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Tuesday, May 31st, 2011

Honoring Your Child’s Heritage When He’s Too Young to Care

raising-global-citizens/ © zhang bo - istockphoto

When my husband and I decided to adopt internationally, we entered the process fully aware that adopting a child of a different race, ethnicity and culture would mean being intentional about how we’d honor his race, ethnicity and culture in our family. As we embarked upon one of the first adoption rites of passage—the home study—our social worker asked us about our parenting philosophies: How would we discipline our child? What was our plan for childcare? And, how would we teach our child about his heritage? Like most non-parents, we answered these questions with naiveté. We shared that we would discipline our child by setting clear boundaries and taking away privileges, our childcare plan would simply involve both parents working four 10-hour work days and enrolling our son in part-time childcare, and we would talk to our son about his Korean heritage, start him in Korean language classes when he was a toddler and cook Korean food once a week.


These replies were genuine when we were discussing them with our social worker. We really thought discipline was as simple as setting a few boundaries and giving our son a couple of time outs, not thinking about scenarios that involve an angry toddler hurling a metal BPA-free sippy cup at my head while I was driving. We thought that we could balance home and work by just working longer hours on fewer days, not realizing that working four 10-hour days means that when you have a “day off” to spend with your child, you’re exhausted. “Fun” quality-time activities like going to the museum, pool or zoo aren’t really very “fun.” And we thought we’d just talk to our son about South Korea a lot, enroll him in some language classes, and I’d start adding Korean food to my culinary repertoire. But once we actually became parents and these pre-parent philosophies were put into practice, we soon realized that it wasn’t going to be that simple. Now, with two-and-a half years of parenting under our belt, we’ve kind of figured out discipline and childcare, but I’m still torn about how to effectively teach our son, Jin, about his South Korean heritage.


It’s a delicate balance. Do you we immerse Jin in all things Korean, hoping that by the sheer volume of information we’re providing he will grow up knowing about and appreciating the culture of his birth country? Or, do we wait until he expresses interest in learning about his culture and then begin the language classes and Korean dinner nights? Our pre-parent selves believed in immersion, but after becoming parents and meeting our son, it seemed that the immersion strategy seemed simplistic and naive and did not take into account Jin’s very independent, strong-willed nature. So, we decided to lay off the immersion strategy, while conscious to integrate South Korea into his life—we have a South Korean flag in his room and we talk about South Korea, particularly his foster parents, a lot. I’m happy when Jin sees a South Korean flag and says, “That’s my flag,” or when he hears anything that sounds like a vuvuzela (the South African blowing horn), he screams “Korea!!” because we cheered for South Korea during the World Cup. I love that we still play the Korean version of patty-cake and he greets many Asian people with “Anyong haseo!” (“Hello” in Korean.)


Despite Jin’s clear awareness of South Korea, the reality is that we could be doing more. And in all honesty, I feel guilty. I’m not Korean and I will never be able to raise Jin with the perspective of a Korean native—it’s the one thing that I can’t give my son. And, frankly, I fear that he’ll resent me for this. Do I assuage this guilt by enrolling him in weekly Korean language classes, knowing that if we do this, he’ll have fewer hours to play at the playground or swim at the pool? Maybe pushing all things Korean on him too soon will result in him resenting his culture, which is clearly not my goal. On the other hand, what if I wait until he expresses interest in learning more about his culture and language and he resents me for not doing it sooner?


Obviously, I haven’t figured this out, but as I write this, I wonder if the guilt and fear of resentment is more about me than him. If I push his culture on him just because I’m afraid he’ll resent me if I don’t, then it’s not really about what’s best for him. Raising a child, biological or adopted, is full of tough and nuanced decisions. If successful parenting simply meant putting your child in the right class or teaching him the right language, then parenting would be a lot easier. But parenting is not easy. Maybe Jin will wish that we had enrolled him in intensive language classes when he was three years old. But as I watch him run around outside on a beautiful Saturday morning, I feel like he is happy in the moment, and that’s what’s important to me right now. And if there’s resentment, I’ll deal with it when it comes.

© 2011 – 2013, Kelley O’Brien. All rights reserved.

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Kelley O'Brien lives in Carrboro, North Carolina with her husband David, their son Jin, adopted in January 2009 from South Korea, and two cats. She is working hard to balance her career with raising a happy and healthy child.

Leave us a comment!

  1. CommentsAmmena   |  Thursday, 02 June 2011 at 11:24 pm

    Interesting, thanks for this.. Ive always intended on adopting at least one child from outside of my own country (UK) so your thoughts and experiences are definitely appreciated

  2. Commentsamber dorko stopper   |  Wednesday, 08 June 2011 at 3:15 pm

    we are quite on the same page. i’ve founded a poongmul group here in philly for adoptive families, and, as a mom of both a korean and an african-american child, we juggle a lot of the same stuff as this mom (and thanks for pointing out the emperor’s new clothes are not really there and the zoo frequently is NOT fun.)
    i had an exhibition of work at a juneteenth festival recently and the video we made — talking about my knitting process and how it relates to my kids’ birth cultures — might be of interest:

    i have a radio interview coming up in a few weeks as well on the same topic (more or less about the exhibition and about birth culture and how to dig it rather than just grind through it like an old social studies textbook) but i am really down with kelley! :)

  3. Commentslindy   |  Wednesday, 08 June 2011 at 8:48 pm

    great article–honest, gritty, and loving. i know this family personally and i think the parenting is spot-on–both parents are aware, receptive and fun-loving. any child could hope for as much! and the pool time is very, very important!

  4. CommentsKorean Language School Dc – SCHOOL PORTAL   |  Saturday, 25 June 2011 at 3:45 pm

    […] Honoring Your Child's Heritage When He's Too Young to Care …Description : And we thought we'd just talk to our son about South Korea a lot, enroll him in some language classes, and I'd start adding Korean food to my culinary repertoire. But once we actually became parents and these pre-parent … .. […]

  5. CommentsAmy   |  Thursday, 18 August 2011 at 8:39 am

    I know the cultural balance can be hard. But I don’t understand why doing Korean things is “pushing” culture on your child?

    As we waited, we too believed in the “immersion” method (as much as a caucasian American parent can immerse). We’ve followed through with that plan and it’s worked well for our family. Our son doesn’t see it as Korea being “pushed” on him; he sees learning the language, eating the food, and celebrating the holidays as what our family does. We’ve done them since he came home so these things are just part of who we are. As he’s gotten older, he’s wanted to do more, not less. He’s excited about our family starting Korean school in a couple of weeks.

    We view culture the same way we do religion. We don’t wait until our son expresses an interest in religious things to teach him about them. We feel our religion is important and started teaching him early. That’s how we view his knowledge of his cultural heritage; it’s important so we as the parents will take the lead in the teaching and learning.

    I’m not saying that this approach will work for everyone; no one approach will. But I think daily experiencing some aspect of cultural heritage is possible and worthwhile for adoptees.

  6. CommentsSTUDENT PORTAL » Korean Language School Dc » STUDENT PORTAL   |  Wednesday, 21 September 2011 at 7:36 pm

    […] Honoring Your Child's Heritage When He's Too Young to Care …Description : And we thought we'd just talk to our son about South Korea a lot, enroll him in some language classes, and I'd start adding Korean food to my culinary repertoire. But once we actually became parents and these pre-parent … .. […]

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