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Star of the Week

Fielding questions about adoption at school starts early. Is your child ready? By Carrie Krueger

Has your child been "Star of the Week" yet? If you have a youngster entering kindergarten or first grade this fall, chances are he or she will soon be tapped for this special honor. For the uninitiated, let me explain. In many early elementary school classrooms, a child is picked each week to be the "star." The child is given some special classroom responsibilities, such as being the line leader.

But most important, the star is often asked to complete and share a poster telling about him- or herself. The poster almost inevitably has a space for a baby picture and an area where the child is asked to glue a photo, draw, and write about his or her family. Many five- and six-year-olds are quite excited about the project, as they are made to feel very special about it.

However, it can raise adoption issues. When my then-five-year-old was made star of the week, she gleefully filled out the poster, fretting over each section and wanting to get it just right. She was filled with excitement as she reported to class, clutching her star poster. Her teacher reported to me what happened. The first question from one of her classmates was, "Where is your father?" My daughter cheerfully explained that she did not have a father, that she was adopted. The second question was, "Is that why you look different from your mom?" The teacher says that what followed was a lengthy, thoughtful classroom discussion about adoption. I'm thrilled to say that she reported my daughter handled the whole thing with competence and grace.

While I felt good about how the episode resolved itself, it made me realize that even at a very young age, our children are expected to be able to field questions about their origins and family make-up. It's something they will have to face for the rest of their lives. Witness the recent Miss America Pageant. One of the finalists had been adopted from Korea. While the other contestants were asked about their social causes, this young woman was asked about her adoption.

The general public seems to find the subject as fascinating as we families do. In school that curiosity can cause our children to feel out of place during activities ranging from family trees to health education classes. The star of the week project was my first encounter with these issues and what it highlighted for me is that it's imperative we talk early and often to our children because they may need to be fielding questions by the time they are five!

Adoptive parents have to be even more involved in school than parents by birth. It's important to be aware of what is coming up, and remember that kindergarten, first, and second grades almost always have a family focus. "It is unfortunate that classroom curriculum teaching units on families don't seem to have caught up with the times," says Nancy Kaplan, a child and family therapist and adoption social worker who runs the Center for Adoption Education and Support in Washington State. "Many teachers continue to use archaic tools for teaching units on families that only address birth children living in two-parent families. These units can be painful and difficult for children who have a different family structure."

Kaplan recommends a proactive approach of talking with the teacher, understanding the potential pitfalls, and suggesting alternative assignments and activities. For example, a Family Tree could be a Family Orchard. Certainly getting to know the teacher and the curriculum is vital.

Despite your best efforts, though, it's almost a sure thing your child will run into situations where an ordinary event turns into an adoption issue, and his or her adoption becomes "center stage." Your job is to get your child ready to face those situations. Talk early and talk often! I'm happy to say that after having the star of the week event in both kindergarten and first grade, it does not appear to be part of the second grade curriculum. Then, however, they will be studying family heritage. Oh, boy!

Carrie Krueger lives in Washington State with Claire, Cameron, and Christopher, all adopted internationally.

Talking Tips
Adoptive mom and author Carrie Krueger offers these ten tips for talking with your child about adoption, getting him or her to talk to you, and preparing him or her to talk to others, especially in school.

1. It’s important that kids know it’s okay not to answer questions. Parents can model this when a friend or stranger intrudes with a question. A calm “I don’t care to discuss it” is fine. When my daughter was asked why she didn’t have a dad, an option would have been to say, “That’s just the way our family is.” There’s no need to go into detail.

2. Role-play possible questions and answers. In one family where brothers are of different races, the boys hear, “Is he your REAL brother?” a lot. The children’s father has them practice an answer: “He sure is!” End of discussion. Be proactive, don’t wait for the ugly or intrusive comment to discuss responses. Talk through the kinds of things children might hear on the playground and help them think of how they might reply.

3. Just because your adopted child doesn’t stand out doesn’t mean you don’t need to keep talking. For some children adoption is “written all over their faces”; for others it would be easy to “pass” as a birth child. In either case, the need for communication and developing a competence in adoption issues is vital. “All children who are adopted need to feel comfortable with their adoption story,” says Nancy Kaplan, child and family therapist and adoption social worker. “You can’t assume that because your child looks like you that he or she will never have to answer questions about adoption in a public forum.”

4. Silence is not golden. It’s wrong to assume that kids who don’t bring up their adoption are not dealing with adoption issues. To help your child prepare to face the public, those private discussions are vital. Some experts recommend a “once a month” approach. If the child doesn’t initiate discussion, you bring it up once a month or so in a safe, easy way. For example, I said to my daughter on the eve of her birthday, “I bet your birthmom is thinking about you tonight.” Though she never would have brought it up, it led to a wonderful and emotional conversation.

5. Allow and be prepared for school situations to bring up sadness and grief. Kaplan counsels schools on adoption issues and tells of one boy who was devastated when his class played a “guess who?” game with baby pictures. “He was adopted at five, and not having a baby picture is very painful for him. He was relieved to discover that there were a number of other children who also couldn’t produce baby pictures. It was an opportunity for him to grieve some of what he has lost in life. He needed a tremendous amount of support during this time. In the end he decided to do a beautiful picture board of his favorite pictures of himself.”

6. Never force your kids to share adoption information with others. ‘Nuf said on that. Likewise, help your child feel proud of his or her roots without making the child a poster-child for adoption.For example, many parents are tempted to do some adoption education in their child’s school. While this is a noble intention, it sets up their child for additional attention he or she may not welcome. A different idea might be to swap schools with another parent to get the adoption education done without forcing the personal connection on your child.

7. Know that adoption will come up again and again—and when you least expect it. A unit on Martin Luther King, Jr., caused my daughter to ask me, “Mommy, are we white?” She cried when she realized the “Whites Only” sign in her book on Martin Luther King, Jr., would have applied to her. For an adoptive parent with a child of the same race, the issue was brought home in high school when his child was asked to trace a genetic trait through the family.

8. Don’t take one success (like the star of the week) as a sign that you’re done. Adoption is a lifelong process. The kindergartner who freely shares his adoption story with the classroom may well be the second grader who refuses to go to a Tet celebration because he is “not Vietnamese.”

9. Allow your child to experience a range of emotions surrounding his or her adoption. Just because the adoption has been a wonderful thing for you doesn’t mean it isn’t a bit of a mixed bag for your child. Giving your child a safe place to express those feelings including anger, sadness, and loss, will make it easier for him or her to face a curious classmate or a tactless teacher, because the child will be in touch with feelings rather than caught off guard by them.

10. All kids are different. Some kids talk about adoption all the time; some never bring it up. Some connect every piece of school curriculum to adoption; some never draw a connection, or if they do, they don’t talk about it. Different children require different approaches, but all adopted kids deserve parents who support them in understanding their adoption. Like sex education and drug awareness, all children need early and ongoing adoption education.

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