In the wake of publishing “The Paradox of Adoption,” Nicholas Zill’s research brief on the early academic outcomes of adopted children, we received thoughtful letters from several adoptive parents about the results. We thought readers and researchers alike may be interested in their perspectives.
One adoptive mother of two children was skeptical about the findings:
I have to say that these results are counter to most of the adopted children I know, ranging from ages six to sixty. I wonder if some of the results are affected by whether the children spent some time in orphanages (most likely Chinese or Eastern European) as opposed to foster care in the US. Both could result in a mixed-race family; however, there would be a lot of difference in early childhood bonding/lack of stimulation.
Also, was information available about whether the two-parent families of any of the children included a stay-at-home parent (usually the mom)? How aware were the teachers of adoption or broken family situations? White parents with a black child are rather obvious about adoption, whereas a family where all members are the same race could easily be a family of adoption without the teacher’s knowledge; teachers already have a tendency to view the behavior of children of color (especially boys) differently. More likely than behavioral issues in early childhood, my experience (which admittedly is anecdotal) has been that the problems are more likely in puberty, especially in girls. There is a lot of difference between spending a month or a couple of years in foster care and spending two to three years in an orphanage, where care is more likely given by children a year or so older than by adults.
I have two adopted children; I am the only mother one of them has ever known, the other spent a few months with the birthmother and a few months with a foster family before joining our family. My son was looking at books right way up and turning pages correctly about as early as he was holding books. By the age of two, he had some of his books memorized down to when to turn the page; he could recognize numbers up to five and count to ten in English, Spanish, and Japanese. By three, he was asking how to form letters on his Magnadoodle while I drove, which I then described to him. We started reading Harry Potter to him during preschool and he was reading the chapter titles (including identifying the Roman numerals) before kindergarten; he entered first grade reading the Magic Treehouse books, and skip counting by two, five, and 10 to 100. In high school he took mostly honors classes; although he had a rough junior year due to family issues (a major international move, loss of a grandparent), he graduated with a very good GPA and is doing very well in college.
My daughter is a bit different; personality-wise, she refused to learn anything from me when very young. However, before preschool, her brother taught her to recognize both cases of the alphabet in two days and she was writing them. She left preschool reading The Cat in the Hat. She started honors classes in middle school and is taking them in high school. Based on what we know of her birth parents, most of the behavioral issues we have experienced are more related to personality than adoption. We actually know many adoptive families; some have adopted from China, others in the U.S.; none had behavioral issues in early school years; most are very high achievers in both math and reading.
I find the reported results interesting, but think that they would have to be combined with many more studies with much more information before making any conclusions. Reports like this, taken alone, can actually cause more damage by setting up expectations in teachers that lead to their own fulfillment.
Other parents saw the research brief in a different light. One parent notes:
I find it [“The Paradox of Adoption”] very interesting, and I had been looking for exactly this type of compilation of numbers. Being an adoptive parent myself (three children adopted out of foster care), I often observed that even children adopted at birth seem to be a dominant population in boarding schools, for example.
My own pet theory has always been that there may be a much higher percentage of children affected by prenatal alcohol and drug abuse in the population of adopted children. I think it would be highly interesting (at least to me) if your data could be grouped into adopted at birth versus older and also grouped by countries. Especially in the U.S. (at least where I live and work), infants placed at birth and then adopted are mostly placed because of maternal drug and alcohol abuse or mental health issues. Prenatal substance abuse leads to attention issues, frustration, aggression and cognitive issues.
A third parent wrote to Dr. Zill:
Thanks for doing this important research and for sharing your article... Our son was adopted at birth—five days old. He fits the profile that you describe in your article. In second grade, he was diagnosed as gifted/talented, learning-disabled after his perceptive teacher asked the question, “Why is it that the smartest child in the class cannot read or understand math?” He was placed in special education for years—which put him in the same category of kids that were seriously developmentally disabled and were geographically isolated from the other mainstream kids in the school. So the messages he got from the school system were strange, and the bullying and horrible treatment he got from his peers was heartbreaking.
Beyond those early years, he had a very difficult adolescence—and so did we! At 28, [name] is now thriving. Getting past those first 20 years was a huge milestone for our family.
Anything that brings greater understanding and pushes the research agenda farther regarding adoption is valuable.
David French shared his adopted daughter’s story at National Review. “In the adoption community,” he writes, “parents often remind themselves that ‘every adoption begins with brokenness.’ In other words, there is often immense suffering and heartache before an adoption, and that suffering carries with it real consequences for children who often struggle to bond with new families.” Finally, Olga Khazan’s Atlantic article on the brief inspired many adoptees, adoptive parents, and birth parents to share their stories as well.