Years ago I had a very public spat with Elizabeth Bartholet, a Harvard law professor who never appears to know of an international adoption she doesn't applaud, over the research showing that adoptees have more psychological and behavioral problems in general than the non-adopted. We were both guests on the PBS NewsHour and she called all such research: "Garbage." Her exact word.
Despite her haughty dismissal, such research continues to accumulate--and now a new study found that adopted children tend to have more behavioral and academic problems in kindergarten and first grade than children raised by their biological parents. According to a research brief from the Institute for Family Studies, "young adoptive children" [a phrase new to me] were more likely than biological ones to get angry easily and fight with other students." This is only one of the differences psychologist Nicholas Zill found when he examined a longitudinal study of 19,000 students conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics beginning in 1998.
THE PLUS OF HIGH EXPECTATIONS
So, we are talking about a large-scale statistical study that even Prof. Bartholet and other nay-sayers would have trouble disputing. Of course I hasten to add, these numbers are merely patterns, and there will be some adopted children who are all-A students.
Zill also found that adopted children were less likely to pay attention, less eager to learn new things, and didn't persist as long on challenging tasks. They didn't do so well in math as the non-adopted and slightly less worse than "birth children" on a reading test.
Before I get onto Zill's analysis of what might be going on, let's explore a fascinating piece of research about why some kids might excel in school: teacher expectation. Writing about The Asian Advantage in education, columnist Nicholas Kristof recently wrote of a famous experiment conducted in the 1960s. Students whose teachers were told they could be expected to do well, did so--even though the "special" students were chosen at random and not selected for IQ or academic achievement. They were merely a random 20 percent. However, after a year with teachers operating under the impression they were budding geniuses, nearly half of them had gained 20 or more IQ points. An amazing gain, right? Kristof used this study as a possible explanation for the Asian's excellence as students and their superiority in the sciences.
The children who were part of the experiment were roughly the same age as the kindergarten and first graders, as this second group were first and second graders. Surely some of this self-fulfilling prophecy might be part of the case with the adopted children in the first study I mentioned? Low expectations, low achievement and behavior problems. In many cases, I think it's safe to say that many teachers know that the adoptees are exactly that: not the biological children of the parents raising them.
Zill, the researcher in the previous study, went another route. He posits that attachment theory, which holds that a strong bond with at least one nurturing adult--usually the mother--is essential to a child thriving. He goes on to say that the attachment could be to the adoptive parent, but it could also mean that the bond with the birth parent was disrupted or--in the worst case, never formed. Trust me, this is not good news for women like myself who gave up an infant, but there it is. Zill writes:
"Children who do not develop a stable and secure bond during early childhood, or have the bond disrupted, are subject to both short-term distress reactions and longer-term abnormalities in their feelings and behavior toward other people. Not having a stable maternal bond is apt to produce long-lasting deficits in the child’s social development, deficiencies that are not easily remedied by a new home environment, no matter how favorable.
"Some adopted children experienced neglect, abuse, or other stressful events prior to their adoption. According to traumatic stress theory, the likelihood of long-term emotional scars depends on the intensity and duration of the stress. Severe or prolonged early stress can have long-lasting effects on a child’s development, effects that a supportive adoptive family may only partly ameliorate."
BRINGING THE RESEARCH BACK HOME
All of this is especially interesting to me because I find research like this fascinating, but also because of my own experience regarding academic achievement, my daughter, and her situation. When I met my daughter Jane she was 15 and in a few special-ed classes, particularly in math. This was supposedly due to her epilepsy, and in truth that did lead to her missing a fair amount of schooling. However, she was writing poetry and keeping up in English. The first weekend we met, her adoptive mother told me that because our daughter had epilepsy, she thought I might be in a mental institution. (!) She grilled me on this, and about the background of the father, perhaps wondering if I were telling the truth. Put it together, and you have parents, and teachers--who certainly knew Jane was adopted--who did not expect her to do well academically. She would have been considered a dim bulb and treated as one. So she clearly was meeting everyone's low expectations.
Those who have read my full story in Hole In My Heart know that my daughter and I had a sometimes fraught relationship over the many years we had. However soon after we met, and I straightened out her mother that a) there were no mental deficiencies in my family or the father's and furthermore, we were both successful writers; and b) Jane ought to be not treated like someone mentally deficient. Jane didn't rise to the honors list in high school, but she did improve, got out of special ed, and began excelling in English. As I've written, I feel that if I had raised her, she would never have been shunted off to LD (learning disabled) classes in the first place. In fact, hearing that my daughter was "LD" was the very first thing I ever heard about her when I phoned her home. I had no idea what her mother meant and those are my initials, so I was mightily confused. Then the thorough questioning about mental retardation in my family that meant her mother wasn't convinced that I wasn't hiding something about my familiar genes passed on to Jane. It was weird.
In time, Jane would complete two years of college, be on the honors list, and be encouraged by an English professor to get a four-year degree after Jane aced her course on women writers. Jane was the only one in her adopted family of four (she had three siblings, one adopted, two not) to achieve that much education.
NOT TO SUGAR COAT ANYTHING...
I tell all this here because I don't believe in sugar-coating the reality of what it means when children are relinquished and adopted. Yes, I know adopted adults myself who are exceptionally bright and successful. Florence Fisher and B.J. Lifton come to my mind immediately, as well as my friends from outside the world of adoption--a successful and erudite book editor, a former speech writer for a major media mogul, a theatrical director, and some of the wonderful adoptees I've gotten to know through my work in adoption. But it appears they are the exception. They thrived despite the emotional and possible intellectual drawbacks of being relinquished--possibly before they were able to form a good attachment with their natural mothers.
I tell all this here in the hope that a woman considering letting her as yet unborn child be adopted will consider this before she goes ahead with an adoption. One can read all the pretty profiles of people willing to take your children--about their intellectual achievements and financial success--but make no mistake, there are drawbacks to letting one's child be given up for adoption. In some cases, adoptive parents unmistakably will provide a more enriched environment for academic achievement. But all that must be stacked up against what it means, at bottom, to be relinquished and raised by genetic strangers, and we know that brings a lot of pain to many an adoptee.
I tell all this here perhaps to reach natural mothers who have stayed away from their children in open adoptions because they, the mothers, can't handle the pain of seeing their children. Though we frequently hear of adoptive parents who close open adoptions, birth/first mothers do it too. They walk away because it is too painful to stay involved. That was the case with footballer Colin Kaepernick's mother, Heidi Russo, and now she would so much like to reconnect with her son. Open adoption is not simply for a birth mother's advantage; it is for the child's too.
And lastly, I address mothers who are thinking of searching but tell themselves their children are better off not knowing you, or an irrational fear of "interrupting" their lives. Their lives were interrupted when they were relinquished. No one can say how welcome a reunion might be, but no one can say that it won't change your child's life for the better. And it just might.--lorraine
What babies learn before birth
How the Nine Months Before Birth Shape the Rest of Our Lives
"This independently published book adds to the more recently scholarly dialog that has emerged of late around the issue of the adoption industry and coerced relinquishment of infants at birth including Ann Fessler's book _The Girls Who Went Away_ and documentary, 'A Girl Like Her,' Kathryn Joyce's recent investigative journalism in 'The Child Catchers' and Rickie Solinger's historic work on reproductive justice and women's right to parent.
"Dusky's publication adds a unique perspective that is at once subjective (her own experience), journalistic and historically accurate as she weaves into her narrative and narrative tale, the trail of documentation that demonstrates the social, ideological and legal machinations at work during the timeframe of her story. This is a critical addition to the scholarship on reproductive justice."--Pamela Salela, professor of Women's and Gender Studies at the University of Illinois, Springfield on a listserv for academics in the field.
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