How Using Adoption to Catch Attention, Touch Heartstrings and Raise
Big Bucks Exploits Children Who Were Adopted and Those Waiting for
Pat Johnston, Indiana, USA
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.
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
and 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. 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...
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!"
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 have 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."
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.
_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _
Credit where credit is due... Change is in the wind! As of May,
1999, 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: Indianapolis Zoo, Carmel-Clay (Indiana) Public Library,
Milwaukee Zoo, National Wildlife Federation's Ranger Rick Magazine,
LaPine National Forest in Oregon, Gleaners Food Bank of Central
Indiana, Big Brothers/Big Sisters of Nassau Cty NY, Stoneybrook
Farm (IL), Minnesota Zoo, The Toy library of Chester and Area Family
Resource Centre, in Chester, Nova Scotia, Stoneyfield Yogurt of
Londonderry NH., Prairie Park of Peoria IL. Also responding sensitively
to the need to reconsider program names: New England Aquarium, Association
of Booksellers for Children, Central Mass Regional Library System.
Help us add to this list!
For a sample letter to use as a model when writing, and some alternative
terms that have been successful substitutes in switching from adopt-a
marketing, see the Adopt an Attitude page on the web site of Adoptive
Parents Association of British Columbia! http://www.bcadoption.com/Info/Articles/attitude.htm
(If this hot link does not work--it sometimes doesn't and we're
not sure why--cut and paste the URL into your browser's address
line; it is correct!)
This article has been adapted from Adopting after Infertility (copyright
1992) by Patricia Irwin Johnston.To peruse this book's table of
contents and sample its reviews, click here. Those reading a print-out
will find this article and others on the internet at http://www.perspectivespress.com/ourfactsheets.html
The article may be reprinted without further permission for distribution
to newsletters or in your efforts to persuade adopt-a-marketers
of the need for change.
Thank you! The author may be reached at Perspectives Press, P.O.
Box 90318, Indianapolis IN 46290. Telephone 317-872-3055.
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