Interracial families: celebrating culture, navigating challenges

Dealing with questions when your child doesn't look like you

People love to admire babies and children especially when they have some of the same features as their mom or dad. A child can have mom's red hair or dad's dimpled chin. These similarities are no longer the norm as many parents are raising kids who do not look like them.

Take a biracial or adopted child and consider the questions they may face from adults and even their peers. As a parent, you must be prepared to walk your child through how to navigate these tough questions.

READ MORE: What to know about raising adopted children

Keep conversations going

Have an age-appropriate conversation as early as possible. Mahopac mom Caren O'Brien Edwards explains, "At 3-years-old my daughter started to question why her skin color didn't match mine or my husband's. We all put our hands together and I explained to her that her skin color is a mixture of both her mommy's and daddy's."

Claudia Corrigan D'Arcy, director of outreach and advocacy at the Adoptive and Foster Family Coalition of New York in New Paltz insists that the truth should be highlighted no matter what. "Even if the child is not asking, he is thinking about it," says D'Arcy. O'Brien Edwards agrees, "Whenever questions arise about family, culture or ethnicity, we answer them honestly and directly."

Honor your child’s heritage

Children want to know their history and your commitment to honoring your child's heritage should last a lifetime. In the case of adopted children, never speak poorly about the biological family to the child even if you have reasons to validate your negative feelings.

The goal is to inspire a feeling of connectedness and pride with the identity of where the child is from and who he is. "We had a mom who adopted a child of a different race and they had a seemingly regular family dynamic. As an adult in college she explored and connected with a group that were adopted like her and from the same area of the world. This opened a whole new world she did not even realize was out there," says Amy Drayer, foster and kinship care specialist at the Adoptive and Foster Family Coalition of New York in New Paltz.

In O'Brien Edwards's interracial family, she makes sure that her daughter understands all parts of her heritage. "My daughter Marcella is proud of her West Indian, Italian and Irish heritage. She celebrates her cultures equally and cannot wait to visit the island of Tobago where her dad was born and raised," she says.

The key to having a child of a different race is being an ally. "Genetic mirroring, or having role models that look like the child, could help build self-esteem in a healthy way," says D'Arcy.

Protect your child

The best protective gear to face the insensitive remarks people may make is to arm your child with coping skills. You cannot shield him from the ignorance that ensues because he does not look like you. You are not obligated to answer anyone especially an inappropriate stranger. If it is a classmate or coworker you may choose to educate them in a respectful way. "You do not have to make yourself uncomfortable to deal with someone else's curiosity," says D'Arcy.

"If someone makes an insensitive comment in front of your child sometimes you have to be the bigger person and get past it because you are the example," says Drayer. Tracy Weir Marek of Poughkeepsie is no stranger to this. She says, "I often get asked if my child is mine because we don't have the same skin. When I go to pick her up from a group for the first time, they assume I am coming to pick up a child with dark skin and are surprised when I am not."

D'Arcy uses the example of a lady in the checkout line at the supermarket who may ask if your kid is yours as a challenge that may come up. If you are not in the mood to engage in conversation you can smile, say yes and turn your back.

"Kids are curious about cultures and at times will point out differences in physical features in our family and that's okay. Kids are still learning," says O'Brien Edwards. "There are so many types of families out there, it's hard to wrap my mind around why any adult would be curious about families that are different than their own. Shouldn't we just accept a family for who they are?"

It’s not easy, and that’s okay

All families have challenges, but the challenges within an interracial family can be quite different. Goretti Vianney-Benca of Hyde Park says, "I would like it if people did not refer to our children as if they were some kind of genetic science experiment."

Some of the obvious and invisible challenges might go unseen. "Young children may not have verbal or cognitive skills to process how they feel and a lot of times there is an automatic hit to self-esteem," says D'Arcy.
There can be a range of emotions but the best thing you can do is to remain patient with him.  

O'Brien Edwards says, "My 8-year-old daughter knows that just like all children, she has physical and personality traits of both her parents," and insists that with time things get easier. "Marcella is happy and comfortable with the fact that many kids don't look exactly like their parents."

Find and show support

You may want to consider going to counseling or joining a support group as a family or individual. The pediatrician can be a friend and advocate in promoting good mental health as you tackle this contemporary issue. It will be comforting to see that you are not alone.

As your child grows and develops through the various ages and stages you will hopefully find that you and other Hudson Valley families have more in common than you do differences. "Love matters, happiness matters, respect matters," says O'Brien Edwards.

"It doesn't matter what our ethnicities are. Each child is handsome in his own way," Vianney-Benca agrees.  

Jamie Lober, author of Pink Power (GetPinkPower.com), is dedicated to providing information on women's and pediatric health topics.