Did you hear the story about teacher expectations on NPR this morning? How do teacher expectations affect the performance of the children they teach? For some children – a lot! The story looked at an old research study where the researcher had given all the kids a fake test that was supposed to predict who was about to experience a dramatic growth in IQ. Teachers were told that certain kids, chosen at random, were about to take off and, remarkably, they did — more so than the peers who were not identified as special.
Most of us can name a teacher or other adult who came along at a critical point in our growing up – an adult who believed in us in a way that enabled us to perform better and expect more from ourselves. In this NPR study, the researchers found that it was thousands of moment-to-moment interactions that made the difference. Teachers gave the students they expected to succeed more time to answer questions, more specific feedback, and more approval.
What has this to do with open adoption? A lot, I think. The move toward more openness in adoption includes the belief that information is power, that it is better to know than not to know. Adoptees from previous generations are still trying to get records opened so they can know their medical histories, their stories, their people.
But those of us who are living in open relationships have an abundance of information – some good and some not-so-good. When it comes to medical background information, most of us would agree that an adoptee should have the information. If diabetes or heart disease, for example, runs in your family, it’s good to know. Knowing means you can decide to alter your eating or exercise patterns to try to ward off the bad consequences. And you can be prepared for bad news if it comes.
But what about knowledge of other things? “Your mother was a high school drop-out.” “Your father is in prison for stealing cars.” “Your mother was a stripper.” “Your father has eight children with different women.” These are parts of the adoptee’s story too.
This is where expectations come in. As an adoptive parent, how do I view these not-so-good things? And how do my beliefs and views translate in thousands of moment-to-moment interactions with my children? This is something I wrestle with all the time.
It seems to me that there are at least three approaches one can take:
1. Ignorance is bliss. It’s all about nurture. If we, as adoptive parents, hold this belief, we are less likely to share the not-so-good experiences or choices of our child’s birth parents or family. We are likely to turn a blind eye to characteristics or problems that our child is having that might possibly be linked to inheritance. We take sole responsibility for forming the product that is our child. If the child suffers when he or she fails to live up to expectations, we persevere in our molding until s/he either conforms or breaks free.
2. There are potholes on your path. Beware! Another approach or expectation is to share and embrace all things genetic as crosses to bear. One expects that one’s child has the potential to become a thief, a stripper, a dead-best dad, or an education flunky. And as an adoptive parent, you “watch for signs” and point out the dangers. The side effect of this approach may be to pigeon-hole our child or lead him/her to believe these less-than-desirable consequences are inevitable.
I’ve heard from parents who put their faith in both of these positions. And, sometimes, their way works – but not always. I think John would agree with me that we have leaned in each of these directions at one time or another. In our experience, it has not been a “one size fits all” decision. For example, with Emily, we tended to share all the information we had as soon as she was old enough to understand what it meant. Because she is compassionate and full of commonsense, she appeared to take any and all new information about her birth family in stride. But, with K.J., the outcome was different. We discovered that he is wired to think the worst. If it runs in his family, he is sure he will “get it” too. So we held back with Skye. And now, we often wonder if we’ve withheld too much. She is a take-charge kind of gal. Would more information give her more control over her destiny?
What this story on teacher expectations said to me as an adoptive parent is that there may be a third approach:
3. Here’s the information – good and bad. Let’s talk about it. Your inheritance contains some wonderful possibilities for you, but it also contains some sad stories and poor decisions. Where do you see yourself connecting to this information? In what ways do you see yourself as the same as your biological relatives? In what ways do you see yourself as different? Does this information scare you? Do you feel doomed? Does this information empower you? Does it help you figure out who you are? Do you see yourself as having choices? What more information would you like to have? Who do you think can give it to you?… I think it’s also important to let our children know that we are not threatened by the information. We accept them as they are. Our job is to help them become the kinds of people they want to be even if their paths are different than ours were.
In other words, when it comes to expectations, I think we have to let our children help us. They can point us in the right directions. And then we say: I will support you in being the very best at that. And I won’t give up on you even when you doubt yourself, even when you want to quit – because you are special, unique, one-of-a-kind – and I believe in you.