Celebrate Your Family's Special Gifts at the Holidays and All Year

Anna Fulcher Cousins

Whenever my colleagues would share holiday stories about their families, one was always quick with a smile and a quip: "Every family is different."

Families come in many shapes, sizes, colors and creeds. There is no one picture of a "typical family," such as the iconic Norman Rockwell image of the family gathered around the Thanksgiving table. Snapshots of families include those with adopted or international children, grandparents raising grandkids, combined families from previous marriages and families nurturing children with special needs.

During the holidays, especially, families who may be too busy all year to consider what makes their family unique often stop to share blessings, stories, traditions or cultural values. The holiday season is an ideal time to communicate to children what it means to be a part of your family.

Learn about cultures together

For Sharon Degnan of Cary, thinking about multiculturalism is a no-brainer. Her adopted 4-year-old daughter, Emily, is Greek/Italian/African, and her adopted 1-year-old son, Tommy, is French/Native American/African. She and her husband are Lithuanian/Scotch-Irish/German.

"As a family, we want our children to know that we are all the same on the inside and also want them to be proud of who and what they are," Degnan says.

This may be the first holiday season Emily is aware of her family members' differences. "She is becoming more aware of skin colors, hair texture and seeing beauty in all its forms," Degnan says. She and her husband plan to seek out cultural activities that teach Emily and Tommy about their heritage as they get older.

Anne Heath, a counselor and licensed clinical social worker, says older adopted children may remember and want to honor certain traditions. "Accept and share memories together," Heath says. "Ask them what they liked about old traditions and what they would like to see the family do together along those lines."

Be flexible as the family grows and changes

Children experience their world differently as they grow up. As their understanding of cultures and traditions expands, their family's traditions can change, too. Heath works with families who sometimes must change to meet new needs or situations.

"As a family, you can talk about your traditions. I have found that some traditions are practiced even after the family has forgotten why," Heath says. "If the family matriarch has died, or the children are older, or extended family is far away, remember to be flexible and open to new ideas. You can always celebrate a new tradition."

Recognize and adapt to limitations

Linda Alves of Clayton welcomed new traditions for her family. She grew up with five siblings and married a man who had four. Since she has three children and six grandchildren, and is raising three of her grandchildren in her home, she realized one

Christmas when the presents were nearly stacked up to the ceiling that something had to change. With grandchildren and her youngest child still at home, money was tight and the economy wasn't being kind to extended family members, either.

"We are so fortunate — the kids see their mothers and grandparents on a daily basis," Alves says. "But part of what makes us a strong family is moving through the obstacles life places in our way."

She believes having her grandchildren living at home is a blessing. Having already raised children once before, Alves says part of this blessing is becoming wiser the second time around, letting her children and grandchildren experience natural consequences for their behavior instead of fighting with them.

Holidays, too, have been simplified. "Now, every year, people [in my extended family] call me and ask, 'Are we doing new or used gifts this year?'" Alves says. The family chooses a fixed amount and each member brings one gift to trade in a "white elephant" exchange.

Live values through actions

One way to focus on values with extended family during the holidays is to limit gift-giving to children ages 10 and younger, Heath says. For older children, she suggests making a donation in their name to the charity of their choice, like the Food Bank, Salvation Army or American Red Cross.

If families want more hands-on experience so children understand the importance of helping others, nonprofits such as the Brown Bag Ministry enable families to make sandwiches to distribute to the homeless in Moore Square in Raleigh, Heath says. Another nonprofit, the Wake Interfaith Hospitality Network, provides opportunities for parents to help clients with their resumes, while children play with and entertain the clients' children.

Use faith and shared moments to foster unity

Degnan has incorporated service and charitable work into her family's holidays

for years. Before she and her husband adopted Emily and Tommy, they were foster parents and included their foster children in activities that celebrated their faith. At the Catholic church they attend, a "Jesse Tree" holds ornaments with wish list items for families who cannot afford gifts during the holidays. Degnan and her family shop for the items together and ask for the children's input on which gifts to choose.

"One of the things that defines us as a family is our faith," Degnan says. "During the year, we celebrate the children's baptism days and at the holidays we go to Mass as a family on Christmas Eve."

But Degnan doesn't limit bonding to the holidays. As her children grow out of the baby stage she looks for opportunities to appreciate small moments together throughout the year. They recently started a family game night and, once Degnan gets a bike, they will start riding together.

"Anything we can do to promote togetherness and bonding is great," she says. "I just started doing 'girl things' with Emily, like going to get her hair done or getting manicures and pedicures every now and then," Degnan says. "And in the spring, she works in the garden with my husband."

Taking time to appreciate each other during those small moments helps family members understand what it means to be part of the family.

Include extended family

Because of Degnan's past experiences as a foster parent, she makes sure her children get together with her former foster children and their families for special events throughout the year, such as birthdays, visits to the pumpkin patch or Easter egg hunts. "Families come in all shapes and sizes, and we want to share with our children that acceptance," she says.

For Christina Fulcher of Henderson, her extended family and their holiday meals are important for building family identity. But helping her 3-year-old autistic daughter, Anna, understand the importance of family connections and navigate the family's sprawling meals has presented a challenge.

"Coming together often includes many family members who travel with the military as well as old and young," Fulcher says. "But anytime you take a child with autism to a large group, he or she may not cooperate very well."

Fulcher is learning techniques to prepare Anna for the meals. "We'll talk weeks ahead of time about who she'll see and show her pictures ahead of time, reminding her of the last event when she saw them," Fulcher says. "We'll use objects to jog her memory, like saying, 'He's the one who collects coins, and he gave you that silver dollar you love so much.'"

She also weaves Anna into the family but gives her space. The group sets up tables inside and outside, and when Anna is overwhelmed or tired of family bonding, she has a quiet spot to relax.

Spirit of gratitude is key

All families echo the same sentiment, and Heath says it best: "However you celebrate, use the time together as a time of gratitude," she says, adding that whatever you decide defines you as a family is probably OK with the children. "If you present it to them in a fun way, they will accept it," she says.  n

Anne Woodman is a Morrisville-based freelance writer and mother of two.

10 ways adoptive families can introduce culture to their children

November is National Adoption Awareness Month, and some families who have adopted children internationally want to find ways to incorporate their children's culture into the holiday season. One organization, Cultural Care Au Pair, aims to help families share the child's native country's customs, language and culture by providing a caregiver who shares the same home country or native language.

Susan Robinson, vice president of communications for Cultural Care Au Pair, offers a few tips to help introduce culture to adopted children.

*     Introduce your child to a person who shares his or her birth country. Encourage your child to ask questions and learn as much as he or she can.

*     Learn the language. Teach your child common words and phrases used in his or her birth country.

*     Find a tradition from your child's birth culture that you can incorporate into your lives on a regular basis.

*     Search for a traditional recipe from your child's birth country. Plan an

authentic menu, shop for the ingredients, and prepare and enjoy the meal together.

*     Attend a cultural celebration from your child's birth country.

*     Construct a traditional craft from your child's birth country and talk together about its historical and cultural meaning.

*     Look at a world map with your child and locate the country where your child was born. Discuss how it differs from the U.S. in terms of geography, size, economic stability and climate.

*     Read a folk tale or children's story from your child's birth country. Discuss how your child is different from characters in the book and what similarities they share.

*     Teach your child a game that is typically played in his or her birth country.

*      Listen to music from your child's birth country.


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