Friday, October 15, 2004

Helping children respond to the (unfortunately) human world - adoptism, racism and bullying in schools

This essay was sent to an email list. The topic is "adoptism" -- but fundamentally it's about the cruel things people do to people and children do to children.

In this case the "assailant" child treated the "victims" adoptive status as a stigma. In another instance it might be obesity or mental illness or physical disability or low IQ or a learning disability or a scarred face or a stutter or a lisp or dark skin or being Jewish or being "other" ....

In all of these instances an "assailant" child may be reflecting what they hear at home or sense in their cultural milieu. It is worth remembering that in some cultures adoption is considered a fate worse than death, and that it is a common practice in all cultures to treat "victims" as though they were in part the "perpetrator". I cannot say if this is "guilt by association" or a visceral response to the presence of a living manifestation of an unwanted truth. Perhaps both. I think it is the same response that causes some people to be disgusted by physical deformity or injury, and to shun the "non-normal" as though they were both sinful and contagious. (Indeed in some fundamentalist "Christian" faiths disfigurement or deformation is a sign of God's displeasure -- and thus an indication that the person should be shunned.)

The hard part of being a parent is teaching a child that there is a great deal of cruelty in the human world, and that it often starts in 2nd grade. I wish we were a better species, but we are what we are. (Barring upgrades.)

Overall the recommendations of this letter are good -- but as always every child is somewhat unique. Adjust according to your child. Note also that many teachers will also suffer from adoptism, racism, etc. They are human too. I think that's why the author emphasizes that one may need to push this higher and harder as needed.
From: Jane Brown To: Sent: Wednesday, October 13, 2004 12:41 PM Subject: Re: [raising-adopted-boys] simular situation anyone?

At 5:02 AM -0700 10/13/04, kidbest wrote:
>My son and daughter, both adopted are now school age 5 and 6.While
>playing at recess, a little boy said "I am not playing with you two
>because you are Adopted."

>Needless to say both kids came home down in the mouth. I tried to
>tell them to be proud of their heritage but I think I failed. Any

Hi Kimber and All,

We can be SO hard on ourselves, as adoptive parents! When we attempt to listen to our children and help them with a problem they are having, but don't quite make the difference we had hoped to, we tend to feel as though we have failed. Instead, I would encourage you to see this as a learning opportunity that will serve you and your children well for the future.

When our children are teased or singled out as being different from their peers in some way, they often feel hurt, embarrassed, put-down, ashamed, self-conscious, and devalued. They want, at every age, to be able to fit in and to be perceived as having equal worth in every way. They learn all too quickly that Society does not perceive adoption as an equally authentic way to be part of a family, and that there is some stigma attached to having had one's first parents make the decision not to raise you-- and this is usually delivered by their peers. Most started school full of the glowing views their adoptive parents have about being part of an adoptive family and that being adopted and from another country/culture is "special," so running headlong into totally opposite views is shocking and undermining-- to say the least.

We, as parents, have to take stock of what we having been telling our youngsters and whether that is going to continue to be adequate and appropriate. We have to evolve in our thinking about what our children are encountering and what they need from us. That doesn't mean that we were "wrong" to have filled them with positive ideas about what it means to have been adopted or what they can proudly claim about their original heritage or how worthwhile ALL people are no matter what their racial and cultural differences are. It is just that we have to face squarely that not everyone thinks this way and our children need to be armed to defend themselves when someone suggests that the way that they came to be part of their family is second-best and inferior. Or that they are not really American" (US brand of American). Or that it is better to be white.

What we have to do, I think-- and this is based on what I have learned in working directly with adopted youngsters-- is to figure out how to listen to what they ARE encountering, how to validate what they feel when they do, and how to help them stand up to others wrongful and hurtful words and attitudes. The first step, though, MUST be pitching the glossed-over views we've expressed in favor of real discussion of societal myths, negative attitudes, racism, and adoptism.

Its helpful to remember that as we evolve ourselves as adoptive parents, making mistakes and omissions, failing to convey exactly what we think and feel, moments when we freeze and don't have a clue as to how to respond are all in the range of normal! We can always go back and raise whatever we said or did, whatever we failed to notice or say with our children. "You know, I've been thinking about the conversation we had the other day, and I am thinking that I missed something (or I wish I had said some things differently; or I wish I had listened to you more carefully-- I am not sure I really "got it" at first") are ways to rehash the issue and try again when we think we blew it. The double benefit of this is that A) we get to refine or change what we said/did and B) we get to demonstrate to our children that it is normal and OK to make a mistake/ommission or fine-tune something that we have already done.

One possibility to consider is that our children need for us to demonstrate that we are capable of listening to and understanding their feelings, since being adopted is not something we know from the inside-out (unless we are adoptees-- and even then, if our child was internationally and/or transracially adopted there will be major difference in experiences/feelings). Try to picture yourself as a mirror who can reflect back to your child what you think he/she is feeling-- and say so in a tentative way. (tentative because you might be wrong or your child may not feel comfortable imagining that you can see into his Feelings Compartment. Mind reader-parents are not appreciated!)

Only after children have been able to discharge some of their strong feelings and feel that someone is trying to understand, are they willing, usually to do some problem solving. So, stay with discussions about feelings till you sense that your child's feelings are all out on the table.

Children like to give their opinions (don't we all). Asking them for THEIR ideas first, is a good start. "I'm thinking that you probably have some good ideas about what you can do if this happens again or about what you want to do now since that boy said that to you. I'm hoping you can give me some of your ideas." Consider writing them down and helping your child decide which are really those he would be interested in trying out. Ask what grown-ups could do to help (including you). If your child is adament that he doesn't want you or any other grown-up involved, try to explore why. What could be the worst thing that might happen if grown-ups got involved?

Emphasize that THE most important thing is that your child, himself, understands that what was said was unfair and wrong. However, that he has every right to stop that child from saying the same thing again. He may want to try out some of the possible solutions you worked out together to try TO get him to stop. And you want him to come and talk over how that worked out or didn't, because its lonely and hard to feel that you can't stop meanie things from happening.

If your child does try out some of the solutions (and telling him to ignore it most likely WON'T work-- doesn't feel like an acceptable solution to most), then it is time for the grown-ups TO get involved. Make a plan for what you are going to say, how you are going to ask the adults at school to help stop this, be willing to be part of the fix-it team, make sure you have discharged some of your own feelings so that you do not approach a teacher/administrator in an angry confrontational way, and then go for it! Do NOT leave your child to take this without intervening, no matter how much he begs you not to get involved. You can and should, though, assure him that he will know, in advance, how things are going to be handled and that steps will be taken so that the other child doesn't retaliate because he reported what is going on. We MUST hold schools accountable for making the learning environment an emotionally-safe one for ALL children. Just telling kids to walk away and ignore too-many-nosy questions or bullying/teasing is NOT acceptable.

You may find that you will have to find just the right grown-up at school to help-- that the first one may not be as helpful as you would hope. That you may need to go so far as to state that since the learning environment, as it stands with other youngsters able to bully and undermine your child's psychological health, you will be bringing him back ONLY when there is a workable plan in place-- and not a moment before. That you will be holding the school accountable for living up to their mission-- to educate every child and allow for no discrimination.

All of us as adoptive parents need to learn how to do this (so do parents of the non-adopted). We usually find, however, that the incidents involving adoptism and racism mean that we have to be in the schools more often and that we have to learn to be assertive if this is an area of difficulty for us. Our kids will learn valuable lessons for conflict resolution from watching us as their models for that.

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