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Why the “adopted kids do bad in school” study is wrong

Why the "adopted kids do bad in school" study is wrongLast week the Atlantic Monthly published an article titled “The Adoption Paradox” based on a similarly titled report from The Blog of the Institute of Family Studies. The gist of the report can be summed up in this paragraph from the Atlantic:

As measured by their teachers, young adoptive children were more likely than biological ones to get angry easily and to fight with other students. If a 50 percent score represents an average level of this type of “problem behavior,” adopted kindergarteners were higher than average, at 64 percent, while children with two biological parents were at 44 percent. Children in single-parent, step, and foster families all had fewer behavioral issues than adopted kindergarteners, at 58 percent, although this difference was not significant. A similar pattern (63 percent versus 43 percent) emerged for adopted and biological first graders. For his research, Zill examined a longitudinal study of 19,000 students that was conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics beginning in 1998. Zill is the former head of the Child and Family Study Area at Westat, a social-science research corporation.

This is a clinically insignificant report that never should have seen the light of day and here is why.

  • Zill did examine a longitudinal study of 19,000 students but that included only 160 adoptees, hardly a compelling sample size to make a gross generalization about all adopted children.
  • The study looked at teacher report, not at all an objective way of measuring children’s behavior.
  • Zill buries the lede by saving any discussion of neglect, abuse and attachment for the very end of his report. Instead he focuses on the savior narrative of “good” adoptive parents (in fact, if you click a “share” button the Atlantic article, the title changes to “Adopted Children Do Worse In School, Despite Having Better Parents, equating “well educated” and “affluent” with “better”).

These kinds of reports and articles are harmful to adopted people and they need to stop.

  • Adoptive parents and adoptive parenting tends to drive the narrative about adoption. In this report and the accompanying article, adoption is about how “good” parents can’t make damaged children “better.” Heck, the article begins with the line, “Being adopted is one of the best things that can happen to a kid.” This ignores the incredibly complicated experience of children who join families via adoption and puts the heroism straight on the adoptive parents.
  • I know nothing about these 160 children who were adopted except that they were adopted. I know nothing about their teachers. I am curious about whether or not the teachers knew which children were adopted. I am curious how many of these children were children of color in mostly white schools. Generally I’m curious about how reliable these teacher reports are since we’re using them to make sweeping generalizations about all adopted kids.
  • As I said before, these articles bury the lede. We know for certain that trauma impacts a child’s learning and experience (read this article from PBS: Giving traumatized kids a head start in healing)  and we know that many of our children have experienced trauma before arriving to our family (even those adopted at birth). This does not make them damaged goods that adoption ought to heal; this makes them survivors who need special trauma-informed support and care.

There’s also this (hold on to your hats):

Because the educational attainments of adoptive parents are exceptionally high, the genetic endowment of most children available for adoption is likely to be less favorable to intellectual accomplishment than the endowments of their adoptive parents. No matter how much intellectual stimulation and encouragement the parents provide the child, they may not be able to overcome the limitations of the child’s genetic heritage.

Whoa. Did this guy just say that adopted kids are stupider than kids raised with their birth families? Did he seriously just say that? Because it sure sounds like he did. First off, educational attainment has a whole lot to do with access, which means money and we already know that adoptive parents tend to have money. But where did he find this information that “the genetic endowment of most children available for adoption is likely to be less favorable to intellectual accomplishment?” Answer: He didn’t because it doesn’t exist. He just made it up!

So here he had the opportunity to write a compelling article that says, “Hey, kids who are adopted may have some needs that we’re missing and we ought to look at that. We ought to look at the research we have about trauma-informed care and we need to look more closely about how we’re failing some kids.” And instead he wrote an article about how adopted parents ought to keep adopting (“none of the findings presented here is meant to minimize the tremendous contribution that adoptive parents make to the children they take in or to society in general,” he writes) but just don’t get your hopes up too high, “to be realistic about what adoption can and cannot accomplish.”

See how he takes this study all about kids and makes it all about the adoptive parents?

Now who is this Nicholas Zill who penned this report anyway? That bears looking into. First of all he’s a psychologist and data researcher, which means he likes to dig around in data that already exists and pull more info from it. He takes these broad surveys and draws conclusions from them that espouse a certain point of view.  The Institute for Family Studies is a conservative think tank “dedicated to strengthening marriage and family life, and advancing the well-being of children, through research and public education.” This is important to know because all research reports have a bias and biases can lead to shoddy research (you look for what you want to find and ignore what you don’t want to see). Now this isn’t always true but when we’re making blanket statements about say, smart adoptive parents and the limited “genetic endowment” of adoptees, it might be important to know that the Institute has a whole lot of biases. (Just look at this report about Red State Families where Zill and his co-author confidently states that the reason Utah has more stable marriages than other Red States is in part that it has “relatively low proportions of minorities … whose families are less stable on average than white and Asian families” with no context for that statement whatsoever.)

This adoptive parent-centric attitude is also apparent in The (equally conservative) Family Research Counsel’s Report, Adoption Works Well: A Synthesis of the Literature, which uses much of Zill’s earlier research. “On the whole,” says that report. “[Adoptive] parents are very satisfied with their adopted children.”

Ugh, that language!

Ultimately the only value of this report is understanding that this is the kind of prejudice that adoptees face every single day — that they are an investment and need to make good for their adoptive parents; that adoptive parents are saints for taking in these sinners; that birth families are just a big old mess without the “genetic endowment” of adoptive parents.

(This last one kills me in part because one can assume that some of those kids in that big old survey they’re citing are growing up in homes that look an awful lot like the homes that the adopted kids left. I mean, statistically speaking, right? And they’re doing great — better than the adopted kids. So what does that say?)

It’s unfortunate that when we say “adoption” we generalize a whole population of unique individuals with unique histories, experiences, challenges and strengths. It’s unfortunate that reports like this one get media play and make it harder for our children to be seen as those unique individuals.

I’m sure tired of it. Aren’t you?

The adopted children, who were raised in French-speaking Quebec families, had no conscious memory of hearing Chinese.

But their brains responded to Chinese language sounds the same way as those of bilingual children raised in Chinese-speaking families.

Read more

Writer Dan Chaon on being adopted

Last year I read Await Your Reply by Dan Chaon and I made note of this on my Kindle then but am just now going through my stored notes. Here’s what he said about his own experience as an adopted person:

 For the most part I am pro-adoption, but for better or worse it’s definitely a form of identity theft, at least as it was practiced during the time I was born. My birth certificate has the names of my adoptive parents, and my original, “real” birth certificate is weirdly, permanently classified. When I apply for a passport, for example, the state of Nebraska must act as an intermediary for me — and in that way, I’m a little less real than a nonadopted person. the bureaucracy that surrounds closed adoptions has the effect of creating this secret, ghost life that I trail along behind me, even though I have actually met my biological parents. Nevertheless, I will go to my grave without my official right to this basic information about myself. It’s just one of those odd things.

As many of you know, just this past spring Ohio finally gave all domestically adopted adult adoptees the right to access their original birth certificates. It was the right thing to do and I hope that other states follow suit because it is a form of identity theft and it’s my strong belief that every adoptee has the right to define his or her identity as they see fit and not how the state (or anyone else) sees fit.

Interestingly, if you check the history secrecy in adoption is relatively new here in the states. Originally and historically privacy has been the norm with access still allowed for “parties in interest” (i.e., adults and children-turned-adults who were part of the adoption).

Nearly half a million birth certificates can theoretically be accessed now here in Ohio, which means that thousands upon thousands of people — adopted adults, birth parents, adoptive parents, other family members including siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, etc. — stand to have their lives changed as the original birth certificates come to light.

For those of you who might be reading and who might be impacted by the law, it’s important for you to know that there is support out there. There are in-person groups here and in Cleveland and one starting in Cincinnati. You can learn more about them by going to Ohio Birthparent Group and Adoption Network Cleveland.

Support for Adoptive Parents

adoptive parent supportFor adoptive parents, discussing adoption with their children is a lifelong conversation starting (hopefully) as soon as they arrive to the family and continuing on for the rest of their lives.

It can be difficult to know how to share, what to share and when to share particularly as our children grown and their developmental, emotional and practical needs change. When do we tell them difficult details about their origins? How do we support their need for connection or their need to push away? How can we anticipate what they are likely to need from us as they grow into teens and then into adulthood?

In February, I’ll be offering my Talking to Kids About Adoption workshop as support for adoptive parents who are trying to figure it all out. You can learn more about it and register here. I’ve also been invited to write about the topic at the Adoption Circle web site and you can see the first in that series by going here.

We will do a quick overview of the research and discuss recommended best practices and there will be lots of time to ask questions so we can address the particulars of your family’s situation and your child’s history. I’ll also share a list of resources so families can move forward on their own after the workshop.

Because there’s tremendous need for this support, I will continue to offer this workshop regularly. If you want to stay up to date on the speakers, workshops, classes and groups that I have upcoming, be sure to sign up for the newsletter by filling out the form below.

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Adoption Academy this Monday

At the airport on our way to an adoption conference in Portland in 2008.

On our way to an adoption conference in Portland in 2008. The moving sidewalk at the airport during a layover was her favorite part.

My daughter and I will be sitting on the Adoption Academy panel this Monday hosted by The National Center for Adoption Law & Policy and Nationwide Children’s Hospital. I will be there to encourage my daughter and hopefully she’ll be doing most of the talking when it’s our turn to share.

The Adoption Academy is a great (and inexpensive!) opportunity for prospective adoptive parents to get an overview of many different kinds of adoption to better understand what way of building their families might be right for them.

Because I was asked to speak as an adoptive parent (not as a professional specializing in adoption) I asked them if my daughter could come with my support instead. I did this because a few months ago when I was on my way out to another speaking engagement my daughter (who is 10 as of this writing) said, “Why don’t they ask me? After all, I am the adopted one!”

She had a good point.

We adoptive parents tend to seek each other out for information and support and sometimes that’s appropriate but if we don’t widen our cultural view we run into the danger of assuming that our vantage point is the only one or the most right one.

Fortunately there are more and more opportunities for us to hear from the other players in adoption. Publications like Gazillion Voices, events like the Ohio Birthparent Group‘s All Adoption peer support meeting (every second Tuesday in my office at 7pm), and the blogs of first parents and adoptees allow us to listen and learn, giving us the chance to be better, more inclusive, more understanding parents.

What we’ll hear isn’t always easy and we won’t always agree with what is said. But the experience will give us a better understanding of adoption in all of its complicated nuances, which will make us better parents to our own adopted kids.

I’ve been dragging my daughter to adoption conferences since she was in diapers and so she has been fortunate to hear from adult adoptees, birth parents and other adoptive parents and she has been chomping at the bit to add her own voice to the discussion. Over the weekend we’ll be practicing and playacting some of the questions she might get so she can think about how she wants to respond. Right now she knows that the message she is most anxious to impart is that there doesn’t need to be competition between adoptive parents and birth parents.

“It’s all family,” she explained, trying to decide how she wanted to articulate this.

There’s a strong possibility that my daughter will want to take a step back from participating in events like this as she edges closer to her teens and I will support her in that, too, but as long as she wants to share her story and her experiences, I want to help her do that.

So we’ll be seeing you Monday. It ought to be a good time.


A workshop for adopted children this October

allsmiles-insideI will be facilitating a workshop in partnership with the Central Ohio Families with Children from China. There are three tracks available and I encourage you to contact COFCC if you are interested in learning which one might be appropriate for your child. (Note: This workshop is open to children who have been adopted from other countries or domestically.)

POWER OF “ME” is a workshop for children with the goal of empowering its participants with the skills necessary to enhance their development in a fun and friendly environment.

Track A – W.I.S.E. Up! (9:30 – 11:30)

For children, in Kindergarten and up, who have not taken WISE UP before, or would benefit from a refresher course.  W.I.S.E. Up! provides a simple, but powerful way,  for adopted children and their siblings, to handle comments and personal questions about their adoption journey and their family.

Presenter/Facilitator – Vickie Hobensack, CPNP-PC

Track B – “MY” Life Book (9:30-11:30)

For those who already took W.I.S.E. Up! Children will have the opportunity to work on their own adoption story, their own life book!  Their adoption stories in their own words.

Presenter/Facilitator – Dawn Friedman, MSEd, LPCC-CR

NOTE:  Make sure your child knows his/her adoption story. Once you sign up, a list of photos  suggested for the session will be emailed to you.

Track C – Tweens & Teens (9:30 – 11:30)

Annie was 8 when she started school in the USA.  She had to adjust, fit in and learn to navigate an all new world.  She, and others, will share how they made it thru the tween and teen years.

Presenter/Facilitator – Annie Chen

COFCC Children:  $20 per child

Non-COFCC Children:   $25 per child

To Register, please go to the COFFCC website here.

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