Talking About Adoption
adoption comeunity

Adoption Shops & Adoption Services


Adoption Book Reviews


Acknowledging Differences in Adoption
Interview with Pat Johnston

Interview By Allison Martin

Pat Johnston is a well regarded publisher and prolific author and speaker on international and domestic adoption. In this exclusive interview she discusses various ways of acknowledging differences and simlilarities in adoptive families. Anyone interested in adoption will also enjoy her exemplary book, Adopting: Sound Choices, Strong Families.

What is a "role handicap" and how does this apply to an adoptive family?

The term role handicap comes from the work of Canadian adoptive parent and sociologist H. David Kirk as part of his "shared fate theory." Kirk's long term research with hundreds of families throughout North America led him to believe that all of us come to adoption with a "role handicap". Birthmothers are mothers, but are not raising their children. Adoptive moms are mothers, but didn't give birth to the child they are raising. Adopted children are sons and daughters both to parents they don't know who are genetically connected to them and to adoptive parents, with whom they share no genes. Since the rest of the world defines these family roles genetically, we each experience this difference, which he called a role handicap because he saw how handicaps played out in non-adoptive families of children with disabilities had impacted the family and saw them to cause similar behaviors on the part of the family.

Kirk saw that these adoptive families or families dealing with disabilities both tended toward two types of behavior: the families either "acknowledged/accepted the difference" and so dealt with the differences head-on or, for the most part, talking about them and helping their children find concrete ways to address them,; they "rejected the difference" that the disability (or role handicap) brought, which meant that adoption wasn't talked about unless the child brought it up--and the child soon "learned" that it wasn't a good thing to bring up.

How might adoptive parents react by rejecting differences?

Adoptive parents often tend to reject adoption's differences in a number of ways. For example, many still buy into the "love is enough" myth. Those adopting transracially may claim to be "colorblind," which is not helpful to their children. Families may choose to adopt from a country where they feel certain they could never have contact with birthfamily members because they want to avoid birthfamily contact. They may avoid giving their children the tools they need to talk about adoption when they want to because they prefer that the adoption be thought of as secretive.

One thing was quite clear in Kirk's long term study. Families who looked like one another (same race adopters of infants) were far more likely to reject differences than were families who adopted transracially or who adopted older children. Obviously, those differences were so "in their faces" that these families were forced to acknowledge them--though they were often given inadequate tools to help their children deal with being so "out there."

But this doesn't get transracial families "off the hook" when it comes to AD or RD behavior. Among the ways the interracial families can behave in an RD way are to claim "colorblindness"--it just doesn't matter what race we are. Well, it does matter to kids! Race and racism are real and tangible issues on the playground. Another RD behavior is to blythely continue to live in a community where the child is a "token"... the only AA or Latina or Asian child in school, in scouts, in church. AD behavior demands that families adopting transracially "color-up" their lives, making big changes about where they live, school and go to church; who they hire and who their friends are, so that the parents and same-race siblings, too, often have the experience of "standing out in the crowd" an the only person NOT of color in the room.

On the flip side, how might they practice insistence of difference?

Insistence of difference behavior is something that psychologist and researcher Dr David Brodzinsky brought to add to Kirk's theory. In his practice he began to see parents who wanted to blame all parenting difficulties on the fact of adoption or what led to the adoption: Their child by birth would never have taken drugs, so this must come from the birthfamily,or his pre-teen behavior problems must be adoption-related not because of his age/stage or our relationship problems, etc. His behavior is due to his personality, which is just so different from ours. His acting out is because he has developed friends of his race and he is acting like "one of them" rather than "one of us."

What is acceptance of difference?

When a family accepts the differences that adoption brings to it they can comfortably accept that their children do have two sets of parents without being threatened;they can answer their children's questions without fear; they feel no need to be secretive about the fact of the adoption; they deliberately make opportunities for their children to talk about their worries or fears or sadness about their losses (perhaps of a genetic connection, or of racial sameness, or knowledge about a culture or language, etc.)

Families in which differences brought by adoption are generally accepted are families in which everyone acknowledges that there is both gain and loss, sadness and happiness for everyone who is personally touched by adoption, both parents (adoptive and birth) and children.

How do we find a healthy balance? What is the goal for our children?

Finding that healthy balance is all about keeping ourselves well informed over time, dealing directly and healing from our own losses, and developing a relationship within our family that clearly sends the message that it is OK to talk about anything--nothing is off limits, nor will it hurt parents when kids share sadness, because the love here is unconditional.

The goal for our children is that they grow up having fully incorporated adoption as one more part of who they are--not better than or worse than, not second rate or second class, not rejected but planned for, etc.--but just one of the facts of a personal life story that makes them who they are as successful adults with many people who love them and care about them.

Copyright 2008 Allison Martin. This interview was also published in the Chao Ban Vietnam Adoption Newsletter.

Talking About Adoption Talking About Adoption

A Whole New World
Talking About Birthparents
The Beauty of Adoption
Scrapbooking Tips
Revolutionary New Look at Adoption
Post Adoption Blues
Societal Views of Adoption
Growing Up Adopted
Life Books for Every Adoptee
State of Knowledge of Foreign Adoptions
Adoption Language
Creating Ceremonies
Talking About Birthparents
Tips for Grandmothers
Helping Families Discuss Adoption
Adopiton is a Family Affair!
Successful Adoptions
Celebrating Lunar New Year
Talking to Children
Reaching Out to Birthmothers

Adoption Speakers Directory

Related Sections
Adoption Poems
Real Moms Newsletter
Boy Oh Wonderful Boys
Infertility & Adoption Articles

Read Book Reviews
Meet the Authors

Shops & Services



Book Reviews | Author Interviews

| How to Adopt | Adoption Travel | Adoption Lists | Talking About Adoption (The Triad) |
| Special Needs Adoption | Adoption Health | Travel Health | Adoption Medical Clinics |
| Real Moms Newsletter | Oh Wonderful Boys | Adoption Poetry |
| Infertility & the Adoption Journey | Humanitarian Aid |

This website and articles are copyright.


  Comeunity Adoption Talking About Adoption