How Do We Measure Potential for Success in Adoptive Parents?

by Beth Hall

Originally published 2010, updated 2022

Sometimes, when pre-adoptive parents contact Pact to learn more about our placement services, they seem to view adoption as a process whereby they decide what makes them comfortable in terms of the child they want to adopt, and then start interviewing service providers to determine who can best meet their needs. I call this a consumer mentality. As they navigate an adoption industry that allows for-profit entities to charge fees related to the placement of children, these prospective parents perhaps understandably fall into “shopping” mode. But there is something inherently flawed in a system that treats the fate of an infant as a consumer choice.

At Pact, we believe the focus of adoption must always be responding to children’s needs. We expect adoptive parents (including pre-adopters) to aspire to a standard of parenting that adopted children need and deserve. Becoming a child’s parent is a monumental privilege. For this reason, we expect each pre-adoptive parent to prove their commitment to being the best possible parent to an adopted child of color before we accept them into our placement program.

So how do we measure whether pre-adoptive parents are prepared to successfully meet the needs of their prospective children? Over the years, working with hundreds of adopted children of color and their families, we have identified specific attitudes and abilities that are needed in order to provide the parenting that adopted children deserve. We call these the “markers of success.” Some are relevant to all adoptive parents, while some apply only to transracial adopters (parents, usually white, who are adopting children of a different race). In our counseling sessions and workshops, we ask pre-adoptive parents to consider their strengths and weaknesses in these different areas, then help them build up the skills they need.

If you are committed to being a successful adoptive parent, here are some essential questions to consider:

Markers of Success for All Adopters (Both Same-Race and Transracial)

  • Can you put your child first? Ultimately, as the parent, your job is to privilege your child’s experience of adoption over your own. From the beginning, this means thinking about your child’s story as theirs rather than yours, and planning for future birth family contact and information-sharing in the context of what is best for them in the long term, rather than what is most comfortable for you.
  • Are you able to live with complexity? As an adoptive parent, you must be able to hold in balance the joy of welcoming a child into your family with the grief and loss experienced by the birth family and eventually the child, who is losing one family in order to gain another. Joyfully celebrating a relationship does not mean pretending no losses have occurred. Adoption is inherently complex for those who are adopted because to gain a family they must first lose another. Whether that loss is something that is “in their best interest” or not, it is nevertheless a loss. If parents cannot model acceptance of the inherent complexity of adoption, we cannot expect children to come to terms with their own complicated feelings.
  • Can you offer your child absolute love without demanding it in return? Adoptive parents need to understand that when a child has a complex response to the experience of being placed for adoption, it is not a measure of the love felt from or towards their adoptive parent. Adopted children do not owe “more” gratitude to their parents than children born into their families (and in fact many adult adoptees express resentment that they were pressured to feel grateful). Adoptive parents must also be careful not to subconsciously expect their children to “replace” or fix their own losses, such as those related to infertility.
  • Can you see that you are the lucky one? Too often society labels adopted children as “lucky,” implying that adoptive parents are “saintly” because they are caring for “rejected” or “damaged” children, or because they “rescued” the children from “inferior” parents (all terrible messages for children to absorb). Successful adoptive parents are those who recognize that even in the face of the challenges and pain that sometimes are part of parenting, they are lucky to have the chance to forge an intimate relationship with a child and fill the role of care-giving parent in that child’s life.
  • Can you be generous in the face of “competition”? Adoptive parents must understand an adopted child’s connection to at least two families as a gain rather than a threat, accepting the mantra “you can never be loved by too many people.” It is not children’s job to take care of their parent’s feelings—parents must find support from other adults to work out their own issues. If you ignore or suppress your child’s interest in their birth family or birth heritage, because it might somehow take away from your bond with your child, you are sacrificing your child’s natural curiosity to your need for validation. Supporting children’s desire for connection will not “confuse” them, and generally results in the closest of all adoptive family relationships.
  • Are you ready to tell the truth? Make a commitment to speak the truth about adoption with your child. There is no adoption that does not include some painful truths, and is easy to convince ourselves that it’s our job to protect our children from pain. But we must tell children the truth, including the hard stuff, so they can understand that adult decisions and circumstances were the reasons for their adoption. Children understand the power of the secret and the unspoken (the things “we just don’t talk about” are usually bad); if you don’t tell your child about their adoption–all of it, in age-appropriate ways–then you are risking them feeling ashamed, guilty, and unworthy.
  • Can you embrace differences? You must understand that becoming an adoptive family means being different than other families. Rather than trying to act “just like a family built by birth,” strive to be the best kind of adoptive family. This means being comfortable with and honest about the fact that your family is different than others. Be truthful in acknowledging that some people think adoptive families are second-best or not as strongly connected as those formed by birth. If we can’t articulate those truths, then children will often assume that their parents don’t realize that they are different and become anxious that any mention of their difference might somehow threaten their solidity as a family. Strength comes from acknowledging and embracing the differences.
  • Can you live with your choice? Recognize that you, as the parent, have/had a choice about whether to adopt or not. It is important to acknowledge that your child did not “choose” adoption (in almost all cases) and therefore their process of acceptance and resolution is inherently different than yours. It is not their job to justify your choice or make you feel like it was a “good” or “right” one.
  • Are you ready to make an unconditional commitment, in good times and bad? Bravery is needed, a willingness to take on whatever comes up. Every adopted child has experienced at least one trauma: being separated from their birth/first parents. Most were carried to term by a pregnant person who was stressed and anxious. Some adopted children have experienced additional traumas, including war or famine, substance exposure, abuse, or multiple placements. Trauma impacts our psyche and our emotions—and children express their emotions through behavior, not words. While all children give their parents trials, adopted children have even more reason to act out. This means pre-adoptive parents need to carefully examine their assumptions about child behavior and parenting styles, and be prepared to learn new, trauma-informed approaches. Adopted children have lost at least one family—and maybe a country, a language, or other families. They are very sensitive to whether your commitment to being family is unconditional, and are more likely to test that. When your children test you, you must be prepared to show that you will stick with them under all circumstances. If you can rise to this challenge, you can ultimately achieve powerful, rewarding intimacy.

Additional Markers of Success for Transracial Adopters

  • Fundamentally, do you recognize that race matters? Every day, all the time, race matters for people of color and for white people. For white people who have grown up in racially homogenous environments and whose personal and professional relationships are primarily with other white people, this can be hard to understand. Racism is real, and parents cannot help their children combat it if they refuse to acknowledge their own participation in a system that is built on race-based privilege. This kind of privilege is not earned but simply given to people based on their racial identity. White people are often presumed to be smart, safe, or trustworthy not because they demonstrate those traits but simply based on racial stereotypes. Transracial adoptive parents need to begin with self-assessment that acknowledges internalized privilege, then work to change the racial landscape of their lives—cultivating intimate relationships with adults of color, at least some of whom share their child’s racial identity. Success in this direction is measured not by our casual acquaintances but rather who we eat dinner with, worship with, or otherwise engage with intimately.
  • Will you commit to being in the minority rather than asking your child to be in the minority? In order to center their children’s needs, transracial adoptive parents must commit to making necessary life changes so that their children can routinely connect with, and feel comfortable among, people who share their race and ethnicity. This takes honest recognition that isolation is painful and it is unfair to ask children of color to suffer something that parents are not asking of themselves. Children need role models, adults (not just children) who mirror their identity and experiences and can show them how navigate a world that is not always fair, friendly, or safe. Parents who live in largely white areas and want to adopt a child of color often say that race shouldn’t matter and doesn’t matter to them. But it will matter for the child. Love is not enough to eliminate the racism that is woven into the fabric of our society. Living in a monoracial/white community while celebrating multiculturalism may work for the parents, but research—and the testimony of many transracially adopted people—makes clear that it does not work for children. If our focus is on the child, then it is the adult who must change, who must stretch, who must accommodate the needs of the child. If you find yourself cataloging the reasons why you cannot change the homogenous white community in which you live, with little or no contact with people of color, then you need to consider whether you are currently in a position to successfully parent a child of color.
  • Are you ready to become an ally? Transracial adoptive parents need to have their children’s back. In order to do this, they must commit to a lifetime of “un-learning” the racial biases they have absorbed, and learn to recognize the privilege their white identity has granted them. Their children need to see them speaking up against racism in society, and in their own community and family. Transracial adoptive parents need to believe their children when they question racial fairness and equity, support them in their struggles, and exhibit zero tolerance when it comes to racial slurs or slights. It does not help to respond, “Oh, I don’t think Mrs. So-and-so meant it that” Comments like that don’t demonstrate allyship, or help child learn to trust their own antennae regarding who is safe and who is not. We fight against racism with signs in our windows and marches in the streets—but we also do it by “breaking ranks” with “nice, polite” white people when we need to, in order to confront injustice and stand up for our children.

Yes, you can!

I’ve had the privilege of being the sister of an adopted sibling as well as the adoptive mother of two children (now adults) who have filled my life with joy and pride—as well as the pain and frustration that is an inevitable part of parenting. I can say from experience that whenever I have succeeded in moving beyond my own needs to be there for my children and my sister I have always received more than I have given. I invite you to take this path if you are brave enough to let go of yourself and put your child’s needs first. It is not for the faint of heart, but it is an exhilarating and meaningful journey. It is humbling beyond measure and thrilling in a way that exceeds words. Make a pact with yourself, your God, and most importantly your child—that you will be the best parent you can be, for your child’s sake.

Beth Hall is the white adoptive mother of a Latinx daughter and an African American son (both now adults). She co-founded Pact, An Adoption Alliance in 1991 to combat the discrimination she witnessed against adopted children of color and their birth families. She is the co-author, with Gail Steinberg, of the book Inside Transracial Adoption (Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2nd Edition, 2013), as well as numerous articles on adoption and race. She is a nationally known advocate for adopted children of color who regularly lectures and leads workshops on ethical, anti-racist adoption practices.

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