More and more families who have adopted internationally are embarking on heritage journeys with their children, raising important questions and issues about children visiting their birth countries. As the founder of The Ties Program, I’ve spent eighteen years traveling with thousands of families as they explore their child’s country of birth. As I observe and listen to the kids, and witness the profound changes a homeland journey brings, these issues are always front and center for me. While I obviously believe in the homeland journey experience, I don’t approach the subject with rose-colored glasses. There are things, hard things, families need to consider.
No journey as emotionally charged as this one can come without complexities that families need to carefully consider.
Complexity # 1:
Preparation We spend a great deal of time talking with families about the need for deliberate preparation. Here are some ideas, along with some practical ideas. There are oodles of other practical ideas. Please share yours in the comment section.
- Encourage kids to “dream within their comfort zone” about the things they would like to do in their birth country; don’t discourage anything. Start a “dream list” on your fridge and add let everyone traveling add to it. Some kids will say, “I want to travel to my birth country because I want to buy a hat.” The reason: A hat may be the only “safe thing” your child can think of to indicate his or her interest in what you are planning. We’ll talk about why in another post. On the other hand, your child may jump into the big issues, saying “I want to meet my foster mom or birth family.” Whatever response you get, we suggest you embrace the ideas, and assure your child you will do everything possible to meet their needs.
- Families need to be deliberate about exposing their children to poverty, discussing it, and disassociating it with people of color. Without that step, kids may arrive in their birth country and decide the only place poverty is an issue is in their birth country, and the pain of that goes to the core of the child’s being. PRACTICAL IDEAS: 1. Most of us live within driving distance of a major metropolitian area, or a rural area where people live in poverty. Spend some time in those areas, find a meaningful way to become part of the community by helping, and listen as conversation and insight flows.. 2. Help kids visualize global poverty via Peter Mendel’s book Material World. The book shows pictures of people in front of their homes, each with EVERYTHING they own. The message of the book is that people are proud and happy despite how much “stuff” they have because happiness is not about “stuff.” A great message for all of us.
- Each family member’s coping mechanisms need to be explored, enhanced and incorporated into the journey. Travel can be stressful, even when it is not as emotionally loaded as birth country travel. Talk as a family about what calms each of you. For some it may be quiet time, others calm with loud music or the oh-so-dreaded video games. If your child is in that last category, better to set some limits and bring it along than to be traveling with a child without his or her coping mechanism. I fondly remember an email I sent to the Cambodia Ties families that included that last statement–one of the moms called me and said, “My daughter thinks you are a god!” If only her daughter knew how often I wanted to pull a video game out of my own kids’ hands and throw it all away!
- Families need to be knowledgeable about cultural similarities and differences, and help their children understand them. Without this step, serious misunderstandings can arise that feel very hurtful to your child. To learn, take the time and energy to be involved in culture camp, read and watch videos, and connect with ethnic communities in your area in meaningful ways.