How you respond to your child's first identity crisis can establish lifelong attitudes toward identity and racial differences.

by Stacey Young


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Your Child's First Identity Crisis

our toddler isn't likely to announce her first identity crisis by bursting tearfully through the door like in the movies.

     Chances are, you won't even know anything has happened until some time after the precipitating event. Often the first indication that your child has begun to question her identity appears in the form of a question about whether she is really Chinese (or Corean or Vietnamese or Japanese, etc). Or possibly she will ask why a friend pulled up the corners of the eyes. Sometimes it may only be revealed by a request to exclude steamed buns, ghimbhab or daikon from her lunchbox.

     When the moment arrives you will be overcome by a wave of emotions that range from tenderest solicitude for your child's feelings to deepest rage at the parents of the brats who subjected your child to the ugliness of racial prejudice. Your feelings will be complicated by the resurfacing of long-buried emotions from the identity issues of your own childhood.

     What can you say to lessen your child's pain and confusion? What wise words will arm her to cope with future encounters with racial prejudice? What perspective will fill her with pride in her racial and cultural heritage instead of shame or bewilderment at being singled out for her differences?

     As a grownup who has encountered hateful people, you might have come to see the world as a place in which Asians and non-Asians are antagonists in perpetual racial conflict. But communicating that perspective to your child would merely force her to choose between loyalty to you and trusting relationships with classmates, teachers and other non-Asians. No one benefits from being thrust into that kind of no-win situation, least of all a child at the start of her conscious life.

     Treat your child's first identity crisis not as the product of racial conflict but as one stage of her self-discovery. You want to help your child discover who she is, not to enlist her in a racial conflict.


     Truly helping your child cope with her first identity crisis requires, above all, calm and restraint. Restrain the natural impulse to overreact. Reacting with strong emotion or a barrage of questions will turn a golden opportunity for identity-building into an ordeal that will leave her confused and worried. Maintaining a relaxed demeanor and tone is far more important than your actual words.

     Whatever incident may have triggered your child's first identity crisis, it has probably only raised questions about the physical differences between her and other kids. She has yet drawn no dark conclusions about racial prejudice or how it might color her life. Overreacting would suggest to her that racial difference is a terrible thing, a source of bad feelings. The lesson you want to teach is precisely the opposite -- differences among people are what make life interesting and each person uniquely valuable.

     Let your child take the lead in addressing what's on her mind. If she asks a question, answer it without assigning an overly broad significance or turning it into an opening for a lecture on race relations. If she says, "Am I Chinese?" say, "You are an American of Chinese descent." Her next question will probably be, "What is descent?" Remember that she isn't steeped in bitter memories of encounters with racial prejudice. She has assigned the incident little if any emotional content. Your facial expression and tone of voice, more than your choice of words, will determine the significance she assigns it. If you sound uptight or upset, she will assume that racial differences are a source of rancor and bad feelings. If you sound relaxed and proud, she will see them as an opportunity for interesting, self-affirming discussions.

     You want racial identity to become a source of pride and positive associations. Avoid bringing to the discussion negative emotions held over from your own racial encounters. Remember that while your perspective is colored by several decades of experiences, it is a brand new experience for her. Even if the other child had intended racial insult or mockery, your attitude can instill in your child an empowering, advantageous attitude toward racial encounters. Bemused tolerance, playful banter or casual curiosity are better tacks to take than tripwire anger or wounded defensiveness. PAGE 2

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"You want to help your child discover who she is, not to enlist her in a racial conflict."