The “China Doll” Syndrome:

When Excessive Attention Sets Children Apart

by Carrie Howard

When I go out in public with my three-year-old daughter, Tessa, I have to prepare myself to deal with her hordes of admirers. My husband and I jokingly call her our little ambassador of goodwill because of the smiles she elicits, although she does nothing to encourage people and seems oblivious to the attention. I can’t get through the supermarket without being stopped by a stranger or two exclaiming over her beauty; little old ladies have practically chased me down the aisle to make sure they had a chance to tell me that my little girl is adorable.

Because we are an interracial family – we adopted Tessa from China – I am relieved when the comments we receive from strangers are friendly instead of rude or confrontational. But sometimes the attention makes me uneasy. I wonder whether Tessa would get as much attention if she were with an Asian family, for example. She is undeniably beautiful but I’ve been out in public with other attractive young children and never drew as much attention. I am especially bothered when strangers call her “a little China doll,” as though she were a fragile piece of chinoiserie. How much are the compliments inspired by her personal qualities, and how much by the obvious contrast between our Caucasian faces and her Asian one?

Most adoptive families are familiar with the difficulties of fielding intrusive comments and questions. But what about positive comments, such as compliments and praise? Many parents, including my husband and I, suspect that these well-intentioned comments may betray subtle prejudices, and hint at the more blatant prejudices our children will confront as they get older.

Children May Be The First To Notice

How could compliments be a problem? For most of us, words of praise for our children, from either friends or strangers, sound very sweet. They echo our own feelings of pride and support our decision to adopt. With all the challenges we face as adoptive parents, and especially as interracial families, why go looking for trouble. This is one instance where our children may recognize the problem before we do.

Susan Avery, whose daughters Emily, 6, and Cara, 4 were adopted from China, because concerned about the attention her children received after she began to notice her older daughter’s discomfort. “When I first came home from China with Emily I welcomed the nice comments with open arms,” she says. “And I got a lot – mostly about how cute and adorable she was, even though she would hardly look at a stranger, and never smiled in public. Although I was aware that most people wouldn’t have said anything if Emily looked like my biological child, I wasn’t bothered because I figured little kids benefit from any positive attention regardless of its motivation. “After Cara came home, the comments multiplied – with two kids we stood out even more,” says Avery. “At first it was okay. But when Emily turned 5, I started to notice that she didn’t appreciate all the ‘Aren’t they just adorable!’ comments we’d get as we walked down the street.”

Leceta Chisholm Guibault, whose daughter Kahleah, was adopted from Guatemala, made a similar discovery. “It is true that not everyone we meet is malicious,” she says,”but I must be on guard. I used to love when my daughter was a baby and people would stop me and exclaim, ‘What beautiful black eyes she has! Look at that straight black hair! And nice brown skin!’ Although I thought these were positive comments, by the age of 4 my daughter had had enough. One day, after having numerous people make these same observations over and over again, Kahleah buried her face in my stomach, overwhelmed. She said she was tired of people ‘always’ pointing out the same things: her hair, eyes, and skin.”

Comments Reinforce Differences

Young children may object to attention at first because it’s intrusive and embarrassing. later, they begin to realize that it is the differences between them and the rest of their family that attract the attention. When her daughter Emily began to feel uncomfortable about comments from strangers, Avery says, “I started to pay more attention to the arguments that such comments may be seen by the child as signs of differences, and thus have a strong negative connotation, despite their positive words. So not I don’t respond as positively as I once did. I try to minimize the interaction and include some comment that all children are cute. My reaction is still to be polite and supportive of the other person.”

Guibault also became keenly aware of the way the comments set her daughter apart. “I realized that they were pointing out her racial differences, and her differences from me, her mother. She was reading between the lines on her own. Maybe this was just her perception, but she was feeling it. I ask you, what child deserves to be made to feel different, simply because of race?”

Good Intentions Can Go Awry

Most people who gush over our children believe they are just being nice. They may not recognize their own motivations. That enthusiastic stranger in the checkout line may simply think your child is lovely; or she may recognize that as an interracial family you probably have to deal with some prejudice and criticism, and she wants to express her support; or she may see your child as a curiosity, an exotic objet d’art; in other words, a China doll. Since we can’t read minds, it’s impossible to know what people are thinking when they compliment our kids. But it is safe to say that what brings our children to most people’s attention is the fact that they look different from us, and sensitive children pick up on that distinction.

Seemingly harmless comments can also foreshadow the more overt prejudices our children will face when they get older. Cheri Register, in her excellent book Are Those Kids Yours?: American Families with Children Adopted from Other Countries (1991, Free Press), noted, “My daughters are both very pretty, but when people enthuse over their beauty, it makes them uncomfortable and me wary. The ‘exotic flower of the Orient’ is another seemingly positive stereotype that can have negative consequences. The image of Latin women as flirtatious and hypersensual “Carmen” types falls into the same category.”

It behooves us to be aware of these stereotypes so we can help our children deal with the expectations others may have of them as they get older, and especially as they begin dating.

Gender Plays A Part

All children in interracial families attract a certain amount of attention, but little girls are especially apt to be complimented on their looks. Many parents of children adopted from China, the overwhelming majority of whom are girls, are acutely aware of the praise their daughters get for their beauty. Parents who are hoping to raise children free of stereotypical gender roles find that they have to fight the message that girls are objects of beauty above all else, a message that is reinforced through constant repetition.

Gail Coad, whose daughter, Linnea, was adopted from China, says, “I think that the issue of compliments for our daughters such as ‘Isn’t she cute,’ ‘She’s so beautiful’ is one of raising daughters in general, not an adoption issue.” Children will fulfill our conception of what we consider good and wonderful about being a daughter. If we admire their beauty well above their strength or smarts or kindness to others, then they will focus on their beauty. It’s an issue of balance and direction and openness to their interest and skills. “So at this point, my reaction to the ‘She’s so cute’ compliment is to say, ‘Yes, and she’s smart and strong too’ or emphasize other personal qualities.”

“Positive” Stereotypes Go Beyond Looks

It’s not just our children’s looks that attract compliments. Strangers knowing assure adoptive parents of Asian children that they’ll be good at math, and African-American children may be expected to be outstanding athletes, for example. Cheri Register observed, “Racism can take seemingly benign forms, as well. Those of us who have very bright Asian children are easily seduced by the stereotype of Asians as intellectually superior. It is nice to think of your child as gifted…This stereotype causes extra difficulties, however, for children who were placed for ‘special needs’ adoption because they have developmental delays or learning disabilities. It is also hard on children of average intelligence whose teachers have inordinately high expectations of them.”

Maintaining Balance

What can parents do? Short of taking our kids out in public with paper bags over their head, there’s not much we can to do keep them from attracting compliments. Be we can soften the impact. Here are some suggestions for minimizing the effect of excessive attention.

Take your cues from your child. Even if you enjoy the compliments, you child may not. If the attention ever seems to bother him or her, you may need to change your approach.

Keep the interaction brief and polite. When strangers compliment your child, simply smile, say thanks, and move on or redirect the conversation.

Deflect the pointedness of the comments yourself. If one of your children is routinely singled out for attention, to the exclusion of the others, try to share the wealth. When a stranger exclaims over how lovely your daughter is, while ignoring your son, you can respond, “Thank you, I am lucky to have such beautiful children.”

Talk with your child about the situation. When you begin to sense some discomfort on your child’s part, you can let him or her know that you understand that it must be difficult to be the focus of so much attention. Together, you can discuss ways of dealing with talkative strangers and the feelings they provoke.

Help your child to see himself or herself as a whole person. Be sure to take the opportunity to praise your child for qualities other than physical beauty – strength, intelligence, a pleasant signing voice, or a gentle way with animals, for example.

I can’t deny that my daughter is beautiful; part of the joy of raising Tessa is the sheer aesthetic pleasure I get from watching her. But I never forget that she is a three-dimensional person with many other gifts to offer. When strangers gush over her, I just smile and say, “Thank you, we think she’s beautiful too,” and keep pushing my cart down the aisle. Then when we’re out of earshot, I remind her that she is smart and strong too – not a China doll at all.

Reprinted with permission of the author from Adoptive Families magazine, Sept/Oct 1999.

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