Did you know that a young child’s sense of identity starts to develop around four years old? And that children have a strong sense of identity before they even reach their teenage years? Studies have shown that children start to associate themselves as good/bad, smart/funny etc based on the reactions of those around them, more specifically their parents, caregivers and teachers, from very early ages.
So what happens when you don’t look like everyone else? When you aren’t like your peers, parents, or anyone in your familial group? How does a biracial child develop their sense of self when they have no inspiration to go off of?
Being biracial in America comes with a lot of nuances. Although most of society would like us to fit into one box or another, we often stick out like a sore thumb.
And it is often this uniqueness that gets attacked. The life of a multicultural child in America can quite often go one of two ways; learning self acceptance and self love or feeling alienated and worthless wishing they could fit in.
It took me well into my 30’s to fully understand who I was and how to navigate such an existence. From an early age I remember feeling like the odd man out. Not quite fitting in with any of my friend groups. Later in life this manifested itself as low self esteem which ultimately was the causation for a lot of mishaps in my journey. While I don’t regret any of it, as it made me who I am today. It is something I don’t wish for any mixed child growing up. Everyone has a need to feel loved, known and valued. But these things can’t happen if we don’t love, know and value ourselves. And that all starts with our sense of identity.
How to Help Mixed Children Develop a Strong Sense of Identity
A child’s development and identity formation go hand and hand. As a parent to a mixed raced child knowing how to raise a biracial child is critical. While some parents may be teaching their children about a singular culture’s heritages and traditions, parents of mixed children have to do so for both sides of the child’s lineage. It is important to mention that while this may fall into the lap of one parent as opposed to two, it is still vital that an effect is put forth.
I make no promises that it will be easy. Diving into a culture you may know nothing about in an attempt to teach your child can be scary, to say the least. Not wanting to offend, overstep or even appropriate another culture are all very normal reactions. But that does not mean we should shy away from it. Instead, learning as much as you can from others from that culture, researching as much as you can, listening and learning and ultimately asking questions (even when you feel it may be stupid) are the best ways to navigate it. Lean into what you don’t understand, being open and honest with yourself and child along the way. The more effort you put into it, the better the outcome for everyone involved.
Forming an identity for children is something that starts as soon as they are born. From the moment a newborn hears their mother’s voice they begin to form a sense of self. Teaching young children about their culture, heritage, and traditions on both sides of their family tree is a great way to begin this process. Finding fun identity activities for children that incorporate diversity and also help teach how our racial uniqueness is to be celebrated help to strengthen their sense of identity. Having a good foundation on who they are will help alleviate any feelings of alienation they could potentially experience later in life.
Look for Signs of Self-Doubt & Counteract It Early
No matter the age, having high self esteem and confidence can go a long way. Positive identity development is key in fostering these in biracial children. I mean, could you imagine never quite feeling like you fit in? That everyone around you is somehow different and you aren’t enough like this or don’t look enough like that to be considered a part of the group? As a biracial woman I can tell you first hand how important self identity is for multicultural children. Without it, mixed race children suffer and begin to develop self doubt.
This can look like believing a certain demographic is the prettiest. I remember when my daughter was about three years old and she told me how much she hated her hair and skin. That she wanted to be pretty like her baby dolls and have long yellow hair just like them. To say my heart was shattered is an understatement. But it opened my eyes to the importance of not only representation but also the importance of self identity in mixed children.
Other signs may include looking for validation from others. This can come in the form of wanting all the newest, most expensive things in order to “be better than” their friends.
If you find yourself in a similar situation as the one I found myself in a few years ago a few ways to counteract it are:
- Daily affirmations – Don’t just tell your child how amazing they are, have them say it as well
- Representation – Show them any and everyone who looks like them. Barack Obama, Halle Berry, the dentist around the corner. The point is to let them know that biracial people are just as amazing, successful and cool as anyone else.
- Books, books and more books – There are so many books available now that offer some amazon guidance on raising a mixed child. From learning to love their hair to embracing the skin they are in and everything in between.
The most important thing to remember here is communication. You can give your children books to read, movies to watch, or dolls to play with until they’re blue in the face. But nothing will trump hearing it from you.
Teach Them Both of Their Cultures and Backgrounds
As a biracial woman, I wish I could properly articulate the struggles I’ve had not knowing who or where I’m from. Having no help with the development of personal identity as a child, it took me a long time to feel completely whole and comfortable as a mixed woman. Which is why I can honestly say knowing their cultural background plays an important role in how children acquire a sense of identity. So take the time to teach them, not just yours, but both. And if you’re struggling with the other half, here’s some food for thought.
My mother was adopted, and it was a closed adoption. Which means, to this day we have no idea who her family is. Luckily for me, I have done one of those DNA tests to help me identify some of her background. But adding that to the sad reality of most Blacks not knowing their own history due to slavery and I’m stuck. Stuck with a very limited view on my family heritage and traditions. And yet, I do my best to teach my children what I do know. Explaining mine and my husband’s culture to them the best I can. Filling in gaps as honestly as I can. It doesn’t have to be perfect, but leaving out an entire piece of who they are just isn’t doable.
Celebrate Their Feature
There are going to be a lot of people who fetishize your child’s features. Saying things like, “you have such beautiful skin for a mixed girl.” Or “you’d never know he was biracial with all that pretty hair.” Do them and you a favor. Prepare them. Teach them that while their uniqueness is to be celebrated, microaggressioins and fetisization are not.
Encourage a Sense of Belonging
This is probably one of the most important things we as parents can do for our multicultural child. Being mixed is almost like being caught in the middle. And while most like to joke that biracial kids have the best of both worlds, that is not often the case.
Identity for kids is more than who they are. It’s knowing they belong. Even if they don’t look like others around them. Just because you look different from mommy and daddy doesn’t mean you aren’t worthy of love. Even if you are the only multicultural child in class doesn’t make you any less valuable. Using encouraging sayings like these help children feel connected and grounded. The younger you start the better the outcome.
Help Them Foster Relationships with People from All Races
Having a biracial child is more than just teaching them about their culture. Its more than buying books about their hair, watching Halle Berry movies or talking about how incredible Barack Obama is. Mixed children need to see diversity. They need to know about not only their own cultural makeup but also those of other races. Take your child to the different parks in different communities so they have a chance to meet new friends. Enroll them in a school that embraces diversity and has the student body to prove it. The first step in knowing you aren’t alone for your uniqueness is see others and learning to celebrate theirs.
Provide Space to Develop Their Own Individuality
This is one of the topics I see a lot of parents struggle with. I hear them saying things like, well I want them to know they’re Irish as well as Black. Or they not gaviate towards their Swedish side and mostly resonate with their Puerto Rican family. And my question to this is always, why does that concern you so much?
Promoting a sense of identity in your child means exactly that. Allowing them to develop their OWN identity. Yes, they need guidance from their parents. But guidance and control are two completely different things.
And I get it, my mom was the same way. She’d ask me why I would say I was black as opposed to saying I was mixed. She compared it to me saying she didn’t exist outside of our home. Although I have empathy for her and how hearing her mixed child say that may have made her feel, the harsh reality is that’s how I identify. It’s how I am perceived by the world. It’s how I am treated the minute I step outside of my home.
So while I may know my mother is French and my father is Black, to the rest of the society I am a black woman. I am treated as such day in and day out. Black culture is what I resonate most with and it shaped who I am today.
I say all this to say, at one point I tried to appease her. I went around saying I was mixed and “not just black” as a way to honor her. But those words are rooted in anti-blackness. As if being black was wrong or bad and I was therefore trying to put myself as close to “whiteness” as possible. And I regret every day that I felt this way at one point. I regret everyday that I ever uttered those words.
While my mother may have had good intentions, it’s words like hers that uphold white supremacy ideology. So I beg you, don’t do that. Do not try to guilt trip your child into identifying as one race over the other. Or to make sure they mention their biracial roots more often than just the one they feel most connected with. Our children are individuals just like everyone else in this world. And they deserve to make that decision on their own.
Young children’s sense of identity is a very fragile thing. Which is why it needs to be cultivated and celebrated. Especially in our biracial children. Putting away any racial biases you may have and helping your little one grow into a strong and confident adult should be the ultimate goal. Even if that means asking some hard questions and making some personal changes along the way. Mixed children who have a strong sense of identity from a young age have been shown to be more successful, more confident and overall lead a happy life. And I’m sure that’s what we all want for our kiddos.