Denis M. Donovan, M.D., M.Ed., F.A.P.S.
The Children's Center for Developmental Psychiatry
6675 – 13th Avenue North, Suite 2-A
St. Petersburg, Florida 33710-5483
Tel 727-345-2400 Fax 727-345-8808
© 1998 – 2002 Denis M. Donovan
Every counseling approach is value-laden. Even Carl Roger’s ‘unconditional regard’ reflects a
value judgment: that it is good for clients to be attended to in a supportive unconditional
manner— and that such an approach is useful and not a meaningless waste of time or
counterproductively enabling.
Like all social activities, contemporary adoption administration and counseling practices are also
value-laden. However, the explicit values are not necessarily the same as the values implicit in
recommended and actual practice. And it is the implicit values that are active and formative, as
illustrated by this very simple example:
Explicit value:
Seatbelts are life-saving and must be worn by everyone in the
Objectively observable behavior: Dad tells Junior to buckle up while not wearing his
own seatbelt.
Implicit values:
1) Seatbelts are not really important.
2) Breaking important rules is acceptable behavior.
Why ! Adoption " Needs to Be Defined Explicitly
Simple and value-explicit definitions of adoption can be found in the literature—e.g., in
comprehensive texts such as the Encyclopedia of Adoption or the Encyclopedia of Social Work
but there is no connection between such professional/academic references and everyday adoption
practice. Thus no simple, clear-cut, foundational definition of adoption actually informs
contemporary adoption practice.
The ever-increasing attention of mental health, social work, and behavioral sciences to adoption
that began in the 1940s and 1950s was largely a reaction to the taboo nature of adoptive status at
the time and an attempt, especially on the part of social work, to regulate practices to protect
children from exploitation—thereby also maintaining social work’s effective control of the field
of adoption. Each identified ‘problem’ in the field received attention, was assigned meaning(s),
and remedies and fixes were recommended. This patchwork approach resulted in a proliferation
of policies issued by governmental agencies at various levels and by NGOs such as the Child
DONOVAN A Values-Logic-Driven Approach to Adoption Copyright 1998-2002 Denis M. Donovan
Welfare League. Notwithstanding the thousands of books and articles on adoption, adoption
psychology, adoption casework practice, or the licensing, standardizing, and regulation of
agencies, entities, and individuals formally sanctioned to engage in adoption casework, there is
no a single coherent, well-thought-out fundamental definition of adoption.
Instead, contemporary adoption practice is a hodge-podge of mutually-contradictory notions and
a mix of personal, ideological, and political agendas in which there is no clear-cut distinction
between serious, scientific, professional ‘facts’ and practices, on the one hand, and the
opinionism of pop-psychology, support and advocacy groups, and individuals, on the other.
The Image of Adoption in the Popular and Professional Literature
The hodge-podge nature of the world of adoption is reflected in the extreme range of often
mutually contradictory notions found in everything from glossy magazines such as Adoptive
Families —publications that treat adoption as a popular category such as parenting, fishing, or
amateur car racing—to ‘the adopted child syndrome’ which links antisocial and even murderous
personality disorders and adoptive status. The image of adoption ranges from a very positive
form of family-making as in the popular book “Why Was I Adopted?” to a horrendous form of
family-destruction as in bumper stickers that can be ordered from a group which seeks to abolish
DNA – You Can’t Adopt It!
Mothers and Children Together For Life
A Natural Family or None At All
Adoption Destroys Natural Families
Adoption = Genocide
Ancestry NOT Adoption
Adoption = Ancestricide
Adoption Amputates Families
(Adoption: Legalized Lies, found at:
Trade and professional publications treat adoption both as something to be explained lovingly in
lavishly illustrated children’s books to be read at bedtime such as Tell Me Again About the Night
When I Was Born and as the inevitable cause of profound alienation and deep-seated
psychopathology as in The Psychology of Adoption , The Primal Wound , or The Adoption
Triangle .
How can clear and explicit positive values possibly define and inform adoption practice when the
explicit values assigned by various sectors are so mutually contradictory and often extremely
Adoption Defined
By starting with a simple definition of adoption, and then following the logical consequences of
the definition, an equally simple, rational, and easy-to-understand approach to adoption decision-
DONOVAN A Values-Logic-Driven Approach to Adoption Copyright 1998-2002 Denis M. Donovan
making can be constructed. Note that ‘simple’ does not mean simple-minded or without
profound meaning and import. Thus,
Adoption is nothing more—and nothing less—than providing caring,
competent and responsible parents for children who need them.
(Donovan 2000) p. 3
IF adoption really is about providing caring and responsible parents for children who
need them, and if adoption really is about promoting—not sabotaging and fractionating—
families and family values, then it really is time to rethink adoption. In so doing, we
might actually do something historically unprecedented—define an indispensable social
institution in terms of the developmental needs of real children, and not in response to the
needs, fears, desires, emotions, and unquestioned traditions and opinions of adults.
(Donovan 2000) p. 3.
The consequences of this simple definition will be made clear below.
Normalizing adoption means to make adoption a simple, natural part of everyday life—not the
object of a national sales pitch, pop-psych experts, advice columnists or niche advertising.
Normalizing adoption does NOT mean making bizarre, contradictory, and emotionally-loaded
ideas and practices ‘a normal and natural part of everyday life.’ So-called ‘open adoption,’ as
we’ll see below, does not normalize adoption but rather normalizes faddish but irrational
practices. That such still-largely unquestioned practices are currently the norm can be seen in the
advice the pop-psychology magazine ADDitude offers its reader to be “Proud to be ADD,” or
when psychiatrically disabled patients appear in public wearing T-shirts saying “MPD—And
Proud of It!” 1
Adoptee-birth parent reunions on daytime TV talk shows and The Learning Channel’s daily program called
DONOVAN A Values-Logic-Driven Approach to Adoption Copyright 1998-2002 Denis M. Donovan
Public proliferation of advocacy and support groups is not evidence of balanced everyday life but
reflects instead an attempt to make the marginal and abnormal ‘normal.’ For example, the so-
called ‘Post-Adoption Depression Syndrome’ (‘PAD’) (McCarthy 2000), is not a normal
phenomenon to be expected and experienced by thousands and thousands of adoptive mothers
but is a sociological phenomenon in which explanation-by-analogy (to the physiological process
of postpartum depression) is treated as a psychiatric disorder which adoptive mothers can use to
explain their unexpected disappointing experiences immediately after adopting (Donovan 2000)
p. 2.
“I do not think it an overstatement to say that the Shared Fate theory has informed much of the subsequent thinking, research, and writing by others
about adoptive family life.” H. David Kirk, Closing Plenary Address, Adoptive Families of America, Dallas, TX, July 2, 1995. (Kirk 1995) p. 11
“Tells what it means to be an adoptive parent.” — Social Work
Contemporary adoption practice
“Almost from the beginning in the 1950s a print
is, above all, a means of
of Picassos’s ‘blue period’ painting La Vie hung
providing children for adults
over my desk. For me it represented the paradox
of chasm
and interdependency
who want to ‘have children’ or
involuntarily childless and those able to bear
children. It seemed to me so close to my own
who feel that they need
experience. It was a reminder of pain: wanting
but not being able to have a child. La
became a kind of logo for the Shared Fate
theory. Adopters who make the effort to recall
have been the biggest part of
the pain of their original deprivation will be open
to empathy, first with the birthmother’s pain of
the adult half of H. David
sacrifice and
with their child’s
pain in
discovering the shadow meanings behind their
Kirk’s ‘Shared Fate’ (Kirk
Shared Fate theory then notes that empathy with
remains the paradigm of the
makes parents into better listeners. Listening
brings them insights into their child’s inner world.
adoptive relationship today, as
can be seen in the name of the
largest publisher of materials on
relationship; it makes for solidarity.”
H. David Kirk, Closing Plenary. Adoptive Families of America
PRESS The Infertility and
Annual Conference, Dallas, TX, July 2, 1995.
children fill a void in the lives of
adults who cannot ‘have’ children on their own (including single adults and nontraditional
couples such as gay or lesbian couples). This is adoption as baby-supplier. The “flourishing
black market in babies” referred to by Kirk (Kirk 1995) and also by Sorosky, Baran and Pannor
(Sorosky, Baran et al. 1978, rev. 84) did not exist to provide parents for children who needed
them but as a high-priced supplier of children to acquisitive adults.
DONOVAN A Values-Logic-Driven Approach to Adoption Copyright 1998-2002 Denis M. Donovan
The Shared Fate Model Mistakes Painful Adult Self-Consciousness
and a Sociological Analysis of Infertility and Illegitimacy for ! Empathy "
Instead of seeing children as children and parentless children as children in need of parents, the
Shared Fate model perceives the adopted child through the lens of the childless adult who, in
turn perceives him- or herself as ‘different’ than those able to bear children. The intensely
personal meaning of this painful identity, as seen in the excerpt from Kirk’s “sociological
testament” above, appears to have resulted in an intellectualization and personalization of Kirk’s
Shared Fate model. Indeed, many of the vignettes in his first “research” book were disguised
examples of Kirk’s own family. This loss of realistic perspective in favor of a sociological
analysis turns adoption into “a paradigm of involuntary migration” instead of a way to provide
parents for children who need them. Similarly, the adopted child is seen as lacking the same
“social ground” as the immigrant in a new land and as having minority status which should not
be denied but acknowledged. Like Kirk, whose parents changed the family name from
Kirchheimer to Kirk upon immigrating to the United States, the adopted child loses his name, his
roots and his heritage. Thus Kirk’s Shared Fate ‘empathy’ is based not on a simple realistic
acceptance of the fact that countless children need caring and responsible parents but on a
specific type of identification. The adopted child is, in Kirk’s sociological jargon, a “kinship
migrant.” Such identity- and role-confusion, as well as the confusion of identification and
empathy, appear to have made it impossible for Kirk to realize that adopting a fourth child
because one of his daughters “had begun agitating for ‘a boy like Francie has a boy’” was NOT an
appropriate use of adoption. (See (Kirk 1995), p. 15.) Acquiring a fourth child to balance out
sibling relationships makes of adoption a facile process of child-
procurement, a process focused on and defined in terms of
persons other than the actual child who needs parents. 2
But Is It Bad or Wrong to Be Needed and Wanted?
Principled questions of this variety are typical of contemporary
adoption rhetoric. The answer is: Of course not, everyone needs
to be wanted. However, being wanted is not the issue. The issue
is: Is it good realistic, rational practice to define a vital and
absolutely indispensable social institution in such a manner?
Adults are routinely driven by their needs, desires, fears, and
vulnerabilities, only to discover—often long after the fact—that
driven behavior does not define a path well chosen. Moreover,
the rhetorical question simply obscures the issue. Appealing to such empty-but-meaningful and
fine-sounding rhetoric makes sense only if we genuinely intend adoption to be a means of
2 No one who hasn’t confronted infertility can fully grasp the raw brutality of being deprived of something so
fundamental as the ability to reproduce. Any biologist will tell you we were built to do it. Every culture glorifies it.
Whatever power put us here secured its commanding role in life by making it a compelling instinct and an ecstatic
experience. So sometimes, though I agree with the principle, it’s hard for me to hear another earnest social worker or
aggrieved birth parent or disaffected adoptee chant the reformist mantra that ‘adoption should be all about finding
parents for children, not children for parents’” (Pertman 2000:130).
DONOVAN A Values-Logic-Driven Approach to Adoption Copyright 1998-2002 Denis M. Donovan
procuring children for adults who want or feel they need them—which is neither about children
nor likely to be in their best interest.
But Prospective Parents Are Hard to Find
Perhaps this is all ‘academic’ and we should be more ‘practical.’ After all, it could well be that
adults who want or feel they need children to complete their identities and give them purpose in
life really do define the largest pool of prospective parents. Perhaps. But, again, is this how we
want to define adoption—by looking for the easiest apparent solution and then hoping the
‘solution’ doesn’t exacerbate the problem? No. Yet that’s actually what we have today—
contemporary fad- and fashion-driven supply-and-demand big-business baby brokers who charge
as much as $30,000–$40,000 to provide a baby to a couple who, by the end of the process, are
unlikely to challenge the philosophy or practices of the agency on whose good graces and
approval they have been entirely dependent to get ‘their child.’ ‘Difficult’ does NOT have to
mean ‘impossible,’ so it is unwise to jerryrig an indispensable social institution simply to avoid
having to think and work hard to achieve goals consistent with a realistic child-centered
approach and practices consistent with explicit values.
If Adoption Is for Parents, and Not for Children, then Parents Are Indebted
When adults need children, they are indebted—beholden—to their supplier. This is very different
both psychologically and morally than providing parents for children who need them. When
parents are there for children, the relationship is a parent-child relationship. However, when
parents are beholden to a baby-supplier, then the relationship with the supplier and the child is a
function of a supply-and-demand economy.
All this, of course, leaves adopting parents in a most precarious position. Although many parents
maintain that they do not ‘feel indebted,’ they nonetheless find themselves in a double-bind
situation in which compliance with the ‘requests’ of the agency or Birthmother to maintain
contact, provide information, photos, etc. is a de facto requirement.
“But shouldn " t we just be happy that Johnny " s alive!?!”
Of course. But there’s that facile rhetoric again—a
rhetoric that obscures the fact that most adoptive
parents do not celebrate their child’s existence but
rather the fact that the child was made available to
them. Hence the “Dear Birthmother…” mentality.
Neither parents nor professionals recognize that the
parents’ indebtedness defines the child’s place in the
family as due to another, not to the parents’ primary
stance and relationship of care, obligation and
responsibility to the child. In such a case, to
DONOVAN A Values-Logic-Driven Approach to Adoption Copyright 1998-2002 Denis M. Donovan
celebrate Johnny’s existence is to celebrate the filling of the parental void—Johnny is the child
the parents couldn’t ‘have’—a void that could be filled only by someone who supplied them with
a child. What is needed is not to celebrate the child’s existence but rather for the parents to be
genuine parents who are neither defined nor disenfranchised by their indebtedness to a third
party. How post-Shared Fate adoption practice makes this virtually impossible is spelled out
Creating the Very Problems One Then Proposes to Solve
By a bizarre form of circular reasoning that has become commonplace in American Education
and Mental Health in the latter half of the Twentieth Century, the Shared Fate model defines the
adopted child as a ‘stranger’ who is ‘different’ and requires ‘integration’ into the family, thus
creating the very problem the model proposes to remedy. By confusing the identity challenges of
older child, adolescent or adult immigrés with those of adopted infants, Kirk’s Shared Fate
theory created an “acknowledgment of differences” model of adoptive relationships instead of
asking What are the basic human developmental needs of infants? Newborns, infants, and even
toddlers, of course, have no way of knowing, knowing about, or understanding these uniquely
adult issues. Instead, they unknowingly face much more fundamental developmental challenges.
Importantly, if adults do not create factitious—artificially created, unnecessary—problems to
interfere with the process, children also have enormous developmental time to meet those
challenges. Unfortunately, however, because Shared Fate theory insists that adoptive families
can only ‘simulate’ biological families, factitious problems are the rule—as tragically summed
up by Kirk’s son Peter, then going on twelve:
The child who is born into his family is like a board that’s nailed down from the start. But
the adopted child, him the parents have to nail down, otherwise he is like a loose board in
mid-air” (Kirk 1995) pp. 16-17.
Young Peter is not describing the Natural History of the Adoptive Process but, sadly, reflecting
his own experience of the consequence of his adoptive father’s Shared Fate theory. Sharing
genes does not in-and-of-itself confer family status, but defining a child as a ‘stranger’ most
certainly does categorically deny it. Creating absolutely unnecessary psychosocial problems
which it can then identify, analyze, and ‘treat’ has been the stock-in-trade of adoption
psychology and casework practice ever since.
For now, consider how different are the values implicit in adoption practice when one builds on
the current post-Shared Fate model, on the one hand, and on a values logic-driven definition of
adoption, on the other.
/ go to next page /
DONOVAN A Values-Logic-Driven Approach to Adoption Copyright 1998-2002 Denis M. Donovan
DONOVAN A Values-Logic-Driven Approach to Adoption Copyright 1998-2002 Denis M. Donovan
"The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."
"The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be master—that's all."
The now-traditional way to describe those involved in the adoption process is to speak of the
‘Adoption Triangle’ or the ‘Adoption Triad’ (Sorosky, Baran et al. 1978, rev. 84).
“The Adoption Triangle/Triad”
Standard Adoption Practice Can be Literally Traumatogenic
None of the parties forming the Adoption Triangle is treated as a real individual having real,
separate, and individual needs. All three are bound together in a symbolic equilateral triangle,
each supposedly equally affecting the other—
whether or not the other wants it or even knows
The values inherent in this model are not chosen
by the parties themselves but rather implicit and
imposed by those who control the definition.
Loss of Control
Loss of Control
This is one of the reasons why all parties
concerned often end up feeling powerless,
without any realistic sense of control, and
uncertain of what the future will bring. The
Birthmother 3 fears recrimination and blame on
the part of the relinquished child and often isn’t
sure of having made the right decision. The
3 NB: The term ‘adoptive mother’ will disappear completely from our vocabulary as we elaborate the model.
DONOVAN A Values-Logic-Driven Approach to Adoption Copyright 1998-2002 Denis M. Donovan
Adoptee doesn’t know for sure who he is and/or what he will discover in the future. The
Adoptive Parents fear loss of love and attachment as their child searches for his ‘real mother.’
" powerlessness
Loss of Control
Loss of Control
" loss of control
" inescapability
" destabilized future sense
characteristics of the trauma response (Donovan
1991, 1992). They are not due to an imaginary
rupture of some imaginary ‘primal bond’ resulting in an equally imaginary ‘primal wound’
(Verrier 1993). Instead, they are the quasi-inevitable consequences of the ‘Adoption Triangle’
model itself, a model that imposes meaning on all parties and on the practices associated with the
model. 4 They are not inevitable consequences of the model presented below.
Increasingly since the 1960s, the challenges and needs of the child and the adoptive parents have
been defined in the terminology of an Orwellian Double-Speak self-contradictory ideology
which equates the mutually-exclusive roles of choosing NOT to parent or not being able to be a
parent and parenting . More often than not this imposed definition must be accepted by the
prospective adoptive parents as a precondition for being allowed to adopt. Completely ‘open’
adoption is the most extreme form of such mutually-contradictory roles in which adoptive
parents assume all responsibilities and obligations and yet share the child or report to the child’s
‘other’ parent(s)—as a custodian or steward would report to a proprietor. On this view, parental
relationships can exist in the absence of parental responsibility and obligation.
In the ‘Adoption Triangle’ model none of the parties have clear-cut choices. Like the victims of a
Greek tragedy, each party is a victim of circumstance. This inescapable sense of powerlessness
and non-resolution is not inherent in adoption as a social institution but rather in the meanings
projected upon it by participants and professionals—and especially by professionals who were
From a chapter section entitled “The Trauma of Loss”:
There are birth mother who believe with all their hearts that people like Charlene [a woman who was happy
to have chosen adoption for the child for whom she felt she could not adequately provide at the time] are
blinding themselves, or are being blinded, from seeing a bottom-line truth: that any woman who parts with
her child is emotionally and psychically damaged beyond repair. Once women realize that to be the case,
these birth mothers argue, they will prefer to deal with any social, economic, or personal consequences
necessary to raise their own offspring rather than endure the brutal, lifelong trauma inevitably cause by
separation (Pertman 2000:109-110).
DONOVAN A Values-Logic-Driven Approach to Adoption Copyright 1998-2002 Denis M. Donovan
themselves participants. Options and meanings are imposed from without—by fate, others,
agencies, etc.
So what do we get if we put agency and choice back into the process? A very different picture
which is no longer resembles a triangle.
Now we have three separate-but-equal parties . However, as equal as they may be within the
process, each party has very different needs, options and real-world challenges. To do each party
justice, each party must be considered separately .
The Child
No newborn has choices of any kind. Instead, babies have needs.
Over time, children grow into a world where they will be faced with a lifetime of choices—but
they have none at the beginning of life.
When adults make realistic informed choices, the children who depend on them fare better.
Those who chose to be parents
For realistic choices to be obvious and addressable , the individual’s or couple’s marital, family,
fertility, and identity issues must be addressed—and must be thoroughly and satisfactorily
resolved—PRIOR to being permitted to adopt . The first challenge facing those who would
choose to be parents is to deal successfully with these issues. Unfortunately, this initial challenge
was not met successfully by many of those who personally formulated our current models and
Those who chose NOT to be parents
Because adoption is a means of providing parents for children who need them, relinquishing
adults must address and resolve the choice of whether to parent or not to parent PRIOR to
consenting to relinquish.
DONOVAN A Values-Logic-Driven Approach to Adoption Copyright 1998-2002 Denis M. Donovan
Jerryrigging the definition of parent to create a definitional identity without operational
characteristics is not a resolution but rather a self-deceptive attempt to pretend that giving away a
baby is not giving away a baby. Few, if any, pet owners would accept a similar relationship with
a kennel which continued to maintain owner rights without owner obligations.
Here is how ‘Adoption Triangle Psychology’ describes the devastating loss and grief that is
supposedly an unavoidable consequence of the adoptive situation:
Adoption is a lifelong process for the birth parents, especially the birth mother ….
Although the birth parents relinquish all of their rights and responsibilities to the child
and have no physical contact, their feelings of loss, pain, and mourning do not disappear.
Our study indicated that birth parents continue to care about the children they
relinquished and wish to know ‘how they turned out’ (Sorosky, Baran et al. 1978, rev.
84) p. 220
(Again, this is not an inevitable characteristic of adoption but the consequences of woefully
inadequate prenatal and pre-adoption counseling .) However, human sexual reproduction and the
subsequent survival of offspring are NOT dependent on the conscious awareness of the process on
the part of the procreating male. For this reason, procreating males can always entertain doubts
regarding their paternity for any given child. Procreating females, however, can have no such
doubt. Thus neither knowledge nor relationship between a procreating male and his offspring is
necessary for their birth or even for their survival. Females, however, may deny the state of
pregnancy but they cannot be unaware of having carried and delivered a baby, once the baby has
been born. Female knowledge of procreation is mistaken for a relationship with the offspring .
(See “The Myth of the ‘Primal Wound’” below.)
When a counselor helps a client to understand that parenting is an active relationship
characterized by obligation and responsibility , the client can see more clearly that there simply is
no relationship if one chooses not to parent .
Relationships, even for adults, take time to develop. But babies, unlike even older children, do
not have developed personalities, so one has to spend a great deal of time with a baby in order to
develop any genuine sense of who that baby is.
The client who chooses not to be a parent never gets to know the baby—to do so would require
consistent and concentrated involvement over many months. In fact, babies are so alike at birth
that we even mark their sex with the colors blue or pink. Babies do not have complex
personalities although they may vary temperamentally.
Thus the relinquishing individual is not giving away someone with an established identity.
Instead, she is choosing not to be a parent. Thus she is not ‘rejecting’ the person of the baby
because she has not even begun to know the person of the baby. (Again, see “The Myth of the
‘Primal Wound’” below.)
5 Modern medicine makes possible an exception—the delivery of a live newborn from an unconscious (‘brain-dead’)
DONOVAN A Values-Logic-Driven Approach to Adoption Copyright 1998-2002 Denis M. Donovan
This allows for the beginning of the closure which the field unquestioningly believes impossible.
Without that closure, the client is plagued by a sense of responsibility she cannot possibly
exercise. And by a fear that the baby will return later and, like the actor Ray Liotta, protest “How
could she give ME away!?!” (Buchalter 2001). The woman who chose not to be a parent can
honestly say “I didn’t give YOU away. I chose not to be a parent and gave up for adoption a
baby it would have taken me literally months or years to know.”
Choosing not to parent defines only the relinquishing individual, not the child, as we shall see
The Young Pregnant Female
The pregnant teen or woman has a clear-cut choice—to be a parent or not to be a parent. It may
not be an easy choice but it is definitely clear-cut. Either choice has profound real-world
consequences and each creates very different challenges.
If she chooses to be a parent, her challenge becomes how to do so in a way that will meet both
her needs and those of her child. In this case, counseling must address and help meet those needs.
If this decision is made in a sound, mature, and informed manner, adoption does not become an
issue in the process.
If, on the other hand, as a result of appropriate, informative, and supportive counseling, the client
chooses NOT to be a parent, she faces another choice—to carry the pregnancy to term or not. If
the client chooses to abort, counseling must deal with the consequences of that choice and
adoption does not become an issue in the process.
If the client chooses NOT to be a parent—but nonetheless chooses to see the pregnancy through—
adoption is the only option. She will then require appropriate medical-obstetrical care and
counseling as well as pre- and post-adoption counseling to help her deal realistically with such
an informed choice.
While it rarely, if ever, occurs to adults to conceive of the challenges of procreating in terms of
choosing to be a parent and accepting all the responsibilities such a choice entails, it is even more
problematic in the case of adolescents. Because adolescents characteristically have a “limited
ability to plan ahead and to anticipate consequences of their actions” (Mech, 1985, p. 1.12), they
are unlikely to appreciate realistically the consequences of ‘keeping the baby’ (see below for the
psychological complexities of this simple expression). This makes prenatal counseling all the
more important. Considering what choosing to be a parent means and entails can help
considerably to bring real-world issues into sharper focus.
Similarly, because adolescents characteristically have a “difficulty or even an inability to take
another’s perspective” or “to distinguish what one thinks from what exists in reality” (Mech,
1985, p; 1.12), presenting the choices and challenges of each party can help make the issues and
parties themselves more real for the adolescent.
DONOVAN A Values-Logic-Driven Approach to Adoption Copyright 1998-2002 Denis M. Donovan
Finally, because adolescents characteristically find it difficult to understand options that are
“somewhat removed from the adolescent’s everyday experience” (Mech, 1985, p. 1.12),
presenting the options in terms of CHOICE can help the adolescent and the adult alike to more
realistically imagine the issues and consequences of each choice. Thus:
Choice Defines ! Parent, " ! Parenting, " ! Belonging " and " Family "
By taking choice away from individuals, the traditional Adoption Triangle model practically
guarantees the development of all the problems which are currently viewed as either inherent in,
or caused, by the adoptive situation itself. A woman who remains a ‘mother’ but doesn’t
‘mother’ is a failure and irresponsible—which then requires a contorted definition of eternal
connectedness without real-world parental/mothering behavior. Such definitions are bound to
lead to disaster—and a look at the extremely messy world of contemporary adoption
demonstrates that they frequently do lead to disaster.
The only other way to maintain parental identity without the behavioral features which, in fact,
define it, is so-called ‘open’ adoption. ‘Open’ adoption is jerryrigged in favor of the
Birthmother’s self interest while defined categorically as being in the best interests of the child—
treating a choice as a non-choice by definitional fiat. On the other hand,
A family is a group of adults and children who may or may not be genetically related. It
is characterized initially by a met obligation of the adults to meet the needs of the initially
helpless child and, later, by increasing mutual obligations. Thus caring entails
responsibility and obligations. Caring is not just an emotional experience.
Thus, present choice implies future choice . It is therefore important for counselors to appreciate
and convey clearly that when a client chooses not to parent, she is choosing in the present NOT to
accept the responsibility for those obligations which would make her and the baby a family in
the present . Choosing not to be a parent at this particular moment—for whatever reason—does
NOT mean that, at a future time , she cannot choose to be a mother, parent, and family member.
Choosing not to be a parent in the present does not automatically disqualify a person from
choosing to be a parent in the future.
DONOVAN A Values-Logic-Driven Approach to Adoption Copyright 1998-2002 Denis M. Donovan
Note that the ‘Adoption Triangle’ is now gone—as is the artificially imposed ‘connectedness’ of
one who has chosen not to accept the obligations and responsibilities of genuine connectedness.
Thus by choosing not to parent, and thereby making the baby available for adoption, the client is
free to define love as caring, connectedness, AND commitment—and to avoid the totally self-
negating, self-contradictory “she really loved you, but…” definition of love which would be
completely incompatible with choosing to be a parent in the future.
In an interview on National Public Radio’s “Morning Edition,” architect Cesar Pelli, former
chair of architecture at Yale and designer of the world’s tallest skyscraper, the Petronas Twin
Towers in Kuala Lumpur, put his finger on the essence of rational and realistic planning. Pelli’s
interviewer, obviously awed by the challenge of assembling these 100+-story structures, told the
architect that it must be very difficult to add another story at the top. “You never add a story at
the top!” Pelli exclaimed. “Whenever you add a story, you add it at the bottom —since each
story has to support the entire weight, structure and function of everything above it. You always
add stories at the bottom.” 6
The history of contemporary American adoption practice is one of a jerryrigged structure to
which floors have been added willy-nilly and implicit values are not to be found in the blueprint
but are only discovered after the fact, in the living. A values-based logic-driven approach—to
anything, not just to adoption—begins by creating a foundation that predicts the structure of the
undertaking by specifying those foundational values one wishes to see reflected in the outcome
prior to defining and undertaking practical steps to achieve that outcome.
Counselors and social workers need to distinguish between values—as in personal or family
values—on the one hand, and the nature of the world as we find it. No one can impose values
upon the world as it is, but we can strive to realize our values by carefully choosing what we do.
The role of the counselor is to help the client to define and clarify her values, keep them
consistent, and apply them to the choices she faces.
6 The interview with architect Cesar Pelli was on NPR’s “Morning Edition,” September 6, 1996.
DONOVAN A Values-Logic-Driven Approach to Adoption Copyright 1998-2002 Denis M. Donovan
As an exercise to make this real, make a short list of basic core values that we can all agree
define ‘quality parenting’—e.g., and by no means exhaustively: caring, connectedness,
sensitivity to needs and feelings, being realistically protective, providing safety, security,
opportunity, challenge while being personally responsible and consistently living one’s own
values in the process.
Assume that you have consistently engaged in parenting consistent with those values. And
assume for the moment that you have successfully transmitted your values. Now consider the
following question:
Whether you yourself are adopted or not, and regardless of whether your child is
adopted or not, Do you want your child to give away her offspring?
If your answer is “It all depends…,” return to the very short list of value-defined parenting
characteristics and ask yourself what the possible “…depends…” condition could possibly be.
Responsible and safe sexual behavior or abstinence do not typically result in unwanted
pregnancies. The only possibility, assuming consistent and realistically responsible behavior,
would be pregnancy due to rape.
If your answer remains that you would NOT want your child to give away her offspring, then the
goal becomes to build those values into our models and practices by making sure that our
explanations and recommendations are consistent with our professed values.
Because choosing in the present NOT to be a parent does not disqualify the client from choosing
to be a parent in the future, it is important that the counselor help the client to understand that her
future children’s belief in her genuine commitment to them will be undermined only if both she
and they cannot tell the difference between simply defining oneself as a parent and behaving
consistently with the values implicit in the role-definition . Remember that children learn
operationally and not by hearing verbal-discursive definitions which adults find reassuring and
mistake for the real thing. And adults are constantly changing verbal definitions to suit the
situational or emotional needs of the moment.
How Words Subtly Define Values
One of the most common questions professionals in various fields attempt to help a client
address is how to proceed with planning for a pregnancy about which the client is ambivalent.
Sometimes the question is posed by the female when she states “I don’t know whether I want to
keep the baby” or “I’m not sure if I want to keep the baby.” Sometimes it is posed by the
counselor who asks “What are your plans for the baby?” Either way, the essence of the issue-as-
formulated is whether or not to keep the baby .
DONOVAN A Values-Logic-Driven Approach to Adoption Copyright 1998-2002 Denis M. Donovan
Rarely, if ever, does anyone wonder what effect the very formulation of the challenge—the
wording of the question itself—may have on both professional and client. And yet the
psychological impact on each can be profoundly different depending on which words are
employed. While I will focus on what I think is the most rational productive approach, let’s
consider for a moment what one might object is an exception to my apparently categorical first
sentence in this paragraph—the push to say “What is your plan?” Asking a client for a plan
appears to put planning and the action it implies squarely on the front burner. But plans change ,
which is why asking a client to formulate a plan is only an illusory apparent solution which
‘works’ because it satisfies the mind logically in the present . It’s like saying “I will…” which the
mind quickly changes into “I did…,” as any parent who has asked a teenager to clean up his
room knows well. (Quite a few women have suggested that ‘wife’ be substituted for ‘parent’ and
‘husband’ for ‘teenager.’)
To make this not only very explicit but simply and pragmatically useful, consider the practical
real-world differences between choosing to be or not to be a parent , on the one hand, and
choosing to keep or not to keep the baby , on the other. These two simple formulations actually
define two very different worlds and two very different sets of values and relationships. The first
is a definition of self. The second is a definition of the baby. The consequences of these two
formulations are easier to see if we diagram out the logical implications of each formulation.
We can see more clearly what doors of opportunity each formulation opens or closes as we
continue to examine each step in this logical progression.
DONOVAN A Values-Logic-Driven Approach to Adoption Copyright 1998-2002 Denis M. Donovan
Choosing to be or not to be a parent is about oneself
Wanting or choosing to keep or not to keep the baby is not
It is extremely important for counselors to see that in wanting (to keep) the baby , the client’s
focus is on the baby, not on the self. This other-directed focus makes it extremely easy for the
client NOT to see that the desire—or even the ‘choice’— to keep a baby may feel right and sound
eminently responsible, but it is not about being a parent. Nor is it about all the real-world
consequences of parenting. Keeping or wanting a baby is a feeling, not an envisioned future.
(Again, remember: ‘planning’ to keep the baby is logically satisfying but does not entail real-
world action, so the ‘planning approach’ is not an effective solution. As William James once said
famously, the will in ‘I will…’ is whatever I do—just before I actually do it.)
Wanting to keep the baby may also be the only expression of personal feeling the client believes
will be morally acceptable to others. Or she herself may feel that that she is, by definition, a ‘bad
person’ if she does not want to keep the baby—and yet still genuinely NOT want to keep the
baby. This psychological maneuver also allows the pregnant female effectively to say to herself
(and to her imaginary audience) “At least I didn’t choose to destroy the baby.” Under such
circumstances, the only option is a form of self-deception by instantaneously ‘wanting’ to keep
the baby—whether she does or not.
Similarly, it is not actually necessary to imagine being a parent in order to react, positively or
negatively to either side of the idea of wanting or keeping a baby. No sense of personal agency
(the ability to choose actively in the world) or responsibility need accompany any feelings or
desires, positive or negative, about wanting or choosing to keep a baby. It’s all about someone
else—‘the baby.’
This becomes even clearer when we contrast wanting to be a mother and choosing to be a
parent . The former is a role, the latter a reality with consequences. Imagined identities,
especially for adolescents, can be quite glamorous while being completely unrealistic. The young
girl, for example, who hopes or believes that ‘being a mother’ will bring her respect in her
family, peer group or community is hoping that a social role will define and enhance her
personal identity—hopes which are not about parenting at all.
By highlighting the difference being a parent and wanting/choosing to keep a baby the counselor
helps the client to focus on the reality of the emergent situation and helps make it much more
obvious that the issue is clearly about the client herself and the two very different futures to
which her choices lead. This can be the beginning of genuinely realistic self-assessment in which
the client is extremely unlikely to engage unless the counselor explicitly makes the choosing to
parent/choosing to keep the baby distinction simple and clear. (This holds for both adults and
adolescents; the adolescent is simply a more dramatic version, a caricature, of the adult—and is
more likely to find herself with an unwanted pregnancy and with fewer obvious remedies.)
DONOVAN A Values-Logic-Driven Approach to Adoption Copyright 1998-2002 Denis M. Donovan
Choosing to be a parent logically entails an operational definition of parenting
Choosing to keep the baby defines only a proprietary relationship
A client who chooses to be a parent chooses to parent, a choice that entails choosing to accept
the real-world consequences of that fundamental choice. Wanting to keep, choosing to keep, or
even having intense emotional feelings about an (imagined) unborn child or a newborn may
make a client feel connected in the absence of any realistic understanding of, or commitment to,
parenting. (This is the mythical ‘primal bond.’) Wanting or even deciding to keep the baby does
not require an understanding or acceptance of the real-world consequences of the active role of
parenting. It is simply a definition of a proprietary relationship.
Choosing to parent makes responsibility salient
Choosing to keep the baby defines only dispositional rights
Ask a simple question: What’s the difference between someone who arranges for daycare but
then actively cares for her child the rest of the time and someone who passes all parental
responsibility on to parents, relatives, friends, and then continues to live a basically independent
and responsibility-free life? Which of the two complex behaviors would we define as
‘parenting’? Even young clients can understand the difference between simply calling oneself a
‘parent’ and parenting, between claiming the right to assign parental responsibilities to parents,
relatives, friends, agencies, or institutions and being a parent. Choosing to be a parent means
choosing to parent which, in turn, requires that responsibilities be defined and obligations met in
the real world.
/next page/
DONOVAN A Values-Logic-Driven Approach to Adoption Copyright 1998-2002 Denis M. Donovan
Choosing to parent requires an operational definition of parental values
Choosing to keep the baby requires no definition of parental obligations beyond
dispositional rights
Consider the practical real-world differences between being and keeping .
This contrast leads to two very different styles and potential outcomes.
/ next page /
DONOVAN A Values-Logic-Driven Approach to Adoption Copyright 1998-2002 Denis M. Donovan
The above, of course, is for counselors to understand so that they can better understand how
‘mere words’ can subtly but powerfully shape their professionals efforts without them being
aware of the process. Thus the importance of helping clients to recognize that CHOOSING to
parent (with all that such a choice entails) leads in a direction much more likely to focus on the
child’s developmental needs—while WANTING or KEEPING the child without genuinely choosing
to parent focuses primarily on adult needs and desires: “You say you want this baby. Does that
mean that you are prepared to choose to commit to being a parent and to parenting—with all the
joys and real-world miseries that involves?” (The very different meaning of ‘planning’ becomes
obvious if the client replies, “Well, I plan to….”)
/next page/
DONOVAN A Values-Logic-Driven Approach to Adoption Copyright 1998-2002 Denis M. Donovan
The Meaning of Choice for Each Party
We can now see how profoundly different the psychological meaning of choice is for each party.
I chose not to be a parent
I gave my baby away
I chose to be a parent
I wanted a child
She chose not to be a parent
She gave ME away!
Each statement is about an identity that, in turn, defines responsibility:
The relinquishing female responsibly accepts the choice of being a parent or not—and doesn’t
conveniently equate keeping and giving away. By choosing not to be a parent, she chooses an
identity while relinquishing rights, relationship and responsibility along with the baby. (Any
choice, of course, creates an operational identity.)
The question is: What are the consequences of choosing an identity or, alternatively, being the
passive victim of an imposed identity?
By choosing to be a parent, the adopting adult chooses an identity and all the responsibilities
which that identity entails.
By understanding that the woman who bore him chose not to be a parent, the child can
understand that she chose not to accept all the responsibilities of being a parent—and did not
reject him (or her) personally because she never got to know him.
Explicit Values Are Rarely Consistent with Implicit-Operational Values
The transparency of everyday communication styles makes it difficult to see how far removed
standard practices and vocabularies are from the values their users would doubtless embrace.
Often simply changing perspectives and recasting the same values in another context makes the
inconsistency obvious. Consider the following imaginary television ad for condo living in
DONOVAN A Values-Logic-Driven Approach to Adoption Copyright 1998-2002 Denis M. Donovan
Sounds absurd, doesn’t it? But consider the same values in another context.
Looking at the values from a different perspective makes it much easier to see what is really
involved. The question then becomes: What are the consequences of such a definition of
DONOVAN A Values-Logic-Driven Approach to Adoption Copyright 1998-2002 Denis M. Donovan
Only if we want to define parenting and responsibility in such a manner does ‘open’ adoption
make sense.
DONOVAN A Values-Logic-Driven Approach to Adoption Copyright 1998-2002 Denis M. Donovan
The Modern Origin of the Loss-Identity ! Developmental " Model
From H. David Kirk’s Shared Fate (1963) onward, the adoptee’s primary developmental task, as
seen by the traditional adoption establishment, has been viewed as the attempt to carve out an
identity in the face of disconnection and rootlessness. According to the traditional view, healthy
identity development for the adoptee is made difficult, if not impossible, by the fact that the
adoptee is cut off from his ancestral roots. “Lack of knowledge and a sense of one’s true identity
cannot be overcome, no matter how warm and nurturing the adoptive parents are” (Sorosky,
Baran et al. 1978, rev. 1984) p. 14.
Taking a child from one set of parents and placing him/her with another set, who pretend
that the child is born to them, disrupts a basic natural process. The need to be connected
with one’s biological and historical past is an integral part of one’s identity formation”
(Sorosky, Baran et al. 1978, rev. 1984), p. 219).
This view has been developed by many writers but is crystallized by Brodzinsky and Schechter
in their Oxford University book The Psychology of Adoption and is summarized in the diagram
All of these would-be ‘developmental challenges’ are summed up by Brodzinsky and Schechter:
DONOVAN A Values-Logic-Driven Approach to Adoption Copyright 1998-2002 Denis M. Donovan
Simply put, adopted children, once they come to realize the implications of being
adopted, not only experience a loss of their biological parents and origins, but also a loss
of stability in the relationship to their adoptive parents (Brinich 1980; Nickman 1985b;
Brodzinsky 1987;) (Brodzinsky and Schechter 1990a).
This experience of loss “is believed to be universal among adoptees” (Brodzinsky and Schechter
1990a:10) and leads to identity and self-esteem problems, attachment disturbances, and a variety
of other ‘developmental psychopathology’ from the ‘adopted child syndrome’ (Kirschner 1978;
Kirschner 1979; Magid and McKelvey 1987; Kirschner 1988) and various forms of violent
antisocial behavior to ‘reactive attachment disorders’ (Brinich, 1990; Brodzinsky, 1986;
Brodzinsky, 1990a; James, 1994; Kirschner, 1978; Magid, 1987, 1996a; Sants, 1964; Siegel,
1999; Singer, 1985; Verrier, 1993)—all of which is explained within a psychoanalytic-Piagetian
This vicious circle of stress, loss, identity, and attachment problems is seen as being inseparable
from adoption itself. But is it?
To answer that question we have to remember where it all began:
The greater part of the professional and pop-psychology literature focuses on to how to deal with
the challenge, as David Kirk put it in Exploring Adoptive Family Life , of “integrating the
stranger.” (Kirk 1988:14, 15). Or, as stated in The Adoption Triangle , the child’s developmental
task, as reflected over and over in the literature, is “to accept the fact that he has two sets of
parents” (Sorosky, Baran et al. 1978, rev. 84), pp. 99, 219.
DONOVAN A Values-Logic-Driven Approach to Adoption Copyright 1998-2002 Denis M. Donovan
But this, recall, is the factitious problem created by Shared Fate theory which the theory then
proposes to remedy—an absolutely unnecessary vicious cycle imposed from without by the
That there was something profoundly wrong with this view should have been recognized when
unrealistic and even silly recommendations began to proliferate in the ‘scientific’ literature. For
example, in a ‘Fact Sheet’ for the general public, the American Academy of Child and
Adolescent Psychiatry suggested that adoptive parents introduce the words ‘adoption’ and
‘adopted’ during infancy while adding that “The baby does not comprehend the words but
understands the positive meaning” (AACAP 1985). Then why use words? Or why not use
nonsense syllables? The unrealistic nature of these official recommendations is obvious because
they are clearly not about, or even for, the baby. What “positive meaning” could an infant in a
crib possibly understand when a parent follows such expert advice and ‘introduces’ words such
as ‘adopted’ and ‘adoption’ to a baby who doesn’t understand language at all? Clearly this sort of
behavior is unrelated to the well-being of the child and reflects instead an irrational attempt to
deal with adult needs and vulnerabilities. (This phenomenon is very much like the “I plan to…”
maneuver which ‘disposes’ of an uncomfortable situation without actually addressing it in
The Myth of Intrauterine Bonding and the Primal Wound
The original loss, according to 'Adoption Triangle Psychology', results in a ‘primal wound’ due
to a severing of a ‘primal bond’ when the baby is separated from the biological mother. The
originator of this notion, Nancy Verrier, actually appears to have based her views on the material
on intrauterine perceptual abilities included in our book Healing the Hurt Child (Donovan and
McIntyre 1990a). Verrier interpreted the findings of University of North Carolina–Greensboro
psychologist Anthony DeCasper and his colleagues that newborns under 72 hours of age can
recognize the maternal voice and prefer the (muffled) maternal voice to other female voices as
evidence of an intrauterine bond. In point of fact, technically sophisticated research into fetal
sound perception demonstrates a fetal ability to recognize various sound patterns in sheep
fetuses as well as human fetuses (Abrams and Gerhardt 1997; Trehub, Schellenberg et al. 1997).
Third-trimester human fetuses are exquisitely sensitive to auditory sensory patterns , an ability
which permits human fetuses—but not sheep—to acquire language, possibly write symphonies
or design cathedrals. Such pattern-recognition/parsing ability, however, does not—for sheep or
for humans—represent a social relationship of unique connectedness with the pregnant female.
Even more to the point, not only would such a ‘primal’ infant-maternal bond NOT confer a
survival advantage to the newborn, it would be adaptively disastrous. Newborns and infants have
to be able to attach and reattach because neither the viability nor the commitment of the mother
is guaranteed—as is painfully illustrated by the fact that the vast majority of neonaticides
(murder of an infant under twenty-four hours of age) and infanticides (murder of an infant under
twelve months of age) are committed by the biological mother—and the remainder are
committed largely at biological mother’s behest (Resnick 1969). 7 The ‘primal bond,’ like the
7 The differential sentencing and disposition of maternal and paternal child homicides reflects the myth of the
privileged mother-child relationship. In his now agèd 1969 study of filicide, Child murder by parents: A psychiatric
DONOVAN A Values-Logic-Driven Approach to Adoption Copyright 1998-2002 Denis M. Donovan
‘primal wound’ is a myth. In fact, evolution appears to have equipped human offspring with an
endearing appearances and behaviors ‘designed’ to elicit maternal attachment and commitment.
For a scholarly debunking of the myth of maternal-infant ‘bonding,” see (Eyer 1992).
The Real Developmental Needs of Infants and Children
So what, in very simple terms, are the fundamental developmental needs of childhood?
(Remember, we’re making an attempt to define these needs—and thereby increase the likelihood
of meeting them—not to reflect the poor job that the increasingly chaotic and disconnected
American family may be doing.)
" food
" shelter
" safety
" a coherently structured environment which provides consistency and continuity of
meaningful experience
" opportunity for healthy linguistic, social, educational, physical activity, and play
" reasonable experiential and intellectual challenge
Caring parents who relate to, protect, and provide for their children would meet these basic needs
in the course of everyday parenting. (Note carefully this last sentence. Parent do not require
anything special—no gimmicks or expert-devised techniques—to meet the developmental needs
of their children.) A coherent environment includes parental behavior largely consistent with
stated parental values. The child’s developmental environment can be enriched in many ways—
e.g., providing multiple opportunities for rich learning experience within a secure relationship
(reading to a child, discussing a child’s experience) to providing the best pre- and postnatal
medical care as well as assuring superior educational opportunities.
What develops naturally out of such a relationship of genuine care and responsibility? The
operational identities of parents and children.
Children know who they are, who cares for them, and what
they as persons are worth by how they are treated , not by
meaningless words and expressions introduced early in life.
review of filicide , Phillip Resnick reports a remarkable statistic: of maternal filicides, 68 percent go to hospital,
versus only 14 percent for paternal filicides, while only 27 percent of maternal filicides go to prison, versus 63
percent of paternal filicides. Nine percent of paternal filicides in his series were executed, whereas in no case were
maternal filicides executed. Not until recent sensationally publicized cases in which mothers killed, or attempted to
kill, all their children was the death penalty seriously considered.
DONOVAN A Values-Logic-Driven Approach to Adoption Copyright 1998-2002 Denis M. Donovan
There are several more CRUCIAL aspect of development that we will focus on after considering
what group psychology can tell us about optimal and current adoption practices.
What does group socialization theory tells us about
identity-formation, contemporary adoption, and adoption psychology?
Millions of years of evolution have equipped us with a behavioral-genetic tendency, rooted in
kin recognition ability, to be drawn to those who are most like us. Judith Rich Harris cites a
classic observation from primate studies that the chimpanzee group tends to turn on—and
attack—the group member who has become different as a result of being wounded and
disfigured. On returning the to group the disfigured chimp is shunned or even attacked (Harris
Thus group affiliation works in a very simple fashion: like likes like .
We tend to relate to and affiliate with those we perceive to be most like us, i.e., we self-
categorize in relation to perceived sameness or difference. What drives that process of self-
categorization, Harris says, is “the relative salience, at a given moment in time, of the various
social categories.” Salient categories, as the word suggests, are those which jump out at us,
which demand our attention—categories which have meaning only because a comparable,
contrasting category is simultaneously present. For example, the social category American is not
salient when you’re surrounded by Americans. It becomes salient only when a contrasting
category is thrust upon us—as in the aftermath of now-infamous September 11, when Arab ,
Muslim , Islamic or Middle Eastern suddenly became salient collective categories to millions of
Americans who had previously given the matter little thought. As Harris put it regarding
squabbling primates reacting suddenly to the presence of a predator, “These within-group
squabbles cease abruptly when the group is threatened … by another group …. To put it in
human terms, the outside threat has increased the salience of the group” (Harris 1998) p. 142.
The key factor in all group socialization models is not fear or threat but simply perceived
difference .
Groups have a very simple structure:
President Bush furnished a striking example when he divided the nations of the world into US
and THEM —those ‘with us’ or those ‘with the terrorists’ after 9/11.
As Harris says, “To a child, an adult might as well be a member of another species” (p. 144)—
which is why peer groups do indeed exert the attractive-formative socialization pressure so
rightfully feared by parents.
DONOVAN A Values-Logic-Driven Approach to Adoption Copyright 1998-2002 Denis M. Donovan
A psychological group is … one … to which members
relate themselves subjectively for social comparison
and the acquisition of norms and values … from which
they take their rules, standards and beliefs about
influences their attitudes and behavior.
Three genetically-related members but
[Turner, 1987 #2586], pp. 1-2
two salient social groups—
adults and child(ren)
“Dislike of strangers translates very easily into dislike of strangeness. If you are different,”
Harris writes, “you are not one of us ” (Harris 1998:181). Parents know this, which is why they
are very concerned about the undermining and alienating nature of peer influence. The italicized
quotations which follow are from Harris’s 1995 award-winning Psychological Review article
“Where is the Child’s Environment? A Group-Socialization Theory of Development.”
  • Assimilation to the group is most likely to occur when a social category is salient
    [obvious]. (p. 473)
    'Adoption Triangle Psychology' defines the child as ! different " and even as a ! stranger "
    (Kirk). thus
    Adopted = Different
  • Because success leads to more success, and failure to more failure, differences in social
    skills tend to widen over time…. (p. 473).
    From a child " s psychological perspective, adults keep babies because they " re worth
    keeping and they give them away because they " re not worth keeping. So
    ! Natural " = Real = Successful
    Adopted = Bad = Unsuccessful
  • High or low status in the peer group may leave permanent marks on the personality . (p.
    Being defined as ! different " becomes a self-definition which can become permanent.
    DONOVAN A Values-Logic-Driven Approach to Adoption Copyright 1998-2002 Denis M. Donovan
  • Children find out what kind of people they are—quick or slow, pretty or plain, leader or
    follower—by comparing themselves to others (p. 473).
    Similarly, one is ! adopted " or ! not adopted " —and ! adopted " = different
  • Social comparisons are also made by others, with the result that the members tend to
    become typecast…. (p. 473).
    “Johnny " s adopted, you know.”
  • Stigmatizing labels might also be applied by teachers or other adults: ‘learning
    disabled,’ ‘hyperactive,’ [or ‘adopted’]. Once applied, such labels tend to stick. They
    become self-fulfilling prophecies—other children expect certain behaviors of the labeled
    child, their expectations are conveyed by the way they behave toward that child, and the
    way they behave tends to evoke the behavior they were expecting…. (p. 473).
    The identified adoptee, like the handicapped child, is primed to accept indications of
    ! difference. " Negative stigmatizing labels become additive.
  • If siblings see themselves as separate individuals rather than as part of the family group,
    status hierarchies and social comparisons may increase the differences among them (p.
    Nerds become more nerdish than their sibs, the talented more talented, the sports stars
    more sportive.
    Adoptees become more different.
  • Within-family social comparisons should also widen personality differences between
    siblings—a within-family contrast effect (p. 475).
    The massive overrepresentation of adoptees in psychiatric populations is viewed either
    as an inevitable part of the ! psychology of adoption " or a reflection of the 50 percent of
    the variance in personality supposedly contributed by their non-related genes.
    /next page/
    DONOVAN A Values-Logic-Driven Approach to Adoption Copyright 1998-2002 Denis M. Donovan
    To Sabotage Healthy Identity Development, Define the Child as ! Different "
    The adoption literature says that adoptees are different—because they are not biologically
    related to the parents—and that it is denial to say otherwise. But this is an adult view, not how
    children see themselves or the world. Developmentally, children do not treat racial differences,
    for example, as defining different affiliation groups until the late toddler or early childhood
    years—and then do so primarily because they begin to absorb societal prejudices. In the world of
    Lumpers and Splitters, young children are natural-born Lumpers when it comes to fitting in.
    Thus, labeling the child as ‘adopted,’ as ‘different’ or as literally belonging to another kinship
    group literally defines the child right out of the family group . The child is THEM, not US, and
    marginalizes the child within the family. This sets the child up to identify with out-groups and
    especially with marginalized out-groups. Such groups then tend to make a ‘virtue’ of apparently
    inescapable ‘necessity’ by defining themselves in terms of their marginality. Hence groups such
    as ‘Bastard Nation’ and slogans such as “Still a bastard—and proud of it!”
    Relationship Vacuums
    The effect of both group-group differences and within-group differences is amplified by the
    chaotic and noncoherent nature of the American family.
    The average American family is more chaotic than coherent. Parents’ schedules are
    overburdened and balancing work, home obligations, and meaningful family activities is
    difficult. Children today spend infinitely more time watching television or engaging in other
    mindless activities that glue them to the screens of video games or the earphones of Walkmans
    than they do in meaningful and rewarding interaction with their parents—or even their siblings.
    The minimal amount of meaningful relating parents are able to bring to their children contributes
    to the development of relationship vacuums within the American family.
    Meaningfulness and coherence also depend upon the consistency, continuity and predictability of
    experienced structure, rules and boundaries as—all of which are in short supply in the American
    home and classroom today. (The massive overkill of ‘zero tolerance’ regulations and
    enforcement techniques in the American educational setting does not attest to reliable structure
    but to a nationwide failure of structure.) Thus relationship vacuums are the norm.
    Moreover, adults have a double-standard when it comes to values —one set of values within the
    adult peer group and one set which they apply to children in general and yet another for their
    own children in particular. Adults tend to be relatively consistent within their own peer group but
    very inconsistent in their interactions with children. Even very young children are sensitive to
    these inconsistencies and double-standards—which heightens the relationship vacuum.
    DONOVAN A Values-Logic-Driven Approach to Adoption Copyright 1998-2002 Denis M. Donovan
    Children’s peer groups, on the other hand, are extremely consistent and coherent: you’re either in
    or out—but, once in, there is a real consistency about style. The gang is a prime example of
    extreme consistency and coherence. The attractiveness of gangs for children from ‘good
    families’ appears to be massively contradictory because the two sets of values are so different.
    The attraction of the gang, however, is not based on values as such but on the child’s sense of not
    belonging to the home group.
    How 'Adoption Triangle Psychology' Sabotages Normal Cognitive Development
    Even in the third trimester of pregnancy, babies perceive and recognize patterns (DeCasper and
    Fifer 1980; DeCasper and Prescott 1984; DeCasper and Spence 1986; Donovan 1989a; Donovan
    and McIntyre 1990a; Abrams and Gerhardt 1997; Trehub, Schellenberg et al. 1997). Newborns
    and infants can distinguish between the sound-pattern of language they heard intrauterinely and
    other languages—but not between languages they never heard.
    Cognitive development depends on pattern-perception, pattern-recognition, and pattern-
    Humans attend to perceptual patterns (sound, touch, sight, smell, taste, etc.) and the meaning
    patterns they generate.
    Patterns are recognizable because they are relatively consistent over time.
    Meaning patterns are meaningful because they, too, are consistent over time. In a word:
    Healthy development requires basic structure, rules and boundaries maintained with
    consistency, continuity and predictability over time.
    Now, what does this mean?
    Would it mean the same if it looked like this?
    How about this?
    DONOVAN A Values-Logic-Driven Approach to Adoption Copyright 1998-2002 Denis M. Donovan
    Why does R R E DED h ave to always—and everywhere in the world—mean S T O P ?
    R E D
    S T O P
    Because if it didn’t, it would not be safe to drive though an intersection and our world would be
    an unpredictable and chaotically dangerous place in which to live.
    R E D D
    R E E D must be univocal—i.e., speak with one voice —and always mean S T O P ?
    S T O P
    For exactly the same cognitive-behavioral reasons, certain meanings in a child’s life must also
    be univocal. Such meanings cannot be equivocal—i.e., speak with equal but different or
    contradictory voices . Like S T O P , the following word-concepts must mean always and
    S T O P
    everywhere the exactly same thing to the child:
    For a child’s identity to develop coherently and for values to be clear and unequivocal, ‘mother’
    cannot mean both someone who gives you away and someone who will fight for your safety,
    security, health, and happiness .
    When meaning is emptied from a term by inconsistent, meaningless, or contradictory usage, the
    term becomes empty, motivationally powerless, and subject to ‘filling’ by opposite or
    contradictory meanings. This is the lesson of both “She really loved you but, ….” and “The Boy
    Who Cried Wolf.”
    Responsibility Vacuums
    How does traditional 'Adoption Triangle Psychology' sabotage both cognitive development and
    the family-related values we began with?
    DONOVAN A Values-Logic-Driven Approach to Adoption Copyright 1998-2002 Denis M. Donovan
    When adults try to have their explanatory cake and eat it too, massive—if subtle—contradictions
    arise. All of the contradictions are inherent in the ‘Adoption Triangle.’ 8
    The ‘Adoption Triangle’ gives BIRTHMOTHER and MOTHER the same meaning. This is
    S T O P
    S T O P and G O at the same time.
    G O
    Just as S T O P cannot safely mean G O , neither can BIRTHPARENT equal PARENT or
    S T O P
    G O
    Why are adoptees over-represented among those who give away their first baby? Because
    'Adoption Triangle Psychology' equates love and relinquishment—and imposes an understanding
    of the ‘birthparents’ circumstances’ upon the child who does not deserve to have to provide
    adults with either obligatory understanding or forgiveness.
    The bars of the Adoption Triangle link the parties together by definition —not in terms of
    responsible behavior. Thus the Adoption Triangle defines parental rights without parental
    responsibilities or obligations. In this vocabulary, mother , father , and parent are simply
    arbitrarily assigned arbitrary meanings. When the young adoptee gives away here first baby, she
    is remaining true to the identity imposed upon her by the Adoption Triangle.
    No mothering is required to be a ‘mother.’ No fathering is required to be a ‘father.’ And no
    parenting is required to be a ‘parent.’
    If, on the other hand, we take a values-based, logic-driven approach and define adoption first,
    as we did back at the beginning, then the definitions of mother , father , and parent flow logically.
    8 Attempts to counter or co-opt the ‘Adoption Triangle’ by the use of terms such as Richard Zeilinger’s ‘Adoption
    Circle’ not only fail but miss the point: whether triangular or circular, such figures impose nonelective
    connectedness and all the unwanted and unnecessary complications they logically entail.
    DONOVAN A Values-Logic-Driven Approach to Adoption Copyright 1998-2002 Denis M. Donovan
    In this case, there is only one parent and one mother—not two ‘mothers,’ both of whom are
    ‘real’ but one of whom exercises no responsibility and assume no real-world obligations.
    How 'Adoption Triangle Psychology' Further Sabotages Identity Development
    Natura vacuum abhorret. La nature a horreur du vide .
    —Rabelais, Gargantua (1534), Bk. I, Ch. 5.
    Just as Nature abhors a (physical) vacuum, the mind abhors meaning vacuums. The human mind
    is preprogrammed to search for and recognize meaningfulness. Meaningfulness is the promise of
    meaning, which is why infants and young children are perpetually curious. Sensitivity to
    meaningfulness is so deeply ingrained in humans that it is extremely uncomfortable for humans
    to sense that something is meaningful and yet not be able to discover the meaning. The younger
    one is, the less one knows, which means that ‘meaning hunger’ is exquisitely intense in the
    young (Donovan, in preparation).
    The more meaningful something is, and the less we know about it, the more intense our meaning
    hunger. Add to this recipe a touch of prohibition, forbiddenness, out-of-boundness, and our
    meaning hunger becomes even more intense.
    So, put yourself in the adoptee’s shoes. Imagine the effect on your young mind of being told that
    you have ‘multiple parents.’ Now you really do have a developmental challenge—to accept the
    fact that you have “two sets of parents” (Sorosky, Baran et al. 1978, rev. 84), pp. 99, 219.
    But you have another challenge as well, a much more immediate and painfully pressing one—
    which is to ‘fill in the blanks’ created by this confusing revelation. And how do children
    typically ‘fill in the blanks’? Visually.
    DONOVAN A Values-Logic-Driven Approach to Adoption Copyright 1998-2002 Denis M. Donovan
    So now what do you have?
    One of the perennial complaints about adoptees is
    that they ‘make things up,’ tell stories,
    confabulate, and even lie. Adoptive parents
    complain that they lie and make up far-fetched
    stories about them (Donovan and McIntyre 1990a).
    Since the parents don’t do this and never conveyed
    this negative value through their behavior, they are
    at a loss as to why their child would do so. The
    only answer is the ‘bad seed’ explanation: it must
    be due to the 50 percent of the variance in
    personality due to genetic factors.
    The fact is, the child who knows all along who his
    parents are is not driven, as if by an intense
    [Donovan, in preparation]), to ‘fill in the blanks’ of
    his or her identity—which is most powerfully
    represented by physical appearance, especially
    facial appearance. This meaning vacuum, in turn,
    psychologically uncomfortable—and the child
    does what children naturally do—he tries to ‘fill
    From Why Was I Adopted?
    up’ the empty space left by the description of
    By Carole Livingston.
    identity-less ‘parents.’
    So what’s the alternative? “Fill in the blanks for him,” says the adoption establishment. This is a
    natural childhood curiosity that becomes even more intense during adolescence. But, in fact, the
    curiosity of the child who lives in the ‘Adoption Triangle’ is NOT natural. Remember how it
    /next page/
    DONOVAN A Values-Logic-Driven Approach to Adoption Copyright 1998-2002 Denis M. Donovan
    The ‘Adoption Triangle’ was created unnecessarily and artificially—and usually at a very early
    age—by making the child into a “stranger” (Kirk 1988, p. 14), by alienating (un-linking) him and
    making him into one of THEM, an outsider who belongs to someone else’s (another family’s)
    kinship group. The Adoption Triangle could not have been better designed to make the adoptee
    into a THEM and the parent(s) and any offspring they have, or may subsequently have, into an
    Clearly, if we want genuine responsibility and obligation to flow naturally from the meaning of
    ‘parent,’ and identity to develop naturally within the context of the family, we can’t artificially
    and arbitrarily locate the child’s ‘identity’ outside the family. To repeat, this amounts to causing
    a problem in order to solve it.
    Relationship vacuums, responsibility vacuums, and identity vacuums are all absolutely
    unnecessary consequences of the ‘Adoption Triangle’ ideology and the practices that depend on
    The alternative is the Values-Based Logic-Driven Model of Adoption in which adoption is
    simply a meaning of providing caring and responsible parents for the millions and millions of
    children who need them.
    DONOVAN A Values-Logic-Driven Approach to Adoption Copyright 1998-2002 Denis M. Donovan
    An adopted child has two sets of parents: one provides the child’s genes, the other
    provides the environment . Judith Rich Harris , The Nurture Assumption, p. 21
    In 1998, Judith Rich Harris received the George A. Miller Award from Division 1 of the
    American Psychological Association for her 1995 article entitled “Where Is the Child's
    Environment? A Group Socialization Theory of Development” which turned the theory of
    cultural transmission on its head by essentially removing parental influence from the equation
    and making it a children’s group-to-children’s group transmission process. Harris subsequently
    expanded her model considerably in The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out the Way
    They Do , a model that has been overwhelmingly endorsed by the fields of academic psychology
    and behavioral genetics as well as by respected researchers worldwide. In fact, MIT psychologist
    Steven Pinker went even further and prophesied in his Foreword that The Nurture Assumption
    “will come to be seen as a turning point in the history of psychology.”
    What impressed all of these respected and influential researchers was the combination of
    behavioral genetics and Harris’s group socialization theory of development. With fifty percent of
    the variance in children’s personalities due to genetic factors, and the remaining fifty percent due
    to peer-group factors, where was the child’s environment? Peers. To repeat: this is, indeed why
    parents worry so much about peer influence. As Pinker summed up in How the Mind Works ,
    Judith Harris has amassed evidence that children everywhere are socialized by their peer
    group, not by their parents.
    The biggest influence that parents have on their children is at the moment of conception.
    As the psychologist Judith Harris has put it, the [identical twins separated at birth] studies
    imply only that children would turn into the same kinds of adults if you left them in their
    homes and social milieus but switched all the parents around. (Pinker 1997, p. 449).
    The conclusion routinely drawn from the findings of behavioral genetics is that the social,
    behavioral, academic, and affiliative problems of adopted children are due, as Harris says, to the
    fact that “An adopted child has two sets of parents: one provides the child’s genes, the other
    provides the environment.” Thus, when an adopted child in a home with siblings genetically
    related to the parents experiences difficulties and displays problem behavior not displayed by his
    genetically unrelated brothers and sisters, the difference is due to genetic factors, not to the
    consequences of being adopted—whether they be the supposedly “universal” loss and identity
    problems of “adoption psychology” or the effects of Shared Fate rootless, minority and stranger
    status—or even to differential treatment by the parents. On this view, the well-documented over-
    representation of adoptees in psychiatric populations would be due to genetic factors, not to
    psychosocial issues related to adoption.
    DONOVAN A Values-Logic-Driven Approach to Adoption Copyright 1998-2002 Denis M. Donovan
    So, whether it’s ADHD, childhood depression, antisocial behavior, learning difficulties, or the
    would-be lifelong psychosocial problems attributed to adoption, It’s Nobody’s Fault , as the title
    of Harold Koplewicz’s (1998) book on child psychiatric disorders reassures parents.
    Non-Psychologically-Minded Psychology
    Judith Harris’s group socialization theory of development represents a superb formulation of the
    brilliant insights any parent could have simply by observing the changes in taste and style that
    occur in their own children as the peer group socialization process proceeds. The fact that
    Harris’s model is accurate and realistic probably accounted for some of the intensity with which
    clinicians and researchers such as Stanley Greenspan and Jerome Kagan responded to Harris’s
    “parents don’t matter” interpretation of the findings of behavioral genetics and group
    psychology. After all, peer influence essentially determines main language, accents, appearance
    and clothing styles, vocabulary fads, affiliations, and many other values such as whether to
    smoke, drink, when and how to have sex, etc. Some adults catch on—a recent switch to peer
    warnings against smoking on television appear to have resulted in a decrease in adolescent
    tobacco use whereas the previous adult-narrated television ads did not.
    But the plot thickens considerably—and there are profound lessons to be learned about how
    clearly—or how muddily—bright people can think when they are in the grips of a cherished
    theory or belief. Harris herself is an adoptive parent. In fact, the degree to which her two
    daughters turned out to be so different—one a “nerd” and one a “dropout,” one the epitome of
    social appropriateness and one dramatically antisocial, especially during her teenage years—
    convinced Harris that parental good will and even-handedness of parents have no influence
    whatsoever, while genes and peers shape are the powerful shapers of children’s personality. The
    best one can do, Harris counsels parents, is to wisely choose schools and neighborhoods because
    that’s the only effective control over peer influence parents have. Not even restricting television
    will do any good because the socialization effects of television content are on the child-
    adolescent group , not on the individual child watching television.
    Harris " s Own Family — A Salient Group After All
    apparently never thought to
    apply her own brilliant
    model to her own family
    situation, not even long after
    the adoption. Harris’s own
    group socialization theory
    because, for Harris, the
    traditional North American
    family is not a salient group.
    DONOVAN A Values-Logic-Driven Approach to Adoption Copyright 1998-2002 Denis M. Donovan
    According to Harris’s model, the salient groups are children-as-a-group, adolescents-as-a-group,
    parents-as-a-group and adults-as-a-group—but not the family itself. The only difference Harris
    saw increasing over time within the Harris household was the difference between children and
    adults as the two groups become intensely polarized during adolescence. That she had
    unquestioningly followed all the standard advice of the local adoption agency and as early as her
    adopted daughter could understand, defined Elaine as ‘different’ and as belonging to another
    kinship seems never to have been the object of Harris’s personal or professional curiosity or
    concern—not even when the adolescent-adult polarization was limited solely to her adopted
    Harris’s conclusion that the differences in marked personality, learning, and social behavior in
    adopted Elaine and genetically-related Nomi were due to genetic and not environmental factors
    reinforced her interest in group socialization theory—but she didn’t see the effect of the
    ‘Acknowledgment of Differences’ approach on self-definition and group affiliation within the
    Harris Household. In fact, group psychology and Harris’s own group socialization theory of
    development describes it clearly. When we put psychological-mindedness back into Harris’s
    psychology, we see how relevant it is and how completely Harris failed to see its effects within
    her own household.
    Although we did not explicitly identify her, Judith Rich Harris is the mother of two in the
    following excerpt from What Did I Just Say!?! (Donovan 1999, pp. 164-166).
    Wrong. This is the myth of the shared environment. No two children share the same environment—not even identical
    twins. In fact, the womb can be such an inhospitable place for one twin that British pediatrician, researcher and expert
    on twins Dr. Elizabeth M. Bryan notes that it’s not at all uncommon to discover the remains of a fetus “compressed and
    embedded in the placenta of a healthy single baby.” In these cases, Bryan notes, the mother is usually unaware that
    she was ever carrying a twin pregnancy. In other cases, no one will ever be aware that a twin was lost because fetal
    deaths in the first trimester usually result in the resorption of the lost twin. About twice as many twins are stillborn as
    singletons, which means that it’s possible that any of us may have once been a twin.
    And even when both twins
    survive their intrauterine voyage in good health, there is still the delivery to contend with, and exiting that marvelous life
    vehicle presents a different challenge for each twin.
    High-school physics reminds us that two bodies cannot occupy the same space at the same time. This may seem
    awfully picky, but there’s really a very important lesson here, because it’s not just that no two people can occupy the
    same physical space, but that no two people can occupy the same psychological or experiential space.
    To see how strikingly true this apparently self-evident statement is, imagine two sisters—one the genetic offspring
    of two parents and the other adopted.
    We know the two sisters can’t share the same genetic information because
    they’re not related.
    But do they share the same environment?
    When we take the actual experience of real children
    seriously, we discover that one sister has known with certainty who her parents are, what they look like, and how they
    behave ever since she came into the world. The other was told that her “biological mother” gave her up for adoption
    because of circumstances in her life. So now one sister has one mother and the other has two mothers. One sister
    has lived through parental misfortune and ill-health with the certainty of her parents’ commitment to her while the other
    was told that her “biological mother” gave her away precisely because of misfortune or ill-health.
    Both sisters have
    always been told by their parents that they loved them, but one was also told that her biological mother “loved her so
    much that she gave her up for adoption.” Both sisters have grown up in a family that kept their biological child, but one
    sister was told that she was given away because her biological mother “wanted her to have a family.” No mention was
    ever made of the biological father.
    Finally, the older sister was four when her younger sister was adopted—which
    means that the two sisters were ten and six when their mother fell deathly ill and was confined to bed.
    DONOVAN A Values-Logic-Driven Approach to Adoption Copyright 1998-2002 Denis M. Donovan
    Now here’s the question: What do mother, father, family, love, care, commitment, belonging, misfortune and loss
    mean to these two sisters ?
    We’re not talking about words here—we’re talking about concepts and actual subjective
    personal experiences. So, in very real experiential terms, does each sister have a mother ? Does each sister have the
    same mother ? Does each sister have a father ?
    Does each sister belong to the same family ?
    Has each sister
    experienced the same maternal love ?
    Has each sister experienced the same parental care ?
    Has each sister
    experienced the same maternal commitment ?
    Has each sister experienced the same misfortune and loss ?
    finally, had their mother actually died from her serious illness, would each sister have experienced the same loss of a
    mother ?
    The answer to all these questions is no.
    Every single aspect of these two girls’ environment has a different
    meaning for them—and it is meaning, remember, that drives brain plasticity. So does it make any sense whatsoever to
    expect that these two radically different experiential-psychological environments should have the same effect on each
    sister? Again, the answer is no.
    In the tradition of Kirk’s Shared Fate theory, the Adoption Triangle model of Sorosky, Baran,
    and Pannor, and the ‘Adoption Psychology’ of Brodzinsky and Schechter, Harris inadvertently
    shaped her adopted daughter’s experience by defining her as alien, stranger, and one of THEM,
    not one of US—as someone belonging to another mother, another set of parents, and another
    kinship group, not to the Harrises. And, like the adoption experts who counseled her in how to
    treat and what to tell her new daughter, Harris ended up explaining the negative outcome with
    her own theory. Ironically, in Harris’s case, however, it was only one-half of the theory, the
    behavioral genetics and group psychology theory upon which she built to craft her own group
    socialization theory of development. Had she applied the same insatiable curiosity and
    intelligence to her own microcosmic environment that she routinely applied to the entire field of
    psychology, she would have recognized that parents and those who act in their stead do matter—
    it’s just a bit simpler and a bit more subtle than she and supporters such as Steven Pinker
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