Just Add Culture

Just Add Culture

For once I can't pick my kids out of the crowd,” says Karen Sullivan of Bothell , Wash. But she's not complaining. Assimilation is what she likes about taking her kids to an annual Korean culture camp. There, Sullivan's three Koreanborn children learn their native country's language, history, dress and cuisine—and they've even come to appreciate the crispy fried bugs that Koreans eat like popcorn.

Connecting kids with their ethnic and cultural roots is a significant trend among adoptive families. It may help children normalize the idea of adoption and accept the reality of bicultural and biracial families. Adoption specialists recommend starting this sort of cultural exploration by middle childhood, as a kind of self-esteem booster shot before the travails of adolescence.

Besides, younger kids are open to new experiences and will look to their parents for advice, explanations and reassurance. Culture camps are available in both day and sleep-away formats. African-American and Hispanic adoptees, as well as children from overseas, can camp with other kids who have similar backgrounds.

For many of them, it's the first chance to participate in a peer group based on shared experiences. In some camps, the young adult counselors are also adoptees and can serve as role models, helping children visualize themselves as adults. Homeland tours are another popular way to help adopted children connect with their heritage. They're not just for young adults any more. Kids as young as 8 are traveling to trace their roots, accompanied by parents who wish to demonstrate their acceptance of their children's entire lives—both before and after adoption.

Fifteen-year-old Daniel Stouffer of Waukesha , Wis. , traveled to Romania last year with his mom, Judith. She says he needed to see the land of his birth in a positive light, after a difficult infancy and early childhood in an orphanage there. Earlier in his adolescence,

Daniel refused to look at photos of Romania or attend cultural events, saying, “I don't want to be with those adopted kids.” But, says Judith, his trip helped him come to terms with his dual heritage. He met his birth mother, and realized that she was a loving person who had wanted better opportunities for him. “I am so glad that we went,” says Judith.

Ana Hourigan, 13, of Tacoma , Wash. , also went to Romania last year. “She absolutely loved it,” remarked her mother, Jody, noting that the presence of several cute teenage boys helped to balance the time spent in art museums, traveling through picturesque countryside and visiting orphanages. Ana camehome believing that “ Romania is one of the world's best places.”

Parents worry about culture shock for their kids, especially in the case of developing countries where the child may encounter unsettling poverty. Preparation is essential. Expose the child to need and poverty in this country before she steps off the plane in another country. Volunteer in a soup kitchen or homeless shelter, or visit a poor neighborhood, and talk about what you see. And make sure you're familiar with local cultural resources and traditions before going abroad.

Other milestones in a homeland visit can include visiting the placing agency or orphanage and, if possible, meeting foster and/or birth parents. Children learn that nothing about their past is secret, shameful or out of bounds—and parent after parent reports that such encounters can help calm kids' anxieties and help them feel more secure about their identities.

Embracing their past is one way for children to celebrate the present and future as well.

Contributed by WACAP, first printed in WACAP Today, Spring 2005

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