the speak poorly … but then again….maybe I’m a ‘forgiving type’!

    • Dawn says:

      So well said. And let’s face it, before we got involved with adoption, we didn’t know all the politically correct terms either. I love the part about the shipping and handling!

  8. Great post. And really, really great points by all the commenters so far. We’ve not yet encountered any uncomfortable questioners so far but your responses and suggestions are good food for thought. Especially about training oneself NOW on how to respond EVERY time. I’ve gotta work on that. Lest my snarky sarcastic side come out in a moment of unprepared weakness. I let it (my snarky side) out far too often in other areas of my life. It’s good to have some tools like these suggestions for controlling it and preparing it in this area 🙂

  9. Jamie says:

    Dawn, I’m so glad that you made the point that we are teaching our children how to respond with every answer we give. There are times when I get the “she looks just like she could be yours!” comments (always from well-meaning people) and I want to say something snarky, but I try (sometimes successfully) to remember that I am teaching my daughter how to respond to these comments in love instead of cloaking everything in anger and suspicion. Sure, there will be times where some less-gentle education will be in order, but I want to teach her to assume that people are genuinely interested in her early life and want to learn more about adoption. I want to give her gentle answers to use as tools before she uses sharp answers as weapons.

  10. rosie says:

    I really enjoyed your website! Your blog is wonderful reading. Have you heard of Danny the Dragon? One of my favorites, and worth a visit as it is the nominee for Best Children’s Picture Book of 2009!

  11. Helen says:

    I truly enjoy your blog and it is so nice to read this posting today. I do feel that some adopted parents are overly critical of the non-adoptive parents. I know it hurts soemtimes to have these questions asked or hear inappropriate comments…I always try to look at it as they do not know better and mean well. Non-defensive attitude is really important no matter the age of the child as all children pick up on things and we need to start young being in the habit of responding maturely.

  12. Pallavi says:

    I think if that person’s comments make you a bit defensive, first ask that person to clarify the comment. 9 times out of 10 you will find that the person meant no harm or prejudice what so ever. I have no problems answering questions regarding my son’s race. He is Indian and Caucasian. Most of the times its just curiosity and most people do not mean any harm, they may just now know the politically correct way to say things. One time I was in the park with my son eating ice cream and we were just about finished. He was about 18 months old at the time. His hands were sticky and we were about to get up to wash them when a little African American girl came up to him to talk and she went to hold his hand. I panicked because I didn’t want his sticky hands all over her clean hands so I said..but it was too late, they already touched hands, and without thinking I just said, come on honey, lets go wash your hands. The girl’s mom got really upset and then it dawned on me why she felt that way. I immediately put 2 and 2 together and apologized and showed her the ice cream wrapper and that his hands were sticky and that is why we had to wash his hands. Nothing to do with her kid. She laughed after wards and we both started talking and watched our kids play together. So this just shows how sometimes people say things but do not mean any harm or can be taken the wrong way.

    • Dawn says:

      You raise a good point: Another reason we need to give others the benefit of the doubt is that we need them to do the same for us sometimes. Great example!

  13. Cathy says:

    Dawn, one thing you did not mention in your post, and which may make a difference in how a parent responds, is the age of the child who is hearing such remarks. When your child is a baby or toddler and not understanding what is being said or implied about them, then you can decide for yourself how worthwhile it is to take offense vs. responding (or ignoring) as if it’s no big deal. I agree that it’s probably healthiest to err on the side of assuming that people are not intentionally being insensitive.

    However, when your child is old enough to make connections and understand the person’s comments, and yours, then I think this impacts, or should impact, the parent’s response. On the one hand, you want to model for your child a positive, non-defensive attitude, and not approach every situation looking for racism or prejudice or ignorance. We don’t want our children to be more vulnerable than necessary to having their feelings hurt. On the other hand, you don’t want to be dismissive or minimizing of how the person’s comments or questions are perceived by your child. I think it’s quite a challenge to walk that line, preparing kids to let some things roll off their backs, while not making light of comments or questions that realy do feel hurtful or embarrassing to your child. As the child is old enough to talk about these issues, this can become a topic for open conversation after the incident, a time to “check in” with your child and see how they interpreted and felt about the comment or question that was made.

    • Dawn says:

      Cathy, excellent point. I always say that your response is primarily for your child and only secondarily for the questioner. As you say, it is a fine line to walk. But modeling offense or prickliness is not what I want to do.

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