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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?

Good Girls and Bad Girls

Let's Talk Month at Advocates for YouthI don’t know how I missed reading Andre Dubus (the first one) all of my life but I somehow did. I recently got a copy of his Selected Stories and am trying not to lament that I spent most of my reading years not reading him and am just trying to be super happy that I’m reading him now.

There’s one story in this collection titled Graduation, which I dog-eared for this paragraph:

[S]he had learned this: you could become a virgin again. She finally understood that it was a man’s word. They didn’t mean you had done it once; they meant you did it, the lost hymen testimony not of the past but the present, and you carried with you a flavor of accessibility. She thought how much she would have been spared if she had known it at fifteen when she had felt changed forever, having focused on the word loss as though an arm or leg had been amputated, so she had given herself again, trying to be happy with her new self, rather than backing up and starting over …

Some of my clients are teenagers and some of them are teenage girls. Some of the teenagers are virgins and some are not. All of them are wrestling with their ideas about sex and sexuality. All of them are wrestling with slut-shaming, bringing me stories of bad girls who do this and good girls who do that. All of them are thinking the kind of before-after thinking described in this paragraph.

When these teen girls in particular are talking about sex, regardless of what they have or haven’t done, they tell me that they don’t believe that they will have the same rights they had as a virgin once they’ve “given in” and had sex. Some of them believe that since there is no going back, they will have to aggressively move forward.

Somehow there’s this idea that sex only matters the first time and after that you are forever sexually active whether you actually are or not.

We need to tell our kids that this isn’t true. A person can say yes once and then no every other time, whether that person is with the same partner or not. A person can say yes on Tuesday and no on Wednesday. A person can say yes to that other person but still say no to you.

Teenagers are great ones for black and white thinking. (Here’s a hand-out about this in pdf format.) Parents can help kids dismantle the boxes that label girls sluts and whores in order to create a more nuanced discussion about sexual activity, empowerment and safety.

Miley Cyrus came up in several sessions after her infamous VMA performance. The kids generally condemned her performance and we talked about this then brought it around to understanding that the way they see Miley reflects their own choices in their everyday lives. My interest was not in trying to get them to view Miley and her twerking through a particular lens; my goal was to learn more about what it might say about their day-to-day relationships with themselves and with other people.

Likely you’ve talked to your own tweens and teens about Miley. If you haven’t, you can use that pop culture event (or another, goodness knows there will be more on the horizon) to ask questions like:

  • Should other people’s assumptions affect our behavior? Should our assumptions affect other people’s behavior? Why or why not?
  • Is there room for mistakes growing up? Who gets to decide what’s a mistake?
  • Is there a difference between “sexy” and “slutty”? What are other interpretations of those two words?

Sex education is a lifelong endeavor for most of us because we are always growing and changing. Conversations with our kids should reflect this by going beyond black and white thinking to a continuum of gray. While it’s easy to have a knee-jerk reaction to teen sexuality or pop star performances, it’s better to wrestle with these issues and bring them back to the ways we all wrestle with sexuality in our own lives.

Advocates for Youth has designated October as Let’s Talk Month, 31 days to raise awareness of the importance of good, solid, truthful and empowering sex education. I wrote up a rundown of good sex education programs over at Brain Child this past Monday. You can check it out here.

Dr. Katja Rowell: Finding healthy allies

Love Me, Feed Me!This is the fourth of a 5-part interview series with Dr. Katja Rowell whose consulting service, The Feeding Doctor, focuses on helping families learn about healthy, happy eating. Finding non-alarmist nutrition information for kids is a challenge and her commonsense, respectful approach has been a huge boon to me. Be sure to become a The Feeding Doctor fan on facebook and check out her new book, Love Me, Feed Me! now available at Amazon.

How can we find doctors who will be allies and not focus solely on our kids’ growth charts?

This is really tough. Ask around, go to the Health At Every Size website for a list of doctors who will focus on behavior and health. Doctors are notoriously biased against larger people (great article by Harriet Brown from Feed Me blog in the NYT recently) although diets are ineffective 85-95% of the time, doctors still recommend them. Is there any other treatment with a 90% failure rate, and a big chance of making things worse that would be recommended? Restricting a toddler is basically putting them on a diet. I know I was so frustrated when I was in practice and felt like I was nagging and cheerleading about weight loss and somehow I know I believed it was their fault if my patients didn’t lose weight or their kids kept gaining weight. it makes me sad that I didn’t question what the medical establishment was offering, even though I could see for myself that it didn’t work. In medical training, there was a whole area of science and data that I was never even exposed to. I truly believed that BMI, misery and death were linearly related. It’s a horrible disservice to patients, and I fear it’s getting worse rather than better with all the focus on obesity. Be educated as a parent (this is tough with such bad information coming from the health experts) and then be an advocate for your child. If a doctor ever told my child she was obese I would walk out and file a complaint. I also found a way to have a brief chat with my pediatrician when my daughter was young that I didn’t want to discuss her growth chart in front of her. If your school is measuring BMI, make them stop. Write to me-seriously- I will do what I can to intervene. There is NO PLACE for weighing kids anywhere but the doctor’s office.

What are some good resources for parents who want to learn healthy nutrition?

apple or burgerChild of Mine is awesome. There are appendices on nutrition. I just so firmly believe that the key to improving what kids eat is really knowing HOW to feed them. There are some good web resources out there. Raising Healthy Eaters seems pretty good. I just caution parents that if they hear a message about limiting, restricting or pushing “good ” foods on your kids that it can backfire. MyPyramid.gov is getting better in terms of snack ideas and general advice, but it still clings to BMI, calorie counts and restriction.

What are some good resources for kids who want to learn more about nutrition?

I honestly don’t know. There is so much garbage out there. Secrets has an appendix, and Ellyn Satter has some information online for age appropriate nutrition education. You can start with structure, the basic food groups, what foods do for our bodies, how they make us feel, but again watch out for the more typical messages of “limit fat grams” limit sweets etc. When you stress avoidance you set up that craving and unnatural interest in a food. Maybe find more of a biology text rather than nutrition? Let me know if you find anything and I’ll keep looking!

(Stay Tuned for the conclusion next week!)

Introducing Dr. Katja Rowell: A 5-part series

Love Me, Feed Me!This is the start of a 5-part interview series with Dr. Katja Rowell whose consulting service, The Feeding Doctor, focuses on helping families learn about healthy, happy eating. Finding non-alarmist nutrition information for kids is a challenge and her commonsense, respectful approach has been a huge boon to me.  I asked her if she’d let me interview her and not only did she say yes but she gave me SO MUCH information back that I have enough to share across the next five weeks. Be sure to become a The Feeding Doctor fan on facebook and check out her new book, Love Me, Feed Me! now available at Amazon.

Katja Rowell, M.D. is a graduate of the University of Michigan medical school and served as a family physician in urban and rural clinics and at a university student health service. She was struck by the prevalence of disordered eating and feeding and related health problems. Rowell believes establishing a healthy feeding relationship– in essence– the HOW children are fed is the missing piece in addressing disordered eating, childhood overweight and damaging dieting behaviors.

Without further ado, here’s the first part of the 5-part series speaking with a nutritionist who has no desire to scare the heck out of you, demonize food or force-feed you guilt in the guise of education.

Your blog was originally called Family Feeding Dynamics. Can you talk more about how you came up with this name and what it means?

Feeding dynamics is the name of Ellyn Satter‘s feeding model with children. It transformed first my own family’s experience around food, and then was the major impetus for my career shift from traditional family doctor to a childhood feeding specialist.

I wanted to celebrate that link with Satter’s feeding model, but also stress the family aspect. To stress that families teach kids how to eat. Family meals matter. The word dynamic also recognizes that feeding our families is a dynamic process, meaning it is flexible and changes with your family. For example, I had a hard time cooking the kinds of meals I thought I “should” during stressful times, whether we were moving, health reasons, or just being overwhelmed with the needs of an active infant and an over-worked partner. I relied more on take-out or pre-prepped meals at the time, but I “forgave” myself, meaning I let go of the guilt. I think that positive attitude helped me get back to feeling good about cooking more regularly again. So much changes with kids – their tastes, different feeding challenges depending in your child’s temperament and developmental stage, or your home situation with jobs, schedules etc. So you might eat dinner at 5:30 when your child is younger, but change to a seven p.m. dinner when your child starts after-school activities. It’s about being flexible, forgiving, fluid, and dynamic with your approach to doing your job with feeding.

What are the most significant barriers you see in the way of parents helping kids learn healthy eating?

popsicle-insideTime is probably a major factor for most families I work with. Money and access to a variety of foods is an issue for too many Americans as well. I read somewhere that for a families in the “lower middle class” range, that eating the way the food pyramid recommends would take about 70% of their income. So, for many families, food insecurity, and money is an issue.

Another barrier I commonly see is picky eating and the power struggles around that issue- which in most cases is a result of feeding decisions in the past or feeding patterns. Fundamentally most parents (and health care providers) also don’t understand normal growth and normal eating habits. Parents of big kids worry that their children will be fat, parents of small kids feel judged or worry that their child is not healthy or will grow up to be small. Out of this concern and misunderstanding comes this urgent sense of “We have to do something!” and unfortunately that “something” usually means feeding with pressure-feeding to try to control size and that often backfires. That kid who gets pushed to eat more will eat less, that kid who is being restricted often then gets obsessed with food and you might start to see weight increase more rapidly. We have lost a sense of trusting that kids can and will grow to a body that is right for them if we do our job with feeding. Another barrier is that lots of parents I work with don’t know how to cook basic food and feel overwhelmed by shopping, meal planning and cooking. It’s part of why my blog focuses on meal-planning and recipes as well as research and topical subjects.

What do you mean by “jobs with feeding?”

It boils down to what is called the Division of Responsibility with feeding which is Satter’s main notion and recognized by the American Dietetic Association as “perhaps the best way to feed children.” The person feeding the child decides what, when and where the kid eats, the child decides if and how much. It sounds easy, but it is not the norm in how we feed kids as a culture. Think about the kid who is forced to eat two bites of meat before he earns dessert, or the child who has to finish a serving of vegetables before he can have more meat, or the child who is cut off after one serving of pasta. This is typical, and to many the badge of good parenting and feeding, but it is doing the child’s job-which is letting them tune in to their bodies and to decide how much of something to eat. As a mom, I plan the meals and snacks and I provide a variety of foods from the basic food groups, and I provide a pleasant setting, Then my job is done. My child’s job is to show up, be pleasant and decide how much or if she eats. It is hard work planning and providing snacks and meals with fat, protein and carb. It is not sexy, it is not easily sold or taught in a sound-bite format. But, it is pleasant. I don’t have fights or negotiations at my table, and the families I work with tell me things like, “I can look forward to dinner again,” or “I get to be a mom, not a food cop” and you know what? Their kids eat a better variety and get better nutrition too. It’s one thing to see the research on feeding, but it’s another to see it work in my home and with my clients. I love what I do. To me this is very powerful preventive medicine. If a kid can grow up with a healthy relationship to food and her body-what a gift, what a head start in terms of health.

(Stay Tuned for Part 2 next week!)

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