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'How to Raise an Adult' author shares her message for her multiracial kids

When one child "looks white" and the other "looks Black," you have a different set of challenges as a parent.
/ Source: TODAY

She wrote the book on how to raise an adult — no, really, she wrote "How to Raise an Adult," the New York Times-bestselling parenting guide — but former Stanford University dean Julie Lythcott-Haims struggles with her own challenges raising multiracial children in a time when she told TODAY Parents she is feeling "really scared."

Lythcott-Haims, 52, identifies as Black and is the daughter of a white mother and a Black father. She and her white, Jewish husband, Dan, have two children, a 20-year-old son and an 18-year-old daughter.

TODAY Parents asked Lythcott-Haims how parents with multiracial children can support them, especially now as George Floyd and Breonna Taylor's killings by police have resulted in nationwide protests and an acute awareness of racism.

"It's complicated for kids who are biracial or racially ambiguous to others," she acknowledged.

"You start with your own unconditional love"

"A loving, secure connection with our children is always the way to start," said Lythcott-Haims.

She said parents also need to have the "humility" to understand that they can't determine an identity for their child. The goal is to raise children who will love themselves as they are and then choose to be in community with people who will accept them, she said.

"One hopes that when they get to 22 and they're out in the world — or 18, if they go out in the world then — that they know enough about themselves to choose to be in community with people who will love and accept them as they are," said Lythcott-Haims.

Lythcott-Haims wrote about her own moment of finally "locating a Black self I could love" in her 40s in her memoir, "Real American."

"This thing that others regard as a stain came from me"

Lythcott-Haims noted that, as W.E.B. DuBois wrote in "The Souls of Black Folk," identity is part how you see yourself, but also partly how others see you.

She said, "Because of the fact that color really can determine outcomes in this country, I have to equip my two kids differently."

Her son, she said, "looks phenotypically Black. He presents to the world as a light-skinned Black male, unquestionably."

Her daughter, on the other hand, "resembles her father more," she said. "I think there are many white people who, without knowing her family background, would presume she's white — or maybe something, but not Black. She's in this very racially ambiguous space."

As a result, Lythcott-Haims said, "I have to raise these kids differently. I have to have 'The Talk' with my son, because he can choose whatever identity he wants, but the world will see this kid as Black."

"We have to teach a child to love themselves fiercely while simultaneously teaching them that some will malign you or seek to harm you because of the very color of your skin — which, oh, by the way, I gave you," Lythcott-Haims said.

"I said, 'I gave you the skin of brown.... This thing that others regard as a stain came from me, and I'm teaching you that this is not a stain, that this is the skin of your ancestors, and it is beautiful,'" she said, her voice cracking with emotion.

"I'm trying to prepare him, armed with love and awareness. This is how I am parenting my son in this era."

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"A different kind of pain"

Her daughter has to navigate the world in a different way.

"I imagine that my beautiful daughter, who some people don't even realize is of color, may face a different kind of pain," she said.

"That kid is not going to be called the N word. That kid is not going to be presumed by police to be the wrongdoer. That kid might end up being in white spaces where people say the N word and other awful things, and she's got to do this really difficult, introspective work every time of 'Do I feel safe in this group, such that I'm going to speak up, or am I going to let it slide because I don't feel safe?'

"That is an anguish I can't even relate to," said Lythcott-Haims.

How does a mother equip her daughter for that?

"I know that self love is the greatest vaccine in this regard," she said. "It is the antidote, the vitamin, the strength — the more we know I am worthy, I am loved, my ancestors were hard-working people who survived what was done to them, I am proud of who I come from. Even if you can't see on my skin that I'm the descendant of a slave, and I am proud that she withstood enough so that I could be here."

Lythcott-Haims said her daughter has told her that she wants to be careful not to appropriate a racial or cultural experience she hasn’t herself had, "Which is a beautiful awareness," she said.

'You have to be what this child needs'

Ultimately, parenting multiracial children cannot just fall to the Black parent.

Lythcott-Haims said she has struggled with the fact that her son has a father who cannot teach him what it is like to be a black man in America.

She remembers a conversation they had after Trayvon Martin was killed in 2012 when she asked her husband what he was saying to their son, then 12, about Trayvon's death.

"I asked him, 'What are you doing? I know what I'm saying to him, but what are you saying?'

"He was curled up in a ball of 'I can't believe this is happening,' and I told him, 'That's not going to be good enough, because you have to be what this child needs, so you need to do this work,'" she said.

Recently, he came to her and told her that he was reaching out to white family members to let them know what they need to be doing to support Black people in their own family, community, and nationally.

"We have come so far," she said.

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