a teenager working on a computer


Please Stop Assigning My Adopted Kids Projects About Their Family Tree Or Culture

Jun 21, 2021

It happened again.

When adoption or foster care is your culture, and you have no inkling of what your ethnicity or background is — how do you approach family tree or culture assignments?

Recently, my youngest teen came to me agitated and crying over a high school assignment. It was the first assignment of the new octomester: share a cultural meal that is specific to your family. So, what’s the issue?

Both of our kids are adopted.

My youngest is still very much exploring identity while negotiating life as a teen living through a pandemic. On top of that, they also see the world with the lens of disability as a youth with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD). As a family, we have no information that illuminates their culture or ethnicity. None at all.

Read here how Paula's family supports and works with her youngest daughter's FASD diagnosis.

Where some other kids in this course were writing about traditional Colombian dishes passed down through generations, or Korean meals from their parents, my high schooler was left feeling sad, angry and stuck.

Sometimes when a child arrives in their forever home via adoption or foster care, a big part of their story is in the gaps and holes and missing pieces. Big question marks. They have two, maybe three choices when confronted with assignments about their history — adopt their adoptive parent’s culture and traditions, make something up entirely or don’t do the project.

Grade School Workarounds

For a while, when the kids were small, I knew where many of the pitfalls were. There were supports that gave me, as an adoptive parent, insight into helping them negotiate adoption in the context of school.

The family tree in Grade 1 was one of the first minor triggers, but I anticipated it. Other adoptive parents and foster care providers who came before me knew there were ways to handle those assignments. "Disclose that adoption story at the start of the year to the teacher," most books said, "and you can sensitively handle any family tree assignments that pop up."

"'I’m tired of having to tell my story about adoption. That is my story. I shouldn’t have to tell every single teacher or class that I am in.'"

That year, I pitched the teacher the idea of a family orchard and she built on that with teddy bears. Together, with my older daughter, we went into the class and talked about varieties of families and adoption. Her classmates seemed to enjoy it and they learned something.

Over time, there were other assignments which the kids slowly started to manage or alter to fit their lives.

In Grade 5, one of the kids angrily decided she’d write up an entire ethnicity assignment with a preface that said: "This assignment is insensitive, and it made me feel awful for a bit, but then I thought I’d complete it to let you know not everyone knows their culture and ethnicity. Not everyone knows all of the answers to these questions and there are other ways to do this." She earned an A, and it was on to the next grade.

As the kids got older, I assumed the assignments changed or disappeared, and to be honest there’s always something else to deal with around here, so I didn’t really give the curriculum much thought. And yet, just this month I had a crying teen in my room telling me these assignments had always been there causing an undercurrent of distress.

"[These projects] can be incredibly insensitive, without intending to be that way."

This most recent assignment asked for more details about ethnicity and background than they knew about their birth family, and my kiddo was emotionally spent just thinking about it. "It’s once a year, Mom, at least once a year that we get one of these assignments where I literally can’t answer any of the questions."

Naively, I thought that these went away at some point during grade school, but these assignments can make my kids feel like they have an open wound that's never fully healed, reminding them they are different.

"I’m tired of having to tell my story about adoption. That is my story. I shouldn’t have to tell every single teacher or class that I am in. It’s none of their business."

That’s it in a nutshell.

"I don’t have a birth story." Read here why Paula would like to see birth stories become more inclusive to all the ways families are made.

Adoption and Identity As A Teen

When my kids were younger, I could intervene at the school level and suggest to teachers other ways of doing assignments. But high school? I didn’t imagine or even consider that these types of insensitive assignments continued beyond grade school.

So, when the teacher called one afternoon to ask where the culture assignment was, we had a quick conversation about the triggers and little landmines hidden behind these types of projects for kids whose story involves foster care and adoption. They can be incredibly insensitive, without intending to be that way.

"Sometimes, I think it would be easier if I could still see those triggers or assignments coming — but being a teenager is also partly about learning to self-advocate."

For years, people have repeatedly speculated out loud and often in front of my child: "I wonder if you are mixed race? Are you Indigenous? Your skin is so much darker than your parents’ skin or your sister’s skin." Which has also raised a lot of questions in their mind. But our adoptions were both closed, and while you are privy to some details about birth family, we don’t have much to go on. And if there’s a family history of foster care and adoption, it gets even harder to figure out details like ethnicity.

Well, what about ancestry or DNA kits? We've talked about using one of those services. My youngest daughter is apprehensive and anxious about it so for now that’s not really for them. One day it might be the answer to some of the questions we all have.

Sometimes, I think it would be easier if I could still see those triggers or assignments coming — but being a teenager is also partly about learning to self-advocate. At the end of the day, my kids are teens and they both can handle a lot of questions, assignments and identity issues on their own, at school, home and online.

But did they complete the most recent project?

We discussed many ways to finish it and we talked a lot about what my daughter was feeling, but I’m pretty sure they didn’t turn it in, or it was left with a big gap in the middle. That’s a lost opportunity for learning.

There are many issues with the content we study in Canadian schools, and we need to have important conversations about diversity and inclusion right now. While we are doing that, we should remember to include the adoption, foster care and kinship communities. 

Adoptees aren’t limbs grafted onto a new family tree. They shouldn’t be expected to assume another person’s culture and they certainly shouldn’t have to lie about a history they don’t know, simply to pass a course.

Article Author Paula Schuck
Paula Schuck

Read more from Paula here.

My name is Paula Schuck and I have been writing professionally for over 20 years. I am a mother of two daughters, and I am a fierce advocate for several health issues. I am a yoga nut, skier and content coordinator for two London, Ontario, trade magazines. I have been published online and in traditional magazines and newspapers including: Today’s Parent, The Globe and Mail, Kitchener Record, London Free Press, trivago.ca, Ontario Parks blog and Food, Wine and Travel magazine.