Telling Your Child's Adoption Story

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Truth or Consequences?

Is our child's adoption story ours to tell? Could it be that if we tell it freely, we risk exposing our children to hurtful stereotypes that can result in prejudicial and judgmental review of their scholarship and behavior at school?

My friend, Linda, and I hung out at the neighborhood children's gym, counting the days until "Black Saturday" when the acceptances and, more likely, the rejections for the Los Angeles private schools come in the mail. She kept saying, "I know you will get in because Emily is such a neat kid---and because she's adopted," implying that the circumstances of our daughter's entry into the family would give her an edge over the competition. Linda's theory was that adoption falls into the category of "diversity," a hot commodity in these multi-cultural times.

I, on the other hand, was not only unconvinced that adoption would help us, I was full of conflict over whether I had done Emily potential damage by even mentioning it. Did I really want her new school to know? When I signed my child up for nursery school four years prior, I was still in the gushy, "shout it from the rooftops" stage. But later, I began to have second thoughts. What if the teachers had prejudiced, negative views of adoption - and adopted children? I called the school director and asked her to take the information out of our file and to keep it to herself. I decided that if I wanted one of Emily's teachers to know I would tell her myself. And I hadn't. Not once in four years.

So, why did I go public when the kindergarten application process came 'round? Because meanwhile, I had read that knowing could sensitize the school to adoption issues when it came time for the "family tree" assignments and other lessons on reproduction and biology, and, thereby, create a more supportive atmosphere for an adopted child.

As it turns out, we are keeping Emily at her current school. She will be going "across the street," where the "big kids" are. Now, my husband and I must decide if we want the fact of her adoption to follow her across that street, or to die a quiet death at the preschool.

Of course, this decision only applies to adoptive families who can "pass for bio." Interracial, interethnic and (sometimes) intercountry adoptive families usually pass Step One - to tell or not to tell - and proceed directly to Step Two: how much to tell and when to tell it. But for our family, and for other families that could "pass for bio," the decision of whether or not to tell at all looms large.

Adoption awareness at America's schools ranges from the sublime - a preschool whose executive director is an adoptive mom, who required her staff to attend a workshop lead by Rueben Pannor (co-author of the seminal The Adoption Triangle) - to the abysmal: schools where adoption is never mentioned until it gets blamed for academic, social or behavior problems. As Paul Mendez, of the National Association of School Psychologists succinctly puts it: "Adoption is a subtle issue. In some parts of the country we still have to think about things like corporal punishment."

If we tell, we risk exposing our children to hurtful stereotypes that can result in prejudicial and judgmental review of their scholarship and behavior. Adoptive parents worry that teachers may either expect less academically or be too quick to test for learning disorders when achievement comes slowly. In the worst-case scenario, we are scared that prejudiced per-captions of our child will cause educators to assume that any difficulties are adoption-related, leading to misdiagnosis of emotional, cognitive, behavioral or social characteristics and inappropriate intervention and treatment. We are concerned that teachers and school administrators will never see our precious children without a big, red "A" emblazoned on their chests, and overshadowing the complex and unique individuals they are.

Further, if we dig down deep, we may find other fears as well. But these fears are not for our children; they are for us. We, as parents, may feel more vulnerable to criticism from school if the staff knows our child was adopted. We may be hooked into a "superparent" identity, in which we compensate for our infertility by "creating" the perfect child. Miriam Reitz and Kenneth Watson, in Adoption and the Family System (p. 154), report that any school difficulties can feel like an additional "assault on the parents' self-esteem" when inability to conceive has already lowered our feelings of self-worth.

One major concern for those who choose to tell is whether a teacher or administrator can be counted upon to be discreet. Two stories indicate that worry is well founded: One adoptive mom relates a conversation with her daughter's teacher - who had not been told - in which the teacher disclosed the adoption of another child! In a second situation rich with irony, an adoptive father went back to his childhood school, where a nun proudly pointed out the offspring of his former classmates - and then went on to announce, "and that one and that one were adopted."

Even taking into account all of the above, however, a strong case can be made for "telling." The flip side of misdiagnosis and overreaction is early diagnosis and timely intervention. Learning disorders are more prevalent in adopted kids. According to David Brodzinsky, Marshall Schecter and Robin Marants Henig, in Being Adopted (p. 86), adopted children are about four times more likely to be learning disabled. And sensitivity to the familiar pitfalls of genealogy assignments and biology lessons can be important.

Interestingly, none of the educators interviewed for this article saw any reason to withhold adoption information. They were surprised when reasons to remain silent were suggested. Lois Levy, assistant head of school at the Center for Early Education in Los Angeles, a nursery and primary school founded by psycho-analysts, feels that knowing a child was adopted helps teachers "to support each child as well as possible." She reports, "no problems in twenty years." Of course, this school is likely to be more sophisticated than most when it comes to matters like adoption. There is even a developmental psychologist on staff.

Some parents, too, have positive experiences to relate. One mom whose kids are now young adults is glad she "took the risk." Her daughter had some behavior problems and her son is hyperactive and dysgraphic (problems with writing symbols). Both benefited by interaction with adoption-sensitive educators.

The best approach seems to have been taken by a mother whose kids attend public school (where adoption is not a category to check off on the admission form). She decided to tell, but only after ensuring that the school was "okay" on adoption, i.e., well-informed and sensitized. To accomplish this, she came armed with ammunition: She brought in books for the teachers, and then volunteered to read children's adoption books at story time.

This mom, a family law attorney, felt that she owed it to her children to provide a "defensive device to protect them from being blind sided" by hurtful words and situations.

In order to avail ourselves of the benefits of telling we need to reduce the risks. The story time mom's tactics seem the optimum route. Lois Melina recommends bringing in reading material at the first parent-teacher conference and explaining adoption issues that might be problematic at that time. She suggests volunteering to put together a workshop for the teaching staff, with the caveat that you must get your child's "permission" first. If he doesn't feel comfortable with you speaking at his school, offer to do the workshop elsewhere. And assure your children that you will not share any confidential information about them. (Making Sense of Adoption, pp. 156-158)

In addition to the adoption literature a parent may have in his/her own library, there are some excellent adoption resources prepared specifically for teachers, school counselors and students.

Of course, each individual family must weigh both sides of this issue, taking into account the general atmosphere at school (Does the staff welcome input from parents? Are they open to new ideas?), before deciding to tell or not to tell. And always, the child's interests must be paramount.

Credits: Penelope Bloch White

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