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adoption, foster care, Children's Wisconsin, different

Mommy, I’m different: What I learned from my son

“Mommy, I can’t find a skin-color crayon.”

When my 4-year-old son, Robert, spoke these words a couple months ago, my heart froze in place for a moment. “What color is that, buddy?” I asked, hoping he would say brown, but somehow knowing he wouldn’t. “This one,” he said, pointing to a light peach color on the page he was coloring.

My heart broke a little.

Robert isn’t the only non-biological child in our family, but he is the only child with brown skin.

Wanting to turn the sinking feeling in my stomach into something productive, I grasped the opportunity to start an important discussion with my young children. “Well, that is one color, but there are lots of different colors of skin. What other colors can you think of?” My other son, ever an observant deep thinker, said, “Mommy, Robert’s skin is brown.”

“That’s right!” I stroked Robert’s small hand on the table. “Robert, you have beautiful brown skin, don’t you?”

“Mm-hmm.” He replied. “It looks like this — ,” again pointing to the peach color on the page.

My son doesn’t even know he has brown skin, I thought. My mind was a whirlwind. What have we done wrong? What can we change?

Until now, I had thought it was sweet that my kids hadn’t noticed the differences in their skin color. We hadn’t made it a big deal, although we do bring it up occasionally, along with discussions of adoption and what it means to our family. We have always believed these things are to be celebrated, not avoided. Having a family made up of children who have come to us biologically and through foster care and adoption, it is important to us that each child feels valued and celebrated for exactly who they are.

But that morning, I began to see where we had fallen short. My son is nearly 5 and he seemed to have no idea that his skin was different from anyone else’s. It made sense. In our large extended family, he is the only child who is not white. In his small preschool, he’s the only African-American student. Black citizens make up a very small minority in our semi-rural community. We chose to attend a church that has many foster and adoptive families with children of many colors and ethnicities. But at Robert’s age, those few hours each week do little to shape his understanding.

He is a brown-colored kid completely surrounded by peach-colored people. His understanding of skin color is Crayola Apricot.

These truths weighed heavy on my heart for the rest of that morning. At one point, I pulled Robert into my arms and said, “Robert, do you know how much mommy loves your beautiful brown skin? God made you so special, just the way He wanted you!”

Touching my face with his little fingers, he said, “I want my skin to look like your color.”

I determined in that moment it was time to be more intentional about celebrating our differences.

In the following days and weeks, I casually brought up the subject whenever I could. The kids started joining in, too, pointing out when they saw a cartoon character that had brown skin. While coloring, I would remind them that skin color can be peach, brown, black, red, yellow, white — a rainbow of colors! All colors are beautiful. All people are beautiful.

Eventually, Robert asked for a crayon that was brown skin color. My heart began to feel relief.

We read books about the ways people can look different, and even families can look different. We celebrated the uniqueness of our eye color, hair color, skin color. We celebrated how one child is good at math and building things, while another is strong and athletic, and another loves music and dancing. I told them I was proud of them, one for his kindness, another for his leadership. Our daughter is full of fire and spirit, while her brother is mellow, sweet and thoughtful to everyone.

Suddenly, when a black boy or girl would show up on the television screen or in the pages of a book, Robert would shout excitedly, “Mommy, they have my skin color!” He began to notice.

One day recently, Robert sat on my lap and began naming off the six members of our family, and what color of skin each one has. He saved himself for last, and my mama’s heart squeezed a little bit, with the old anxiety that he would feel left out or somehow saddened by the fact that his outward appearance is different than his family’s.

But when he named himself, he said, “And I have brown skin! Mommy, I’m different!” But it wasn’t sadness or bewilderment I heard in his voice. It was pride. It was confidence. I wrapped my arms around him tightly and squeezed, kissing his soft, chocolate-caramel cheek. “You are different, baby, and you are so special.”