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Destinations, Dreams and Dogs - International adventure with a fast-track family (& dogs) of Old World values, adopting the Russian-Italian-American good life on the go…!

Preserving an Adoptee’s Culture and Customs

Do you like your child’s birth culture?

Today is Russian Christmas, and whether or not you celebrate Christmas is a religious matter, but whether or not you celebrate anything Russian is another matter entirely. You need to give a nod to their past in one way or another.


1.Because I said so.

2.Because it makes for an emotionally-healthy upbringing where one is not taught to self-loathe.

3.Because it’s all about the child and their past, present, and future.

Imo, you have a say about the present and future, but your child has a say about their past. Without integrating the three phases, you’re weakening their foundation in life, cutting their roots out from under them.

I know, I know, I’ve heard it all before.You adopted a baby and they have no actual culture to preserve.They were culturally brain-dead upon arrival, so it really doesn’t matter.

Puh-lease. Name change, language change, family change, residence change, nationality change, lifestyle change, isn’t that enough? Do you truly want to pretend like there was never life before you? That’s pretty ego-centric.

In all of my talks with adoptive parents, those who want fairly nothing to do with their child’s birth culture can be lumped into two groups:

1. Those who don’t want to be bothered. These are the couch potatoes who really think it’s too much to ask for them to make the effort once or twice a year to attend some cultural event. Passive-aggressive parents. Or…

2. Those who actually despise their child’s culture. Maybe they had a rough time during the adoption, traveling there, dealing with the people or officials, etc. If we delve deep enough, we may find that you intensely dislike your child’s native land of Russia, Ukraine, China, Ethiopia, India, or Guatemala. Perhaps it’s the music, the language, the dress, the work ethic, the literature, you’ve found something that rubs you the wrong way.

You’ll need to get over either one. Adoption is not like picking apples or cherries off a tree. Pluck them, put them in the basket, and take them home.

These are living, breathing, little beings who need you to give them a sense of self, from their past to their present, and on into their future.Are you a big enough person to move out of your own comfort zone and give them that gift?

Lest you flame me for adopting children who fit into our family’s ethnic background, let me say that anyone can do some research, find some recipes, and repeat a foreign phrase or two. We’re not talking about jumping through flaming hoops with Russian dancing bears hot on our heels. Our kids all claim to be Russian, and Italian, and American. And why shouldn’t they? The more culture and customs the better.

Recent studies show us that even small babies can distinguish between their birth language’s intonation and a foreign language’s sound. It is more soothing for the infant to hear the native tongue, even when the baby has no comprehension of what is being said. For those adoptive parents who have seen their toddler recoil to hear their own birth language spoken by a stranger, let me say this: That is not normal. It has happened because you had no simple phrases spoken in the home, nor Russian story books online or on CD for them to hear. Suddenly, they are reminded of their neglectful past, and they shrink in fear. You caused that knee-jerk reaction which is so unfortunate.

Keeping a birth language alive can often be an uphill battle, once you’ve removed the child to a new land. Nobody is insisting that the child needs to be another Pushkin or Dostoevsky, cranking out reams of Russian writings. But learning “please” and “thank you” in the native tongue? This gives the child a sense of well-being, of belonging, of measuring up. Don’t ever give the impression that their past makes them dirty or undesirable.

Believe me, it’s not like we’re sitting around the samovar each evening, singing “Ochi Chornye”. The girls may wear a sarafan and kokoshnik, the boys an embroidered rubashka, on the rare occasion. But they read and write small passages in Russian every day, which is fitting since they are older. Our first son, arriving home younger at only 7.5 years old, did not know how to read in Russian and I ended up teaching him Cyrillic before we moved on to English. First things first, I figured. Not everyone can do this, but whatever nod to the past is possible and within your means, do it!

If you have a toddler, you might want to have a matryoshka on the mantel, a Russian child’s illustrated alphabet book on the coffee table, and a map of Russia in the play room. I realize that it could be popular among some to deny a child’s roots, but a glance to the past is healthy.

Even in adoptions that are not trans-racial, questions will arise.Just as you would prepare a young person for questions about drugs or sex, you need to prepare them year by year incrementally, for a greater understanding of their birth culture.If the child is a toddler, don’t delay with, “Maybe she’ll study Russian in high school, if she wants.” There will be enough homework and extracurriculars and pressure for the SATs.

If the child is school-age and above, there’s nothing wrong with concentrating on English for say, the first six months. But after that, you will need to have some exposure if you want them to have that door open to them in the future. Tutorials are possible online by Skype. They can watch Russian cartoons on youtube and Russian movies on Netflix.

What if there are no cultural issues raised during their childhood? Did you escape the bullet? No. It might be in college that your son or daughter will come into contact with Russian-speaking Russians. Why does your son or daughter know nothing about their homeland, the others might ask? Why do they not speak the language? It could be a blip on the radar screen of life, or it might grow into a big deal that your child will not know how to handle. Many are the Asian-American or African-American student groups rejecting adoptees who are called names such as “bananas” or “Oreos–yellow on the outside, white on the inside; or black on the outside, white on the inside, for those who lived in predominantly white families or communities. They don’t fit in here or there, and that’s troublesome for developing identity and self-worth.

Why risk it? Work small culture clips into your weekly or monthly routine. Nothing onerous or cumbersome, consider it “Culture Lite”.

Here are some suggestions for your child:

-Take a twice/month heritage language class in person (check local university students, Russian delis, etc.). Tutors abound. Make sure it’s someone fun who can talk about things of interest to the child. After three months, reassess.

-Cook some native dishes once a month.

-Get a coffee table picture book about the country and intentionally go through a few pages together as a family each week.

-Frame a photo or two from your travels to the native land. Make them large and noticeable, or even poster-size. Make their past a part of your family’s present. Buy a poster of the alphabet maybe from an online vendor.

-Listen to music from the homeland, whether historic, classical, or folk-music. Intersperse with some modern music, where you can hear the native language clearly.

-Explore native handicrafts by attending seminars or classes. Again, no time? Nothing nearby? You can get it all via internet.

-Visit an ethnic grocery or restaurant, even if it’s during an excursion to another city. It matters, it really does. (And look up the menu online ahead of time, or consult a cookbook to find a food you and your child will like–every culture has something that you’ll be able to enjoy.)

Giving your child roots of his own, in addition to his new family roots, will bring added stability to his life. As any bonsai enthusiast knows, cut back on the roots, and normal growth will be inhibited. The children’s emotional well-being is worth some small effort on your part. Give it a try this year.


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