The challenges, joys in raising multiracial children

Emily Perschbacher
Chicago Tribune

It’s often said that it takes a village to raise a child, and once upon a time, this was quite literal. The proverb has been attributed to African cultures where children were raised by the whole tribe in a village.

Today, our tribes look a lot different. Not only are grandparents, aunts and uncles spread across frequent-flier miles, but family units also can be a mix of two (or more) very distinct villages. The rate of multiracial marriages and, consequently, multicultural children in the U.S. is certainly on the rise.

According to a 2015 Pew Research study, marriages between spouses of different races have increased almost fourfold since 1980. This has led to an even faster rise of the number of multiracial children. In 2013, among babies living with two parents, 10 percent had parents who were different races from each other, up from 1 percent in 1970, according to the same report.

So, not only are parents left to raise their children more isolated than before, but they also are confronted with blending cultures, values and traditions.

“Parenting is tough as a baseline,” said Christina Jones, a psychotherapist and consultant in downtown Chicago. “Couples have to learn and navigate how to be a team. Sometimes that cultural piece adds challenges.”

The challenges can range from how to celebrate holidays to deciding whether to raise your children bilingually.

Courtney Kashima, 38, is raising two multicultural kids in Chicago. She identifies as a “European mutt” and was born and raised in Illinois, while her husband, Hide, is a first-generation Japanese-American who grew up in Guam.

“We both came from very small towns, so we feel committed to raising our kids in the city,” she said.

But, she relayed, the Japanese-American community isn’t as vibrant here as it is in a place like Los Angeles or Vancouver. She said she’s had to seek out support and cultural activities for her two children: Sachi, 2, and Jiro, 9 months.

The family joined the Japanese American Service Committee in Chicago, which hosts traditional events and a weekly class for children called Tampopo Kai. Kashima has also posted on message boards and Facebook groups to try to find other Japanese-American and hapa — or half-white, half-Asian — families in the area.

She admits it can be difficult to find a balance.

“It’s weird to pick and choose culture,” Kashima said. “If you came from a monoculture, like my mom, there were just certain traditions.”

For Kashima, raising her children in Japanese culture means learning and embracing new ideas herself. Incidentally though, she pointed out, “I actually feel I lead (the push toward teaching the kids about their heritage) more than my husband.”

Others are often influenced by grandparents or extended family.

Lindsay Chuang, 31, of Chicago said, “The cultural stuff is more important for my in-laws. It’s even more important to them than it is to my husband.”

Chuang, who is black American, is married to a first-generation Taiwanese-American. They have two kids: Victoria, 3, and Emerson, 16 months. Her in-laws recently moved back to Taiwan, but they visit as often as possible.

“I really hit the jackpot of mother-in-laws,” Chuang said. “These are their first grandbabies, so they’re always ready to come and jump right in. When (my mother-in-law) comes to visit, she cooks and plays with the kids. ... But when she comes, she’ll stay for, at most, a month, and it’s not enough time for language to catch on. I know that she wishes that was different.”

“I do stay home with them, but I’m not the one that speaks Mandarin,” she added.

On a visit earlier this year, the family celebrated Chinese New Year together.

“We’ve celebrated the new year before, but if my in-laws are here, we’ll absolutely do something,” Chuang said.

Jones encourages parents to expose their children to their own culture and traditions, as it will likely help build a solid sense of identity.

“The best way to approach that is in nonthreatening ways,” she said. “Exploring food from different cultures brings people together. And music brings people together.”

In the Tampopo Kai class at the JASC, parents and children learn Japanese songs. The class also incorporates dancing, arts, crafts and story time.

“We divide the program between Japanese and English,” said Naomi Negi, the program coordinator. “There are tons of opportunities for parents and kids to pick up Japanese words. And, you’d be surprised — six months down the timeline — the kids start to pick up words; they absorb everything so quickly.”

Similarly, the Old Town School of Folk Music, with locations in Chicago and satellite classes in the suburbs, offers a music program for children in Spanish.

“We really put a lot of love and importance on the Spanish Wiggleworms classes because the Spanish-speaking population is really growing in Chicago,” said Erin Flynn, director of Wiggleworms and Kids Music Programs at the Old Town School of Folk Music.

“We’re not teaching Spanish; we really understand that it is a music class, but it is an immersion experience,” Flynn said. “We took a lot of time to find authentic music and songs that have a long tradition in Spanish-speaking countries. It really is about the music, culture and traditions through music.”

She said that, in the past, the school has offered classes in German, Hebrew and French, depending on teacher availability.

“We very earnestly believe that music connects people and builds community,” she said.

Finding community helps us get back to the idea of raising our children by village, even if we all don’t look the same.

“I don’t think I noticed all the mixed-culture families until I started hanging out with other moms,” Chuang said. “I was at a moms’ night out event, and I noticed everyone was either Asian or married to an Asian. It was pretty cool. I’m really thankful for that stuff.”