Wednesday, December 12, 2012

On Matters of Race and Adoption

Wow, kids can say the most shocking things.  And ask the most insensitive questions.

In Eli's three-months-home update, I mentioned one of his "firsts" was the first comment from another kid about his skin color.  I wanted to write about it separately because I felt like it deserved more focus than a few lines in an update.  But I was also still processing what happened when I wrote that update, feeling uncertain about how I responded.

Before school one day a young child, probably only two years old, said to her mother "mommy, Eli's skin is brown."  With a not very nice emphasis on the word "brown," which made it sound like a synonym for "yucky."  They were standing maybe two feet away from us.

I'm not sure who felt worse about it, Eli, me, or the child's mother.  It broke my heart to see Eli's reaction; he immediately became tense and uncomfortable, bringing his hands to his mouth (his "tell").  The child's mother pretended she didn't hear.  Or maybe she really didn't hear her child (although I find that nearly impossible).  

In any event, I don't fault her or otherwise judge her reaction because she is a genuinely kind person and God knows I've been left without immediately appropriate words springing to mind before.  And, unlike me, she hasn't spent nearly a year thinking about issues of race and the impacts of bringing an African child into a lily white community.  But I also felt like if nobody responded to this little girl, then the unspoken message was something is wrong with Eli's skin color.  

So after waiting a few seconds to be sure her mother wasn't going to say anything, I responded to the child "yes, Eli's skin is brown.  He's from Africa.  Do you know where Africa is?"  And my tone of voice, at least to my ear, didn't appear to betray the sorrow I felt about her comment.

I know kids will say things, stupid things, and sadly Eli will likely hear comments much worse than this at some point.  But he was going through a rough patch in terms of where he was at then with his grieving, and I could tell her comment hit an already sad and vulnerable place in him.

Later that day Eli and I were setting up to play Chutes and Ladders.  There are four game pieces, two boys and two girls.  One of the boys is "brown," the other a blond-haired Caucasian.  Eli picked the blond piece as his own.  Coincidence, maybe, but I used it as an opening to talk about this child's comment about brown skin earlier in the day.  Eli seemed uncomfortable, so we didn't talk long.

That evening, during his bath, I tried again.  While I washing his back I told him he has beautiful skin. (I tell him this a lot, probably during almost every bath.  Because his skin is really, truly mesmerizingly gorgeous.  It almost shimmers in the bath.)  

He pointed to his forearm and asked, "mommy, this beautiful?" 

"Yes, Eli, very beautiful."

I then told him that many kids have probably never met someone from Ethiopia before, and that might cause some kids to be curious.  We talked about how being from Ethiopia is cool, and I told him he should always be proud that he was born in Ethiopia.

Fast forward several weeks, and there Eli and I are again, waiting for his teacher to open the classroom door.  A group his classmates had converged around Eli and me, and one of the girls looked up at me and asked "why did Eli's parents give him away?"  Ugh.  I said to her "oh, sweetie, Eli's parents didn't give him away."  Unsatisfied, she demanded "well, what happened, then?"  

Double groan.

This time I was a bit more stumped.  How do I answer a question like that while staying true to Eli's story, yet appropriately circumspect so as to protect his privacy?  Eli knows his birth mother relinquished him, but that's a far cry from being "given away."

So I told her it was complicated, and then tried to steer the conversation in a different direction.  I told her and the other kids that Eli was born in Ethiopia, which is in Africa, and that it's a very cool place.  At this, Eli became upset and said "NO, NO, NO!!!"  So I just quit talking and told them all Eli had brought a horse for show-and-tell.  Eli pulled it out of his school bag, and everyone was distracted. ("Look, something shiny!)  For then, anyway.

Over dinner I asked Eli if kids in his class ask him questions about being adopted.  He responded "no" in a way that felt like he wanted to avoid discussion of the topic altogether.  So I didn't push him with more questions, but told him he should never feel ashamed about being adopted.  That adoption is a beautiful thing; adoption is what enabled him to join our family.  And that we are so thankful he is part of our family.

That night, after storytime and lights out, while Eli and I were laying in his little twin bed falling asleep, I asked him if he wanted me to tell him a story.  He said yes.  So I told him a story about a mommy and a daddy who wanted a little boy so much, they prayed and prayed to God for a little boy to join their family.  And then I told him - step by step, from beginning to end - about his adoption.  A ways into the story, he asked "little boy Eli?" in a quiet voice, sounding so vulnerable it nearly broke my heart.  I told him "yes, this little boy is Eli."

He listened rapturously as I told him his adoption story, and he seemed at peace.

The next day we continued talking about adoption, and we will continue talking about his adoption.  Because adoption is indeed a beautiful thing, and I want Eli to know it.  

To believe it, down to his core.

(And if anyone has a good suggestion for an age-appropriate response to "why did Eli's parents give him away," please share.  I still feel awful about my lame-o response to that little girl.)

UPDATE to add a suggestion from my friend, and fellow adoptive parent, Andrea from facebook:

Kathleen have you ever thought about asking Eli's teacher if you can come in and read a story about adoption to the class...age appropriate of course. Then you AND Eli can put together a presentation on the customs of Ethiopia...think holidays, clothing, food. He will be seen as a rock star and wonderfully unique. It will help take the mystery out of it for the kids. To them the concept must be incredibly foreign and even a bit scary. They don't understand what a lucky family you are and truly special. But you can help them. We have done something like this with children with special needs and I have always found the children responded well. Plus it will give you a chance to rehearse responses to those tough questions and also make sure Eli is comfortable and involved in the process. good luck.

I love this idea.  As much as the little girl's question frustrated (and, let's be honest, offended) me, when I step back from my emotions I can see the question for what it was:  curiosity, tinged with perhaps a bit of anxiety.  (If Eli's parents "gave him away," then maybe mine would "give me away," too.)  And from everything I've seen of this little girl since the school year started, she's been nothing but kind to Eli.  In fact, she gave him a hug good-bye after the first day of school.

I think I'll approach his teacher after Christmas break, which will give me some time to talk with Eli about this idea.  Make sure he likes it, too.


  1. Have you looked into Mary's (Owlhaven) archives? I have a feeling she'll have an answer. Let me see what I can do...

    What about (for the little girl,) "His parents wanted him to grow up in America." I don't know, though. Remember, it's early here and I haven't had my caffeine yet.

    1. Kendra, it's true that his birth mother wanted him to grow up in America. That's a good response to run by Eli, to see if he likes it.

  2. Wow, I am sitting here in tears. I saw Headless Moms link on Facebook. I wish I had an answer to help you and sweet little Eli. I don't know his full story but I think your doing an amazing job. Building him up is exactly what he needs. When he believes in his heart how special he is and how blessed he is to have you in his life I believe he will move forward with confidence in who he is.

  3. Kathleen, It sounds to me like you're doing a good job. One way to handle the 'why' question is to tell kids that your son's story is private, but then (depending on your child's comfort level) go on to share a few typical reasons kids are relinquished: death, illness, poverty, etc. Might be a good idea to discuss possible answers ahead of time with your son, to find out how he'd like you to answer. (By the reaction you're describing, I'm guessing he'd say less is better.) In private convo with him, it might also be wise to talk straight out about the sad parts of adoption. It isn't perfect. Sometimes we in the adoption community want to focus just on the positive. But adoption involves real loss for the children. He may need to hear you say that, to validate some of his sad emotions. And once he grieves some of that, he might feel more comfortable (eventually) talking about adoption more openly with friends. I'd love to hear what others have to say about this, because it is a challenging topic.

    1. Mary, thanks so much for your thoughts on this. You bring up an important point, to make sure that however I handle this Eli is comfortable with what's being said. He clearly was NOT comfortable with how I handled it this time.

      My hesitation with responding that his story is private is, in my mind, that would be like agreeing with her that his parents "gave him away," but that I won't tell her why because it's private. Maybe that's not how a four year old would hear that, I tend to overthink pretty much everything. Ugh, so hard to know what to say.

      Hopefully Eli, his dad and I can come up with some good answers together. We're really fortunate that he's a pretty ariculate child (for a four year old who's just learning English).

      Good news/bad news is we'll probably get the chance to try again at a better reponse to this question, or one very similar, at some point in the future.

  4. Such tough questions and such emotionally charged situations. My daughter is seven now and she came to us from Haiti when she was 14 months old. We've dealt with many of these questions too and sometimes I feel good about how I handle it and sometimes I don't. When discussions of skin color came up at younger ages, I almost always directed the conversation into how kids are different and how they are the same. For example, I'd say, yes, Saige has beautiful brown skin like Teacher Priscilla (now I say like President Obama, which is freaking awesome!!) and her eyes are brown too, like mine. Who else has brown eyes? Who has blue eyes? We all have eyes, but different colors, we all have skin but different shades ... we're all different we're all the same. (There's also a great Seseme Street book of that same title.)

    I think, as you've realized, that the key to the insensitive/rude adoption story questions starts at home. So, you're doing beautifully, in my opinion anyway! I tell myself that if my daughter knows that we can talk about anything and nothing will upset me or make me sad or mad toward her, then we can handle whatever others throw at us. This has gotten easier as she's gotten older. We talk all the time about her mom in Haiti, how she must live, how hard it is, how there is not enough food to feed all the babies there. About how much she loves Saige and how difficult and painful it was to decide she had to find another family with enough food to love her too. (In fact, just yesterday, she innocently exclaimed that her Haiti mom must love her more than I do ... and I had to hang on tight to what a good job I must be doing with our discussions ;-) The more you've discussed at home the less power an insensitive or even cruel comment has.

    Never underestimate the power of gently correcting someone in front of your baby. It's hard, but it works (I ALWAYS blush, even when talking to a young child.) Like "Oh no, that's not how we talk about adoption, parents don't give their children up, they are forced to make difficult decisions because of hard, hard things that happen in their lives, but Saige's story is hers and it's private unless she wants to share."

    Just some thoughts. Don't be too hard on yourself, momma, I have flubbed more conversations than I can count and my little girl seems to be doing all right!

    1. Thank you, this is awesome. I love how you corrected the child's point of view, but still said the details are private. As I wrote in response to Mary's comment, above, that's something in particular that's stumped me. I may need to write that response on a note card and carry around with me! :)

    2. Love this response! Gentle and accurate :)

  5. Kathleen, I don't have a response either but a thank you for bringing it up. Its something I really need to figure out so I'm ready when the questions do come. We have had lots of skin color difference observations with our young friends and relatives but that has been a lot easier for us to talk about in an age appropriate way. I'm going to follow this post and hope that others have some helpful suggestions. Thanks!

  6. I think your friend's idea is great and, as I was reading the beginning of your post, thought about suggesting something very similar. The best way to defeat ignorance is with education. Even as adults, we fear what we don't know. Imagine how a child must feel. I don't know what the best response to the little girl would have been. Maybe something like, "Eli's parents didn't give him away, sweetie, they love him very much! They just want him to grow up in our wonderful home, America, where he can have all the opportunities they wouldn't be able to give him." Still might be too deep for a child's mind, but in it's own way, the truth. I'll tell you something about myself: as a woman of color, I was often teased, as a child, because my skin wasn't DARK ENOUGH! Can you imagine that? Yep, true. So, it only goes to show that no matter what your color, blue, red, brown, green, there will always be some level of curiosity, fear, and even hostility towards you when you're "different". But I know that you and Brad, along with the church, school, and community will come together and embrace Eli and give him the confidence to be proud of his differences. But I believe it definitely starts with education. :)

    1. Brad got home from his business trip last night and we finally had a chance to chat a bit about this. I love his suggested response: "Eli's parents didn't give him away; we are Eli's parents." I wish I would've thought of that, it would've been interesting to see whether that response would make a 4 year old's head spin.

      That's crazy you were teased because your skin wasn't dark enough, but it does highlight that whatever the "difference" it can create curiosity, fear and hostility. So sad.

      I just started reading this book last night to try and understand this issue better, it's called "Why are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?" Written by an AA woman, the book's premise is we, as a society, don't know how to talk about racial differences and that straight talk about our racial identities is essential. (This is from the publisher's synopsis, I'm not very far into the book.) I'm hoping the more I understand this, the better I can help those around us. And, most of all, help Eli be proud of who he is and where he was born.

      Ironically, at Eli's other preschool, I have a different frustration. The teacher was not born in America (she's Pacific Islander), so they put Eli and any other "different" kid in her class. Ok. Well, they constantly focus on how Eli and these other kids are different. And even though I know Eli doesn't play with these other children, they always put them with Eli. Because, after all, won't an African boy feel much more comfortable if he's with a Polish or Chinese girl? Ugh. I'll probably vent about that next on here.

  7. Maybe this is because I'm British, but I would really urge you NOT to emphasise that his parents wanted him to grow up in America when you are answering these questions in public. Adoption happens because parents can't parent, not because they are Ethiopian! He needed to be adopted because he needed a new family - his new family happened to be in aAmerica, but they could have been anywhere (including another Ethiopian family!) This is particularly true if you are also trying to help him value who is is, what he looks like and where he is from- its going to be difficult to make that stick if he is also getting the message that growing up in america is 'better' than growing up in ethiopia. Its not! Just diffetent.
    This stuff is tough... Good luck!

    1. You have a really good point, Claudia. And from what Eli's told us of Gambella, it's pretty clear he doesn't think America is "better." The Ethiopia of his memories seems to be a pretty fantastic place. Whatever response I give (or don't give), my main objective is ensuring Eli is ok with it.