Ah, the family tree. This simple but charged assignment often rears its head in kindergarten or first grade.

Family heritage projects can take various forms. Children might be asked to create a photo collage of family photos: newborn pictures, holiday mornings, trips to the beach. Parents might be asked to share memories of milestones such first steps, first words, and first teeth. Kids and parents might be given a tree or chart to fill in with names of parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents.

Though meant to build community among classmates, family tree projects are complicated for adoptive families. What if you do not have this information? What if your child was placed with you without early photographs?

For foster and adoptive parents of young children, the first question is: Do we focus on our current family dynamic or should we focus on our child’s birth family? Most biological parents do not have these issues, though blended families may find themselves caught in this precarious space. Depending on your situation, family heritage assignments — while innocuous on the surface — can swiftly turn stressful.

When young children know they are adopted, they may feel torn as to which family to study. And if there isn’t enough information about their birth family, “leaves” for grandparents, great-parents, aunts and uncles remain blank.  In that situation, what’s a parent to do? Do we send the half-finished tree to school where other children and even the teacher (if they doesn’t know the child is adopted) might ask: Where are your grandparents? What is your father’s name? Well-meaning questions that arise from these assignments can cause some adoptive kids to feel sad, confused, embarrassed, or different from their peers.

As an adoptive parent, I know how nerve-wracking this can be. When my son was early elementary school, this type of assignment forced a conversation I wasn’t expecting. I had limited information about my son’s birth family but shared (age-appropriately) what I knew. I started with the fact that because he spent the first five months of his life in foster care, I did not have any newborn pictures, though I had one photo of each biological parent. Needless to say, my son was bummed, but he rallied after gluing pictures and writing captions of the memories we had created together.

If your foster or adoptive family finds itself in a similar situation, here are a few options to consider as you look for ways to help your child feel proud and connected to their family:

  • Ask the teacher if the entire class can create a family forest, where multiple types of trees are used to represent birth, adoptive, and blended families. A little creativity can help the whole class develop greater understanding and empathy.
  • Ask the teacher if you can read a book to the class about adoption in advance of the assignment. This is a way to introduce the topic of adoption in friendly terms and to lay the foundation for future questions about your child’s family configuration. It also allows you to influence the narrative and gives your child a special re-introduction to his classmates.
  • Don’t assume that the teacher has all of the answers. You may have to educate them about adoption and offer teaching suggestions, drawing on connections they are already familiar with: cartoons like Dinosaur Train, stories such as Superman, or even animal adoptions.
  • As adoptive parents, we can use these assignments to empower kids with age-appropriate information about their birth families. If you know the birth mother or father’s name, country of origin, or even have a photo of a blood relative, share those items with your child. That way, when asked about their tree or heritage, your informed child can respond confidently with a few basics.

Here are two other articles I found that provide more ideas for navigating family heritage projects, exploring alternative projects, and talking with teachers about creating assignments that help all students feel included.

About Nefertiti Austin

Nefertiti Austin is a certified PS-MAPP trainer who co-leads classes for adoptive and foster parents. She blogs about adoption at mommiejonesing.com, and writes about adopting as a single woman of color. Austin lives with her children in Los Angeles.

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