to Your Child's Land of Birth -
What Age is the Best Age?
From young children to adults, traveling to the land of their birth
is a blessing for children at many stages.
By Becca Piper
Even as parents are making plans to adopt an internationally born child,
most are already thinking about the day when they will return to their
child's country of birth as a family. More and more, parents are realizing
that a heritage journey is one of the most significant factors in the
identity building process of internationally adopted children.
With increasingly more preparation being done by adoption agencies who
understand the importance of post adoption services, families are realizing
that in time, their children will benefit from embracing their birth culture
first hand. In putting together the pieces of their identity, it is important
for kids to make a connection with their place of birth or founding, the
orphanages where they lived, their caretakers, and perhaps birth family.
But in how much time? What age is the "best" age for a homeland
Realizing it or not, what parents are really saying is "I want my
child to become a warm, wonderful, genuine person, integrating all of
who they are...at what point in their lives will a homeland journey help
my child do that? And, what is it about a homeland journey that does that
In my mind, those are the real questions.
The journey is about giving kids the experiences, the information, and
the tools they need to get comfortable with who they are. More than comfortable.
The journey is about giving kids what they need to become self confident,
emotionally healthy, productive people. Experiences that encourage a strong
The single most important message children receive on a homeland journey
is that the people with whom they share their heritage are warm, wonderful,
genuine people. In receiving that message, kids are given a significant
and meaningful piece of their identity. We have found that given opportunities,
kids of any age take in the message, and use it throughout the rest of
Ian H is proof positive that kids can "get it" from an early
Many years ago, I was standing on a street corner in Seoul with Ian and
his family... Mom, Dan, and three "stair step" kids ages 7,
9, and 11. Ian was the youngest of the three Korean born children, and
we were having chops made, Korean signature stamps. As adoptive families
tend to do, we were drawing some attention. A crowd of Korean men took
an interest in what was happening, and as they watched, they would talk,
then laugh. It was the kind of laughter that made you feel comfortable,
the kind of emotional warmth most adoptive families feel the world over.
We knew whatever was being said was coming from gentle hearts and kind
souls. The scene continued a circle of talking and laughing. Finally,
one man who could hold back no longer, walked toward Ian, gently tussling
Ian's hair. As he made this magical gesture, we again heard the warm laugh.
It was at that point little Ian turned to me with a HUGE smile and said,
"Mrs. Piper, aren't Koreans NEAT!!!"
Over the years, I have replayed that moment in my mind many times. It
was almost as if you could feel the message float through the air. What
a gift for a young child to reflect on as he integrates the life he was
born into with the life he lives in with his adoptive family. I know,
some of you are saying, "But he won't ever remember the details of
the trip." It may surprise you to hear that I agree. Kids of any
age (and even the adults) forget the details, but remember the feelings
the details created.
In feeling the messages, the imprint is deep, lasting, and useful in
the "work of identity building."
Kids on a homeland journey are "imprinted with positive messages"
by interacting with people in their birth country. One young Vietnamese
adoptee recently relayed this story to me. "I never felt pretty before
I went to Vietnam. But then, I was in a shop, and a Vietnamese woman came
up to me and said, 'Oh what a beautiful girl you are.' It felt so amazing
to have someone who was really Vietnamese think I was pretty."
It was a fleeting moment with a profound impact. A homeland journey is
full of such moments. The experiences become even more profound as we
visit places of birth or founding, the orphanages where the children lived,
meet caretakers and sometimes birth family. On Ties Program evaluations,
nearly all kids say these visits were the most meaningful part of their
journey. Children of all ages secure those moments into their hearts and
souls to be used in the life long work of identity.
But the journey's significance is deeper yet because it allows kids to
grieve the losses of adoption, heal and move forward. No parent ever wants
to see their child hurting, but if they are hurt, we would all like to
see them heal. A homeland journey allows for healing by giving kids a
chance to grieve in the ways kids grieve, which is almost always a different
experience than what parents expect.
Most kids do not go through the trip overflowing with tears. In fact,
on a typical Ties trip, kids (and parents) are singing on the bus, laughing
hysterically, and enjoying the sense of "being" in their birth
country with other kids who share a similar history.
When grief comes in the outward and "traditional sense" it
comes in waves and bursts. But for most kids, it comes in ways that go
pretty much unnoticed by all around them. It comes in linking the
finding and holding on to points of connection.
When our 15 year old son Michael died of leukemia a few months ago, I
couldn't help but draw parallels to the depth of loss adoptees feel at
a core level. Grief stricken myself in the very "adult stereotypical
way," I was very aware that our teenage son Joe was reacting very
differently. Distraught with loss, he "linked" to his brother
in ways that brought him comfort and healing. He wore his brother's favorite
sweatshirt every day, took to sitting in his brother's chair, and even
tried out for and got a part in the high school's musical... something
Joe would never have done, but Michael would surely have been a part of.
Through these connections, these "links," Joe is working through
his loss, something we all need to do for our souls to be mended.
That's what kids do with adoption related grief and loss, and we see
it time and time again as we travel.
Just a few days ago, I was once again reminded of Amy A. Now a young
adult, she was standing in our office retelling her story of grief and
connection... something that happened when she was just nine years old
and traveling with the Ties Program.
Amy and her family were visiting the clinic where Amy had been born.
They were scheduled to meet the doctor who had delivered her. After their
visit, Amy's mom came to my hotel room crying. She said the visit had
been awful. "Amy couldn't have cared less. While we were in the waiting
room, she was all over the place, first sitting in one chair, then another.
She really didn't care about being there."
We hugged and talked about visits not always being what we dreamed about.
Mom left and I was sad.
About 30 minutes later, there was a knock on my door again. It was Mom.
Through her tears, she said, "AMy just told us she sat in every chair
in the waiting room so that she would be sure to sit in the chair where
her birth mom must have sat." Linking. At nine years old.
In Peru, three young adoptees found plastic bags and as we traveled,
collected what appeared to be insignificant "stuff." But when
we asked what they were doing with that "stuff" they replied,
"Stuff? These are pieces of our ancestors!" Linking.
After her trip to China, Libby came home and returned to her life and
friends. At a casual glance, her China trip is a past moment. But look
carefully into Libby's room, and you will see a picture from the trip,
or a gift she was given in China (perhaps by an orphanage director or
foster mom), or a souvenir she purchased along the way. Try and move those
treasures, those precious links that continually allow her to connect,
and you will find out how deep the emotion goes.
So, when you ask, "What age is the best age?" and hope for
a chronological answer, perhaps the best answer comes in the form of questions:
- At what age would I like my child to know that the people with whom
she shares her heritage are warm, wonderful, genuine people?
- At what age would I like him to create links that will help him heal?
- At what age would I like to give my child the experiences and tools
she needs to form a healthy identity, integrating the culture she was
born into and the culture she lives in?
The adoptees who travel with The Ties Program are sometimes as young
as four or five, and sometimes are adult adoptees. The majority of kids
are pre-teens and full teens.
There is no question that as children become older, most kids can cognitively
process the experiences in a more adult way. But they can feel the messages
at all ages. The important "stuff" of a homeland journey doesn't
have to come with a magical chronological age, but rather with experiences
taken in by an open heart.
Becca Piper is the Founder/Director
of The TIES
Program Adoptive Family Homeland Journeys. The Ties Program is
the oldest and most comprehensive adoptive family homeland journey organization
in the United States.