Thursday, January 26, 2012

Adoption Insensitivity

I've resisted posting much about my publishing aspirations here. But several recent events have made me want to share.

My dear friend Alison was adopted as an infant and now parents two biological children and two children adopted from Ethiopia. To say adoption is important to her would be an understatement. (Please read her blog to learn more). I, too, have strong feelings about the topic. My best friend from childhood was adopted. While her adoption certainly was not a constant topic in our friendship (we often had much more important things to talk about such as boys), it was important to me because it was part of what made her who she was. Later, when we were adults, I was lucky enough to experience her search for her birth parents. I later met her birth mother and biological sister. As her friend, these meetings were important to me.

Around this same time, two students in my 4th grade class were children who had been adopted. One girl's mother invited me to attend an adoption conference with her. I readily accepted and chose to attend workshops that especially addressed education topics. That was when I first learned of the "family orchard" as one alternative to a family tree.

When Alison and I first met, her son Mikias had just come home from Ethiopia (our boys were in preschool together and are still great buddies). We talk about adoption often as she works through the ups and downs of interacting with her own birth family. We also talk about her sons' experiences as adopted children. And Alison blogs about it all, quite openly.

Recently, Alison wrote a post titled "You're Adopted. Hahahah!" She started by sharing a  "joke" that has been making the rounds on Facebook and then went on to sarcastically share a bunch of other insensitive jokes she found. That post generated lots of comments. One posted today caught my eye. Amanda from BeKindBeSillyBeHonest left a link to this post about the same photo. In her post, she went on to share stories of adoption insensitivity displayed by her kids' school. (Please read the post).

My heart sank. How can educators who know there are adopted children in their classes continue to assign insensitive assignments such as "Interview your family about where you got your name." or "Interview your family about your birth story?" (To be clear, the teacher knows her son was adopted at age eleven). Alison's boys were also given a timeline assignment that could have been worded differently to prevent hurting the boys (and Alison for that matter). Alison called me in tears the day that assignment came home. Even the best teachers can make mistakes.

Circumstances like this are what motivated Alison and I to co-author a picture book titled BINIAM AND WILL: THE FAMILY TREE PROJECT. It features an Ethiopian-born child adopted in America and his American-born best friend. While our story focuses on their friendship, the problem the boys face together is an assignment to create a family tree.

When I shared the manuscript with others for critique, one person suggested that these kinds of assignments are not given in schools any more. "... it seems unlikely that in the 21st century any teacher would assume that all her/his students live in an intact biological family."  

I wish my reader were correct. Even then, I thought she was being incredibly generous. This educator appreciated her generosity even as I knew it wasn't true. Amanda's post today confirms what we already knew- more education is needed to help teachers assign tasks that honor all different kinds of families. I'm not suggesting we eliminate discussions of biology or genetics in science classes or anything like that. It's just that most name, or family tree, or birth story assignments can be given with modified directions that include all kids and all families. 

That's why Alison and I were compelled to write, BINIAM AND WILL. Amanda's post has reminded me of our original desire to write a story to help educate others.  She's given Alison and I a kick in the backside to shift into high gear and start sending our manuscript out to more publishers.

If you want to know more, please check out the resource Amanda shared "Adoption Basics for Educators." It includes a glossary of terms and a list of resources.


  1. Wow! I would love to read your book! My mom was a teacher and elementary school principal. She called me after I wrote my post because she was hoping she never did anything like it (she doesn’t remember ever having her students complete one of these assignments but can’t be sure). The truth of the matter is that until it is pointed out to teachers, friends and even family SOME people will not think about the negative consequences of what they see as a benign assignment or comment. I read another comment by an adoptive mom on a different blog in reference to the “Dude” picture and she said that she didn’t think it was appropriate to address the offensiveness of the joke with a close friend. Our social worker was explicit in her advice that we always address comments that are offensive to other races or adoption. It not only educates those who are making these comments but also sends a clear message to our children that they are valued and that we will not tolerate anything less than equal treatment. I honestly would LOVE to read your book. Good luck with your endeavor!

  2. Thanks, Amanda. Right now, it isn't technically a book- it's a manuscript. We still need to find the right publisher. I hope you'll see it on a book shelf some day. You can be sure I'll post that news here (as will Alison) when it happens.

    You know, it's entirely possible your mom gave such an assignment, just as it's possible I did, too. I don't remember ever doing so, but I may have before I attended the adoption conference I mentioned. We all make mistakes. That really is why Alison and I feel so strongly about education. And I agree- you must address such comments head-on. Often a gentle mention is all a person needs to realize what they said. Other times, more direct comments may be needed.

    Thank you so much for hopping over here. Stay tuned for more news.

  3. My son came home today with a "Bring in your baby photo" assignment. He was adopted from Russia at 1-year old--we have no newborn photo. Point of the assignment is to discuss "change over time/development," not newborns, hence there is no need for baby photos, but the assignment persists. We had the same assignment in IL for another child. We've had the Family Tree assignment numerous times! Despite offers to explain adoption-friendly variations on these traditional assignments, we've had no takers. Sigh.

  4. Anonymous, I'm sorry your family has had these experiences. The best advice I can give you is to keep advocating for your kids. Don't worry about being "the squeaky wheel." Unfortunately, you'll need to educate the educators of your children.

    You could also print the booklet out (link in my post) and give it to the school. Perhaps a guidance counselor or school adjustment counselor could help you as well.

  5. Hey there lady! A post about Timman Queemah caught my eye (I make a similar Portuguese recipe), and one thing led to another. Now 30 minutes later I'm still mucking about at your blog.

    I would love to see changes in the curriculum that addresses projects on "family trees" as well. I love the idea that kids are asked to explore genealogy and heritage. However I'd like to see the project guidelines open up and support a more flexible "family". The adoption situations you describe can be a wonderful stepping stone to sharing with classmates, that words like "convention" and "tradition" sometime has no place when discussing and describing a loving family. Another example would be gay parenting. I have gay friends that dread these projects. Explaining Two Moms, or two Dads can pose challenges to some children in the classroom when this doesn't fit in a traditional "family tree" spaces. Speaking personally, I have two children from a previous marriage, years later I remarried and we have two more little ones. I have remained friends (and that is not important) with my ex, and his family is still very much a part of our "family tree". My older boys feel very strongly that they have two Dads (their father and step Dad) but it's impossible to squeeze that into the traditional classroom "family tree" slots. Don't even get me started on the last names dilemma! I've always kept my last - my maiden name. It's on all the school forms that I have to sign every September, my children's last names have always been (since birth) a combination of my last and my husband's last name; as a hyphenated last name. Including the boys from that previous marriage. They not only don't acknowledge the hyphen, and drop to the last part of their hyphenated name, they also assume its also my name every time. As if I can't be their Mom unless the last names match...exasperating!

    Anyway... I mucked, I read, I vented! Keep up the great work. As always, I enjoy your little inspiring piece of the great www. Keep us all posted on the manuscript to book adventure!

    We need to catch up soon!

  6. Cidalia,
    Hello old friend! Thanks for hopping by.

    Thank you for elaborating on such an important point. Adoption is the specific issue that sparked this post, but of course, it speaks to your family- It speaks to all families. There are many ways to make a family. And, it seems that most families do not fit the old narrative of mom and dad get married and give birth to children and live happily ever after. There are parents who divorce, who are gay, who adopt, who are foster parents, who give birth, who are step-parents. All of those categories do not fit onto a "traditional" family tree.

  7. Lovely post. I do hope your book finds a publisher one day. There's certainly a market for it.

    1. Thank you, Judy. We have BINIAM AND WILL out to a couple of publishers right now. Fingers crossed!

  8. Sadly, I think you're right, as many of the comments demonstrate--these assignments are still all too prevalent in our schools. As a teacher for 6 years, I saw them quite often in other classrooms. I'm interested in the idea of a family orchard versus a family tree. That's not something I've heard of before.

    1. Thanks, Katrina. In BINIAM AND WILL, Biniam comes up with an even better idea. We just need to get this manuscript published so people can learn about it!

      We've been getting so called "good rejections" but no takers, yet. We'll keep trying.