Adopt-a Confusion


Patricia Irwin Johnston
Focus on Adoption magazine

People who are involved with adoption issues on a daily basis are becoming increasingly concerned about the negative impact of programs taking an "adopt-a" theme which have proliferated since the Cabbage Patch doll craze of the early 1980’s.

People are urged to adopt zoo animals, highways, potholes, whales, manatees, patches of rain forest, city parks, light bulbs in city holiday programs, used video tapes and even library books. These programs range from the extremely worthy to the absolutely silly: from Humane Society animal placement programs to the franchised Adopt-A-Rubber-Duck river races sponsored by radio or TV stations to benefit various local charities.

Defining adoption

The problem lies in the misuse of the word adoption. Granted, the words adopt/adoption have more than one meaning. The primary definition describes the legal process of transferring parental rights from birthparents to adoptive parents; the second and third definitions "To take and follow by assent" and "To take up and use as one’s own," describe non-family-related meanings, such as the processes by which schools adopt textbooks, campaigns adopt themes, etc. The adopt-a projects, with their gimmicky "adoption certificates" and "adoptive parent" labels, trade on the primary definition of adoption, which relates to family planning and family building, creating a striking mental image which packs a marketing wallop. Every marketing person we’ve ever spoken to about our concern about this admits that it is the immediately recognizable image of sheltering an otherwise unwanted "orphan" that makes such a theme attractive and successful.

Those of us who are parents by adoption and adoption activists believe that, in turning upon a kind of "save the rejects" image, such programs trivialize a serious topic. Though these programs may seem innocuous to abstract thinking adults, they confuse and alarm children and add further myths and misconceptions about this family planning method to yet another generation of children.

Those who are skeptical about the very existence of adopt-a confusion argue that it is up to adoptive parents to work with our kids to explain the realities of adoption. The reply is that yes, of course, as adoptive parents we work with our children (and with the children of friends and relatives) to help them sort through the differences between adoption of people and adoption of animals or adoption promotions. But because children are not abstract thinkers, this is not an easy task.

It’s confusing enough

Research by David Brodzinsky at Rutgers University has shown that children who were adopted are really no quicker to understand the complex social issues which underlie adoption than are their non-adopted peers, though children who were adopted do learn to parrot the terminology much earlier. Adoption is confusing enough an issue for young children without adding to the confusion through commercial projects. We wonder why we adoptive parents should have to spend all this time explaining, when, by just sensitizing good people responsible for developing marketing programs we could instead eliminate the confusion entirely!

Perhaps you have not experienced adopt-a confusion in your own family (or at least you may not be aware that such a confusion is at work), but such misconceptions are widespread among 3 to 12 year olds, nearly all of whom are intellectually too undeveloped to reason logically. Three examples of adopt-a confusion among children under 10 typify those occurring regularly in cities across the country.

We adopted a giraffe!

A five year old adoptee was "given" a giraffe by her grandparents through their much-loved zoo’s Adopt-An-Animal program. Over the course of several months the child was very upset to learn that not only could she not take "her" animal home or care for it directly, but she also could not consider it "hers" after the year had passed, when a different animal was substituted for "her" giraffe in the next year’s campaign. In another city, another child was distressed when he learned that an acquaintance had been assigned the same specific animal as had he!

A third child was told by a non-adopted friend, who had participated in such a program, that if his parents wanted to they could trade him for a "better" child next year, as his family had in "upgrading" their zoo adoption. Children waiting in foster care for permanency have been teased by peers with taunts such as, "We adopted a giraffe. Nobody wants you!"

Cabbage Patch mania

A child who was eight at the time of the first round of Cabbage-Patch-mania, watched an evening news feature story on the black market developing in these ugly little creatures who spring from the dirt accompanied by adoption papers and turned to ask, "Mommy, is that the way adoption really works? Do they give babies to the people with the most money?" Similarly, school-aged children who look at the lists offered in programs such as that of most zoos’, which offer different "prices" for different varieties of "wild children" are often led to ask their parents how much they themselves cost and whether a brother or sister was more or less expensive and why! No amount of explanation about how adoption fees work and how they are disbursed can be absorbed by a non-reasoning small child.

We’ve heard from several families who have "adopted" an animal from Humane Societies. In contrast to other "adoption" projects, on the surface these seem "like" human adoption, in that there actually is an investigation and approval process, the animal is the family’s to take home and nurture, and thus participation in the program seems a good "lesson" for children in what adoption is about.

Despite good intentions, these programs, too, can be confusing. In several cases problems have started when animals brought home turned out to be serious problems– biting, failing obedience training, etc.– and the family has come to the realization that they would have to find the animal another home or return him to the Society. Soon after, their children began to experience nightmares or other acting out behavior. Upon investigation it has been discovered that these kids were afraid that if they were "bad" they, too, would be "returned."

Adoption is not a game

Each of these children has become very confused and concerned about his own situation. In each case parents had had no idea before this experience that they were participating in a program which would lead to such stress for their kids or others’ children. That’s because the adults involved in the projects–-program administrators, parents, etc.–-could think abstractly and thus were able to see clearly the difference between adoption of people and sponsorships sold as adoption. These adults simply forgot that children are incapable of following a line of reasoning this complex to a clear conclusion and that they take everything very personally.

The way to prevent these confusions is really quite simple. Adoption is a process by which families are planned and formed. To trivialize it in a commercial way insults the birthparents, adoptive parents, and adoptees who have been personally touched by this process. We no longer find it acceptable to trivialize other minority groups in this society. The proliferation of adopt-a-promotions has become about as humorous to many of those personally touched by adoption as are shuffle-footed picaninny humor or Pollack jokes to the minority groups they deride. For the sake of children waiting for adoption and those who have already found their permanent families in adoption, we adults must insist that adoption be treated in a dignified manner.

Making the change

We are aware that the following have responded to concerns raised world-wide by members of the adoption community and have renamed their adopt-a fundraising programs out of respect for adoption-expanded families: The Toy library of Chester and Area Family Resource Centre, in Chester, Nova Scotia; LaPine National Forest in Oregon; Indianapolis Zoo, Carmel-Clay (Indiana) Public Library, Milwaukee Zoo, National Wildlife Federation’s Ranger Rick Magazine, Gleaners Food Bank of Central Indiana, Big Brothers/Big Sisters of Nassau Cty NY, Stoneybrook Farm (IL), Minnesota Zoo, Stoneyfield Yogurt of Londonderry NH., Prairie Park of Peoria IL.

Also responding sensitively to the need to reconsider program names: Association of Booksellers for Children. Help us add to this list!

This article has been adapted with permission from Adopting: Sound Choices, Strong Families by Patricia Irwin Johnston.

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