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Societal Views of Adoption

An Interview with Claudia Nelson, author of Little Strangers - Portrayls of Adoption and Foster Care in America, 1850-1929

Interview by Allison Martin

How do past perceptions of adoptions influence societal views today? What is positive? What is negative?

Perceptions of adoption vary, of course, from person to person, since we all bring our own individual experiences and preconceptions to the subject. In today's society, we can encounter any number of assumptions about adoption that were around in previous generations as well. Some of these are negative, e.g., that the adoptive bond is somehow less strong than the biological tie (I remember being asked, when my Chinese daughter was an infant, what language she would speak when she started to talk!--a question apparently based on an assumption that nearly everything about our behavior is genetically determined, and thus that the adoptive parent makes little or no contribution), or that if the child manifests behavioral problems in adolescence that these must necessarily come from the "trauma" of having been adopted. Others are positive, such as the assumption that adoption benefits the adoptive parents as well as the child. All these ideas were around by the 1920s; the idea about the comparative weakness of the adoptive bond is considerably older. Essentially, what hasn't changed at all is the prevalence of the tendency to believe that adoption somehow can be safely stereotyped, whether our stereotypes are positive or negative.

How would you say that the view of adoptees and adoptive parents have changed over time in the US? What has stayed the same?

Initially, adoption by people who were not the child's blood relatives was usually informal and motivated by practical and economic concerns--giving a home to an orphan was a good way to get extra help around the home or farm. That mindset began disappearing in the late nineteenth century and is very unusual today. Since childhood mortality has also declined substantially, we also don't see much of another motivation for adoption that used to be quite common, namely the desire to "replace" a biological son or daughter who had died. So we probably take a less utilitarian view of adoption, and of the adopted child, than was once the case.

But in many ways, our attitudes toward adopted children and adoptive parents today resemble attitudes that existed a hundred years ago. When my daughter was a baby, I'd be stopped on the street by total strangers who wanted to commend me for my good heart in "taking her in"--the view that the adoptive child is needy and the adoptive parent charitable (even while simultaneously they're both seen as benefiting from the emotional bond formed between them), which was the way adoption was often marketed by progressives at the turn of the twentieth century, remains very much a part of our sensibility.

What are some of the societal issues that adoptive families have to cope with today?

Many of us today have become, through adoption, biracial or multiracial families. This situation is comparatively new; it certainly wasn't a common feature of the adoption landscape before the Korean War. Of course, non-adoptive families today are also substantially more likely to be biracial or multiracial than was once the case, so there are fewer tensions surrounding this issue than would have been the case in the past.

Adoptive families are frequently also nontraditional in other ways; for instance, they may be headed by single parents, or by two parents of the same gender. People who belong to unconventional families (parents, children, members of the extended family) have to deal with the fact that other people will react to that unconventionality-sometimes negatively, sometimes positively.

Legally, too, adoption is much more complex than it was a generation or two ago. Many years ago, adoption law reform focused on making the adoptee a full part of the adoptive family, for instance by having the same inheritance rights as their adoptive parents' legitimate biological children. More recently, of course, there's been substantial attention given to the rights of the adoptee's biological parents, which has been a factor encouraging some families toward international adoption.

How can we address these preconceptions surrounding adoption?

Since I'm an educator, I'm biased: more education will usually seem to me to be the answer, not only for outsiders thinking about or interacting with adoptive families but also for the members of those families and for people contemplating adoption. The more experience we have-both direct personal experience and the kind of vicarious experience that we can get through reading accounts of adoption in the present and the past-the easier we'll find it to move away from stereotypes, false assumptions, and unrealistic expectations.

Copyright Allison Martin

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