Interracial and interethnic marriages have been increasing in the United States, now accounting for one in six new marriages (Pew Research Center, 2017) and resulting in a larger population of biracial, multiracial, and bi-ethnic children.
Mental health practitioners are more likely than ever to encounter these children and their parents. They should be aware of common issues related to parenting and the ethnic and racial identity these families might face.
Nineteen parents married to someone of a different race or ethnicity and with at least one child under ten years old were interviewed between September 2020 and April 2021 by master of social work (MSW) students as part of a larger study of interracial and interethnic families I am conducting with colleagues, Michael Woolley and Victoria Stubbs. Jamie Rosen and I analyzed the 19 interviews and published our findings in Child and Adolescent Social Work Journal.
The 19 parents identified four themes from their parenting practices with these young children. These were:
1. Racism / discrimination, which they saw or were concerned about in reference to their child (ren).
This theme included experiences of racism or oppression against the participants’ children, how parents were preparing their children for racism and structural oppression (with some referencing the current social climate), and their fears for their children’s future experiences with racism.
Several parents reported that their young children were already suffering instances of microaggressions and racist treatment perpetrated by family members (including grandparents), friends, and strangers, even if they were too young to fully understand.
Some participants avoided family members who displayed racism toward their children, while others ignored microaggressions in order to stay connected to elders. For a Latinx mother married to an Asian man, the extended family’s racism was something to be tolerated.
The thing is not making a big to do about when we get treated differently. We still want the children to respect the grandmas and aunts and uncles… We do not have to fight every single battle.
Given the racism that they anticipated their children would experience, parents took steps to prepare them.
A Black father of a five-year-old boy whose mother is white reported,
We’ve had the conversation of me teaching our children what it means to be Black in America and how they’re going to be treated differently solely because of that. ”
2. The child (ren)’s ethnic-racial identity development.
Parents discussed the age at which their children began to notice ethnic, racial, and cultural differences; how they tried to facilitate ethnic-racial identity development through exposure to media and their roots; the role of social interactions with family in identity development; and questions of how children represent their ethnic-racial identities to the world.
At three-years-of-age was when a few parents reported they saw the first evidence that their child was aware of differences, though this came in simple forms like being aware of variations in languages. A white mother married to a Latinx man said,
She’s starting to notice people’s differences. She’s navigating Spanish versus English. Sometimes she wants Spanish, sometimes English. She knows she has cousins in Guatemala but I do not think there’s a real acknowledgment of those differences at this stage yet.
3. The child (ren)’s skin color.
Related to ethnic-racial identity is how parents discuss their children’s skin color. Issues that arose included the early recognition of skin color differences, the racial presentation of the children, and comparing racial presentation with family members. The recognition of skin color differences often prompts a response from the parents.
Some parents try to help their children understand skin color differences from a young age. A Latinx mother married to a white man actively discusses race with her daughter. “We’ve been open with her by saying, ‘Mom is brown, Dad is white, and you’re a combination of both.'” A white mother married a Black man said about their three-year-old girl: ” We talk about different skin colors. I’m pink. Daddy is dark brown. She is light brown. ”
4. The child (ren) benefits from being multiracial, biracial, or bi-ethnic.
Parents also identified the strengths of being from an interracial or interethnic family. These included their children being open-minded to multiculturalism, having the ability to express empathy towards others, and holding egalitarian and anti-racist beliefs.
A white mother married to a Black man reflected on their two-year-old son being multicultural. “I think it will make him very open to different ethnicities, travel, and different approaches to things. Hopefully, he will combine them for the better. ”
A Latinx man married to a white woman stated that being part of two cultures would help his son when encountering new cultures.
Being able to navigate two cultures is eye opening and helps navigate a third and a fourth culture… be more receptive to others as opposed to being the ugly American that goes somewhere and expects everyone to speak English.
A white man married to a bi-racial woman expressed,
Being in an interracial family creates new dimensions of empathy we would not have without being in the family we are in. Our children understand people that are different from them much easier.
In addition, some parents expressed heightened concern for their children due to the political climate, as reflected by recent racial protests and anti-Asian and anti-Latinx hate crimes. These fears are consistent with other research we are conducting.
When working with these families and their children:
- Understand your own racial identity and biases, explicitly and implicitly.
- Understand that the children are not the same race as either of their parents and so must navigate their own identity with great support and love from parents and others.
- Understand that there is great variation in how racial identity develops. The age at which that occurs may be shaped, in part, by the diversity in one’s hometown and social group.
- Practice with cultural humility. We are all buffeted by the social environment and must be aware of how events in the world related to race impact our sense of self and the family members’ senses of self, both collectively and individually.