How to Help Multiracial Kids Establish Their Identity

Multiracial children are shaking up the way Americans think about race. This is how you can help them grow up with pride, confidence, and a strong sense of self.

Mixed race girl playing on bicycle rack
Photo: Inti St Clair/Getty Images

When Mexican-American mom Julia Rodriguez announced that she and her African-American partner were having a baby, her anxious parents responded with a flurry of questions: "Will people wonder what he is? Will he even look like you? Will he have trouble fitting in?"

"Honestly, it got frustrating," recalls Rodriguez, of Stockton, California. "From my standpoint, the most important thing the baby would be was mine." Still, she tried to remind herself that her parents' questions were fueled not by prejudice but by uncertainty about whether the world would welcome their multiracial grandchild. "He's the only mixed-race kid in our family," Rodriguez says.

But Rodriguez's son, Aiden, 4, is hardly alone. Multiracial Americans are growing at a rate three times faster than the population as a whole, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. And with interracial couples accounting for 15 percent of all new marriages in the country, demographers expect this growth to accelerate in the coming decades.

All of this hopscotching across color lines has helped debunk outdated theories that once predicted isolation and identity confusion for mixed-race children. In fact, studies now show that a multiracial background gives kids a stronger appreciation for diversity, the ability to understand multiple sides of controversial issues, and enhanced creativity when it comes to problem solving.

But while ideas about race have evolved, society still insists on classifying people in racial groups. As parents, you'll want to teach your kids about their mixed heritage in the hope that they'll continue to celebrate every part of who they are. So don't hold back when your kid comes to you with these questions.

Why Don't We Match? Rodriguez's son doesn't necessarily think of himself as either African-American or Mexican-American, or both. But every so often he points out, "My skin is darker than Mami's, and Daddy's is darker than mine." Soon he'll start to wonder why.

That's totally normal, says Diana Sanchez, Ph.D., a psychology professor at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey. As a toddler, Aiden probably noticed physical differences in other people, but he was more interested in himself: "I have brown skin and curly hair." But by around age 3 or 4, Dr. Sanchez notes, "children start categorizing people by race or skin color." Now, as a preschooler, Aiden senses that people with brown skin and curly hair seem to "go together," and he'll begin to question why he and his parents don't quite match.

Encouraging children's curiosity as they develop a racial identity helps assure them that a multiracial heritage is something to take pride in, says Shatavia Thomas, a marriage and family therapist in Atlanta. But avoiding discussions of race can inadvertently tell children that being mixed-race is something negative. "Sometimes parents think, 'We don't see color' means 'We're not racist.' " Thomas says. "What a child hears is, 'Something's wrong.' " Thomas suggests being direct: Start by saying, 'Everybody's hair is a little different, and everyone's skin tone is a little different.' " Then explain, "Daddy is African-American, and his skin is dark brown. Mami is Mexican-American, and her skin is lighter brown. That means you are African-American and Mexican-American, and you got your skin color from both of us."

Just try not to fall back on fractions (half-Peruvian, for example) says Monica Brown, Ph.D., a professor specializing in multiethnic literature at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff. "The language of fractions tells mixed children that they are not quite one race and not quite another," Dr. Brown says. Instead, develop a vocabulary for your family's multiracial identity: Are you Kor-inican? Mexi-pino? Simply Latino-Asian? This encourages little ones to claim all aspects of their background.

Who Am I, Anyway? In order to raise self-assured multiracial kids, you'll want to leave the answer to that question up to the individual child, Dr. Sanchez says. "Foster your children's identity autonomy, the idea that they choose their own identity however they want, whenever they want." It's when children feel pressured to conform to others' expectations about who they are that their confidence erodes.

In order to choose an identity, children first need to understand where they come from. So if your family has a heritage language or languages, speak them in the home. Introduce your children to foods and traditions from your cultural backgrounds. Give them lots of opportunities to spend time with relatives from both sides of the family.

Dr. Sanchez, a Puerto-Slovakian, hired a Spanish tutor to help her daughter, Noa, 6, explore her Latino ancestry. She also celebrates Jewish holidays to foster a connection to her husband's side of the family. "The more cultural experiences multiracial children have to draw from, the better prepared they will be to cultivate an identity that 'fits,' and the less likely they will feel forced to choose one over another," Dr. Sanchez says.

But what happens if your mixed-race child identifies more strongly with one side of the family? No te preocupes. Mixed-race children often have a f luid identity, seeing themselves one way at certain times and another way at others, notes Dr. Sanchez. A mixed-race child might describe herself as African-American, for example, because that's the side of the family she sees most.

Whatever the explanation, don't take it personally. "Choosing one identity does not mean she is rejecting the other parent's love or affection," Dr. Sanchez says. Let your child know you support her identity choice and that you still feel closely connected.

Is Anyone Out There Like Us? Kids are trying to figure out where they fit in the world, and for multiracial children, who don't necessarily see themselves represented in popular culture, that can be even more challenging. That's why Los Angeles mom Sonia Smith-Kang recommends that just as parents childproof their homes, they take care to "culture-proof " them as well. Smith-Kang, who is mixed Latina and African-American and married to a Korean man, made that her job when their four kids, ages 7 to 23, were still young. She sewed outfits that celebrated their multiracial background, using a blend of materials and designs that reflected their different cultures (such as kente-cloth rompers and wrap dresses with Ballet Folklórico– inspired prints). "I had these little guys who were mixed, and the clothes helped me instill a sense of pride," says Smith-Kang, whose hobby eventually grew into the fashion line Mixed Up Clothing.

There are many other ways to create an environment that not only supports but also embraces multiculturalism. Smith-Kang stocks up on crayons that fit a range of skin tones, and her children's shelves are filled with books, videos, and toys that depict diverse families. She even organizes playgroups with other multiracial families. Now, when strangers inevitably ask her kids, "What are you?" Smith-Kang takes great satisfaction in listening to them talk about their culture.

When multiracial children see themselves reflected in media, they feel included instead of sidelined, notes Monica Brown, who is also a children's-book author known for her Marisol McDonald series, which features a multiracial main character. "I write for children who might not see themselves in many other books," Brown says.

To further your own multicultural mission, share whatever resources you find with your children's teachers, adds Thomas. That way, you can help make your kids' classrooms as inclusive as your home while ensuring that the positive messages you're sending are reinforced at school. "Educators can use those tools to create teachable moments," Thomas says. "The child shouldn't feel the heavy burden of having to educate an entire community. Adults can take the lead."

For Rodriguez and her partner, Antonio Young, supporting Aiden's multiracial identity outside the home means sending him to a racially diverse preschool where Spanish is taught and Martin Luther King Jr. and Cesar Chavez are acknowledged. Young and Rodriguez hope that by building Aiden's cultural pride, they'll also boost his self-esteem, especially as he starts to confront stereotypes about African-Americans, Latinos, and mixed-raced Americans. "You don't want to let yourself be defined by other people," Young says. "If he's confident in his skin, he can say, 'There's nothing wrong with my being Mexican. There's nothing wrong with my being African-American. There's nothing wrong with my being both.' "

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