In my last post, I recommended two books that offer ways for parents and teachers to initiate conversations with young children about adoption and other family configurations, with the goal of normalizing non-traditional families.
Today, I’m approaching these conversations from the other end, with suggestions for how to recognize and counter negative messages about adoption.
If your family has not been touched by adoption, these negative messages may be invisible to you. Once you become aware of them, however, you’ll see them everywhere, and will begin to understand the impact they can have on children who joined their families through adoption.
One of the most pervasive and hurtful myths about adoption portrayed in books and movies is the idea of the evil birth family.
Almost universally, birthparents love and grieve for the loss of their child. Many children adopted through a closed process, where they lack contact with or information about their families of origin, worry about the well-being of their birthparents and wonder why they could not raise them. Seeing portrayals of birthparents as “bad guys” can negatively impact children’s sense of self and make them scared that these “mean” and “evil” people will try to steal them away from the safety of their home.
The popular children’s book by Chih-Yuan Chen, Guji, Guji, offers a good example of this. A crocodile egg rolls down a hill and into a duck’s nest. Because she’s busy reading, the mother duck doesn’t notice that the egg looks different from the others. When the eggs hatch, the mother duck doesn’t care that one of her babies, whom she names Guji Guji, looks different: “The mother duck loved all her ducklings the same.”
One day, three “bad” crocodiles approach Guji Guji. They tell him that he’s one of them and that, as a crocodile, he’s made to hide in the water and eat ducks. They insist he bring his duck family to the bridge, where they’ll be waiting underneath with mouths wide open. Guji Guji wonders, “Am I a bad crocodile?” He brings his family to the bridge, but instead of diving into the water and getting eaten, they drop rocks into the crocodiles’ mouths, who then run away. Guji Guji has saved the day.
If you can avoid reading this book to your child, do. If you already have it on your shelf or you’ve borrowed it from the library, talk to kids about the message: “This is a story about adoption. Guji Guji’s mother adopted him, and will take care of him and love him forever. But do you think it’s okay that the author made his birth family, or animals similar to his birth family, so bad? Kids who look different from their adoptive families might think that all the people who look like them are bad, and that’s just not true. Also, when birth parents can’t raise children, they are almost always good people who love their children and want them and their forever families to be happy.”
Another pervasive and hurtful myth is the idea of the evil adoptive family - mostly people who steal their children from the birth family. This ubiquitous message can scare adopted children and give non-adopted kids the wrong idea about how adoptive families come together.
In the movie Tangled, for example, Mother Gothel snatches Rapunzel from the King and Queen when she realizes that Rapunzel’s hair contains the magic that can keep her young. She raises her as her daughter, albeit one imprisoned in a tower, and professes her love: “I love you most …”
As adults, we know that Mother Gothel is a sick and manipulative person, but kids could see her as a mom trying to protect her child - until she doesn’t.
If your child has watched Tangled, you could ask what he or she thinks about Mother Gothel. Clarify that most adoptive parents do not steal their babies, and that adoptive moms and dads almost always love their children forever, and would never, ever, ever harm them.
Start to see the messages in the media your child consumes, then point them out and debunk them.