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Inventing Identities: Raising Multicultural Kids

Whardle, who is white, and his wife, who is black and Native American, have raised four children. Although some psychologists argue that it is better for parents to build a child's identity based on how society will react to them -- "you look black or Asian, therefore you are" -- Whardle likens the parental role on this issue to lessons on morality.

"It's like teaching right from wrong," he believes. "It's critical to raise children with a whole picture because they shouldn't have to deny who they are."

So far, little research has been published on the identity issues facing multicultural children, but parents like Whardle and Yem have the following advice for mixed-race families:

  • Remember that children need a way to identify themselves. Parents of multicultural kids need to give them self-descriptive words to use, rather than let them wait for society to provide a label. Whardle says younger children might simply use the term "brown," while older kids may choose to adopt their own unique terms (such as "Kmer-ican," used by the Yem family.)

  • Parents of multicultural kids need to talk not only about diversity, but also explain what unites them as a couple and as a family. Although Susan and her husband Ratha come from different cultural backgrounds, they share a strong faith in Christian teachings.

  • Give children words and thoughts to combat the racism or narrow-mindedness of others. Example: A child of mixed race might be told, "You're acting white." Parents need to foresee that such putdowns may occur. Whardle suggests that they offer children ways to respond; perhaps: "Of course I am -- I'm half white."

  • Bring your family's experience into your child's school. Multicultural events or curricula used in most schools may do a terrific job of teaching the bible of diversity, by broadening children's understanding and respect for other cultures. Still, mixed-race kids are usually ignored in these materials. Especially in the early years, parents can play a valuable role by "guest teaching" in the classroom. One mom, from Puerto Rico, showed her son's preschool class how she prepared Latin foods for use during Passover.

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