Adopt-a Campaigns: Why they are not respectful by Jane Brown, MSW

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SPEAKING POSITIVELY : Why Adopt A…. Campaigns are not Respectful
By Jane Brown, MSW, Adoption Educator, Adoptive Parent

Dislike of and complaints about Adopt A.. campaigns often cause controversy within adoptive parent groups. Some parents write or say that they don't mind them, others detest them, others say that they think they positively influence people to think adoption is terrific.

What I've learned over the years is that it is not our opinion that should be put in the position of priority-- but CHILDREN'S opinions.

With many of our children being way to young to have an opinion or to be able to understand the implications of why these campaigns are so popular or what they convey as far as attitudes about adoption, its important, I think, to consider how many adult adoptees think about this. In my experience which includes a great deal of direct work with the adult adoptee community, I have tried to pay attention to the fact that the adoptees, themselves, do not particularly like these ads for they encountered them repeatedly and their effect built-up for many, over time, to help reinforce the societal attitude that adoption equated with "buying and selling" children; that adoption is a substitute for the real thing, and that those who are adopted are pitied by others (not the way they want to be regarded-- so it caused them embarrassment and shame). Many were teased and ridiculed when the newest Adopt A.. campaigns started up in their community. Many had parents who told them to "buck up" and "not make a big deal out of nothing" which they silently resented-- silently angry and resentful that their parents failed to understand how it is to be someone looking at adoption through THEIR lens of experience and instead, expected them to accept their point of view and swallow their negative feelings of hurt, anger, resentment, shame, embarrassment, and "otherness."

If you are a parent of a young child, this may seem innocuous to you because your CHILD has not encountered this and has not expressed his or her feelings to you. Those of us with older children who are teens or adults may also have, at an earlier stage of our parenting, thought it wasn't such a big deal. Looking into the eyes or face of a child or teen who has been ridiculed and shamed by peers has raised our consciousness in a different way; one that makes it impossible to dismiss these campaigns as irrelevant and "not something WE get upset over."

The term "adopt" was co-opted from our adoption community because it effectively brings forth the image of a helpless, orphaned, vulnerable waif who needs to be "saved." People respond almost at a visceral, gut level to such appeals for donations to charitable drives. While that may be a positive outcome in terms of raising money for a worthy cause, it undermines and causes damage, psychologically to adopted youngsters for whom the term is ALSO emotionally-loaded, but for a different reason.

When the term appears in this way-- in campaigns to Adopt a Zoo Animal, or a Highway, or Nerd (candy), or a Cabbage Patch Doll -- adopted children often feel enormous shame over the way their community relegates adoption to something temporary, not-human, ugly & bedraggled, unkempt, and not worthy of respect. In addition, it suggests that "adoption" is about money -- paying for children since the "adoption" campaigns are usually about collecting dollars. It trivializes adoption which already is confusing and complicated for both adopted youngsters and their non-adopted peers to understand as a family-building process and it undercuts their sense that it is an equally-first-best way to have become a member of a family. "Adopt a.." campaigns devalue the adoption of children which is offensive because the frequent and regular use of this form of advertising to persuade people to part with money for a cause sacrifices children's psychological well-being for something else-- something far less worthy and vulnerable of protection/advocacy. We sincerely hope that that is not your intention.
Often, those who formulate the ideas for these type of campaigns are unaware of the fact that they subject adopted youngsters to ridicule from their non-adopted peers when those peers taunt children they know were adopted into their families with the campaign messages or hang "Adopt a..." posters on their school lockers or on school walls after having written in the adopted youngster's name on the posters.

As an adoption social worker and educator, I travel across the US and Canada every other weekend to work with adopted youngsters through a program called Adoption Playshops. In the sessions, the children, some as young as five, describe their experience in growing up adopted which, unfortunately, often includes being subjected to taunts stemming from these Adopt A.... campaigns which undercut their self-esteem and their status in their peer groups. When I hear this from hundreds of youngsters each year, I know that it is not all right to dismiss complaint from adoptive parents about these campaigns as overzealous, overly sensitive, or as making a big deal out of nothing.

While it has been possible, up to the present, for Society to devalue adoption and adoptive families through minimizing or dismissing their complaints because the number of adoptive families has been relatively small and adoptive families lacked a way to gather and collectively use their voices to stand up for their children, that is no longer the case. Thousands of families are adopting children internationally from fifty different countries worldwide. They are matched by an even larger number of families who are adopting children born within the US. No longer is adoption a secret so that adoptive parents are unwilling to bring attention to the way they built or expanded their families and remain in the shadows over the embarrassment these adopt a... ads cause. They are proud of having adopted their children and will tolerate no more marginalizing of adoption as a valid, first-best way to bring children and parents together through remaining silent when Adopt A… campaigns are launched.
The Internet has become a plethora of adoption-related forums and in which thousands of individuals participate. These parents, friends and siblings have worked together to rid our communities of ads that denigrate adoption like the recent Toyota ad that sought to promote new car sales with the line: "Buying a used car is like adopting a child-- you never know what you'll get." Parents of Asian-born adopted youngsters recently shut down jokes about Asians on two nationally-aired late night television programs and the adoption community stopped a company intending to piggy-back on a US Postal Stamp honoring adoption when it sought to denigrate adoption by selling Adopt A.... products. All these ads trivialized the adoptive family status.

While it highly doubtful that those who use denigrating language intentionally seek to cause harm or embarrassment to children and parents who have come together through the adoption process, once they understand there IS a substantial "cost" to them, we hope and expect these kinds of ads to stop. "Adopt-a-[name your campaign] programs need to be rethought for the sake of adopted children and their families.

Jane Brown is a long time social worker with years of experience working with children. She is both an adoptive and foster parent. In her work, she saw that children act one way with their parents, but very differently when with a group of their peers. They open up, they talk about their feelings, they interact. She also listened to adult adoptees who had grown up in multi-racial families, who told her that they really wished they had known more kids like themselves when they were younger, kids living in a family like theirs. Jane designed playshops to give our children, interracially adopted or not, that chance to interact with their peers. For more information on playshops please E-mail: contact INCIID and we will forward this to Jane.

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