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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?

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.

Speaking truth to your adopted child

thoughtfulgirl-inside(This is an edited repost from my defunct personal blog, which is why it references other posts from four years ago and Lost, for goodness sakes, like the olden days or something.)

Malinda posted about this parenting advice from Brian Stuy:

We have never brought up, unprompted, our daughters’ birth parents. We have discussed adoption, conception and pregnancy, and other corollary issues from time to time, but I have never, without having the subject introduced by a daughter, initiated a conversation by saying, “Do you wish you knew your birth mother?” Or, “Do you want to know more about your abandonment?” I have always indicated a willingness to answer any and all questions (not just about adoption but about anything), so I am confident my kids know that if they ask any question we will try to provide them with a good answer. But the point is, I wait for them to ask. Those that force-feed their children the deep issues of abandonment, birth parents and adoption, risk, I believe, getting the kinds of responses displayed above. In fact, by presenting the reality of birth parents before they are mature enough to handle it, for example, I think we risk diminishing our own position as parents to our children.

I was watching Lost on Tuesday, which is chock full of obvious and less obvious adoption issues and adoption cliches and stereotypes and I was thinking about how deeply ingrained our presumptions are about “real” parents and changelings and lost orphans and false parents. I was thinking about fairy tales and mythology and thinking that our collective unconsciousness already feeds us these ideas. (I am typing this to avoid spoilers.) It doesn’t matter if they are “true” or not — they are part of our belief system.

So unlike Brian, I think that even if we never ever ever breathe an unasked for word about our kids’ birth parents that our collective unconsciousness is already, in some ways, defining our own position as parents to our children. And our kids need to figure that out for themselves, which I think means we should be more explicit in welcoming that discussion. Not because we need to sway them but because we need to hear them out (or at least say to them, “I am bringing this up because I will hear you out”) so that they know whatever direction they choose, whatever belief feels like home to them, we will love them and accept them and never ever leave them. Even if they feel more attached to their birth countries, families and origins than they do to us. They may reject the “blood is thicker than water” belief system or they may not. But they will wonder about it.

Brian also says:

They might ask at that point if they were born of their adoptive parents, and that would be a good time to answer, “No, you were born to a woman in China.” That is the type of answer I would give. But many use this opportunity to go ahead and answer questions not asked and not even thought of: “No, you were born to a woman in China. She is your birth mother, and she wasn’t able to keep you, so she left you at the gate of the orphanage.” This is the type of over-feeding that overwhelms most kids, and creates, I believe, unnecessarily emotional issues.

There’s a third response, “No, you were born to a woman in China. What do you think about that?”  or “How do you feel about that?” or “I know that might be confusing. Do you have some questions about that?”

I mean, culturally? We romanticize birth ties. I’m not willing to say that this romance is more true or less true. I’m not willing to say that it’s a cultural bias we need to question or reject or welcome with open arms. I think it’s one that’s interesting to explore and for any adopted child, it is an absolutely vital exploration because it is a conflict she is living and she will need to make sense of it in whatever way she needs to.

This is why we need to bring it up. We don’t say, “Hey, my lovely child, do you feel so much more tied to your birth mom than you do to me? Since she’s your real mother and all?” Instead we can say, “How did you feel when so-and-so was talking about this thing that might relate to adoption?” If I was Brian Stuy in a closed adoption from China, I’d surely say, “Sometimes I wonder about your birth mom. Do you wonder?” Because I would wonder. And if I’m wondering, it’s not such a far stretch to think that the child herself wonders.

I do not think that birth ties are any more magical and true than love ties but I do believe that birth ties are rich with meaning. I do think that in a culture that romanticizes our genetic origins that those genetic origins have an important weight.

For example, gender has tremendous cultural weight, agreed? We can say that gender is a social construct but it does not negate the weight of it. We can say it is a figment of our collective imagination and we can choose NOT to believe that gender matters. Individually, we can do that. But culturally, gender still has weight and our questions and struggle with the cultural construct of gender is practiced against the beliefs that we are questioning. Which is to say, no matter how much we choose to believe that gender does not matter for ourselves, it does matter. Our personal practice of gender exists in contrast to the larger cultural construct. In other words, Lady Gaga owes as big a debt to Phyllis Schlafly as she does to Madonna.

All Access

smiley2-insideYou know how Jane Brown famously said that internationally adoptive parents are a fifth best choice? (And I’ll assume that domestic transcultural adoptive parents are a fourth best choice.)

The first, she believes, is for children to remain with their birthparents; second-best is for a child to be adopted by, or remain with, a member of the extended family; third-best is to be raised by people of the same race in the country of one’s birth, and fourth-best is to be raised by members of the same race outside the country of one’s birth.

(quoted from The Pain of Adoption)

What she’s talking about are the levels of adoption loss — the loss of a biological connection and then the loss of a cultural connection. If we adopt transracially/transculturally, our children become biracial/bicultural regardless of their biological roots. A Birth Project wrote about this several years ago.

(Note: I know that it’s hard for adoptive parents to read a quote like Jane’s above and I include it not to make transracially/transculturally adoptive parents feel bad but to galvanize them to confront the unique challenges their children face. Information is power and I believe in empowering parents so that they can make their own best decisions.)

The transracially adoptive parent’s goal can’t be to do “as good a job” at nurturing her child’s birth culture in in the same way that a parent who shares that birth culture could because that would be an impossible goal. We can’t understand the nuances of that culture the way we could if we had grown up there. We can read, we can visit (as an observer, as a tourist) but we can’t live it.

It’s kind of the same thing when people say that doing a white child’s hair is as difficult or as important as doing a black child’s hair. No, it isn’t. Even if the two children have the exact same hair texture, if one child has pink skin and one has brown, the state of their hair has different cultural connotations. There’s an extra layer to the discussion. We can exchange hair tips, talk conditioner, and trade beads and baubles but when we send our kids out into the world, they bear a different weight in their curls.

There are a lot of challenges in being a transcultural parent (and I include bio parents who are transculturally parenting — especially if they do not have a co-parent who reps the culture of the child) and one challenge is trying to make sense of when our values are more or less important than the values of the child’s birth culture.

This is ongoing work and it will look different for different families and different at different time in our children’s lives.

Safe Discussion for Adopted Kids

growth-insideIn my practice (and in my personal life), I’ve found that tween adoptees tend to be thinking about adoption and about their birth families more than their adoptive parents may realize. They’re not always talking about it but they’re thinking about it. The Adoption Institute linked to a study that looked at this in last month’s newsletter, here’s the abstract:

The adopted children, between the ages of 8 and 12 years, and their parents answered questions about the children’s thoughts and feelings about adoption. Descriptive data and scores on four scales – family, adoption, birth culture identity and discrimination – were obtained. Compared with same-race adoptees, transracial adoptees scored significantly higher on birth culture identity and perceived discrimination. High levels of convergence between the children’s and parents’ viewpoints on the experiences of adoption and related issues were found. Nevertheless, the adopted children scored higher than their parents on birth culture identity, suggesting that at this age adoptive parents may underestimate their children’s connection to their cultural origins

I think there are several reasons why adoptive parents may underestimate their children’s interest. For one thing, just because kids are thinking something doesn’t mean they’re talking about it; they may not even have the words to share what they’re thinking and feeling. But absence of discussion on their part doesn’t mean it’s not on their minds.

The other thing is that many adoptees worry excessively about hurting their adoptive parents’ feelings. They pick up on any jealousy or insecurity on the part of their parents real or perceived and they act accordingly.

They may also fear being different than the rest of the family and expressing their interest in their birth origins can exacerbate this worry.

So what is a concerned adoptive parent to do?

  1. Talk about adoption early and often. Don’t wait until “they’re old enough to understand.” Don’t wait for them to bring it up. Make adoption part of your everyday lives and discussion. Practice, if you need to, with a friend so that you can talk about adoption without blanching. Your child should know everything you do (expressed age appropriately) by the time they hit their teens, which means if there are some tough things to talk about, you need to get ready to talk about them. (If you need help, talk to a counselor or a teacher or a spiritual adviser or someone else who knows how to discuss difficult things with kids.)
  2. Assume your child’s interest even if they don’t express it. Remember that every adoption outside of family adoption (and sometimes even then) is a transcultural adoption so even if your child looks like you and everyone else in the family, she or he has a birth culture that is worth exploring. And that birth culture is part of your family culture now so welcome it the same way you welcome your own culture of origin.
  3. This doesn’t mean forcing them to assume an identity of your making, mind you. Your daughter from China may not particularly want to identify as Chinese and that’s OK. What you’re doing is creating opportunity so that she has room to decide for herself. Just like families connected by biology may drag their kids to Irish step shows because they want to remind them of dear old Granny Murphy, adoptive families should celebrate connection as a family. And just like bio kids may grow up to loathe Michael Flatley, so your son adopted from Ethiopia may grow up to loathe injera. But what they’ll remember is that it mattered to the family and trust me, that part of it will matter to them no matter what.
  4. Don’t spend so much time on culture that you forget biology. Your child likely wants to know about his or her birth family, too. If you have information, share it. If you don’t, share what you do have. If you have nothing, talk openly about that. Be willing to say, “I don’t know.” Be willing to do research. And it’s best that you do this exploration before your child hits those tween years so that you’re prepared for their questions.
  5. If you do have access to birth family, help your child have access, too. How this should look will depend a great deal on the reasons behind your child’s adoption but you can get help by talking to other adoptive parents, birth parents and adoptees or by talking to a knowledgeable therapist.
  6. Find someone for your child to talk to. As I said before, sometimes we parents are not the best people for our kids to confide in so find a trusted adult adviser whether that be a therapist, another relative or friend of the family, or an adoptee mentor.

 

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