Blame It On Adoption

November 22, 2010

The other day, a friend was talking about someone she knew who was having trouble conceiving, but didn’t want to adopt. Her reason for being very convinced that she didn’t want to adopt was that she knew someone else who had adopted a boy who had grown up to be a “delinquent” and was “criminally-minded”.

But wait.

My friend and I went on to talk of other things, so I don’t know what exactly the delinquency and criminal mindedness involved, what were the possible causes of it, and whether there was any possible resolution… but unless it was behavior that had a clearly psychiatric root (like schizophrenia, or OCD, or multiple personality disorder or somesuch*) it couldn’t possibly be blamed on the misguided boy’s genes, could it? You couldn’t possibly say, “Oh, he’s adopted, he has petty thievery, or arson or whatever in his genes. That’s why he’s like this.”

I’m not even saying that adoption itself could not have influenced the boy’s behavior in any way. Perhaps there were complex psychological reasons that drove him to “delinquency” that were somehow tangled up with the fact of his adoption (assuming he knew; or worse, suspected). As far as I know, he was not adopted at an older age, when he might have seen, understood, and been affected by many things in his former life; I think he was adopted as an infant, so the adoption was prior to his earliest conscious memories and experiences. There are those who argue that the scars of abandonment and subsequent adoption are terrible and permanent even on very young infants, and this might be true, but certainly they wouldn’t be conscious scars that could lead to certain types of thoughts and actions in that boy. After all, not all, nor even (as far as I know) many or most, of adopted children turn “delinquent”.

And besides. When you blame the adopted child’s unknown genetic ancestry, you are basically saying, “my genes are better than your biological parents’ genes.” But that’s crap. You might say, my social standing or my house of my job or my education or my pay package or my ethics or even (most controversially) my religion are better than those I suspect your biological parents might have had (since we know practically nothing about an adopted child’s birth parents in most cases in India); but to say that my genes are better than theirs is utter nonsense. Even if you knew everything about your adopted child’s birth parents, you still could not win an argument based on “my genes are better than theirs”. Look wide enough and deep enough into your family tree and you’ll find plenty there to shake your belief in the superiority of your genes – and everything else. That’s my bet. (At least you will find cancer, diabetes, heart disease, psychiatric disorders of some kind, a criminal tendency of some kind, alcoholism, and some degree of illicit relationships; family trees are almost without exception absolutely fascinating in this regard.)

So, if your adopted child turns out to be “delinquent” or “criminally-minded” then it’s either not due to his genes, or, if it is, you can’t be sure that your own genes would have done a better job.

It’s unfair, on the other hand, to place the blame entirely on his adoptive family for his delinquency or criminal mindedness. After all, anyone who adopts a child does so with every intention of loving that baby and making it their own. (That might be a naïve assumption, but let’s assume it is true for this particular family.) This family, like any other family, presumably gave their son all the love, attention, and material needs to help him grow into a normal, happy, successful person. In my experience, when your adopted child has been with you for only a few months, much less for many years, he is just as much your child as if he had been your biological child. If so, then when you see your child going astray, surely you wouldn’t blame it on the adoption, or on his genes, and quickly wash your hands of it. Surely you’d step in and try to take charge of the boy, try to help him, try to understand him, without ever feeling “oh, he’s adopted, it’s in his genes, nothing to do with me.”

I mean, we’re adopted parents. I can’t imagine any kind of eventuality with my girls where I would react at all differently than I would with biological children. Any medical, behavioural, or psychiatric problem would be our problem to face and figure out. Even if they eventually turn out to have some sort of genetic or congenital problem that has not manifested itself yet, we could still not shrug it off saying, “oh, that’s from their biological parents, nothing to do with us.” When we did the medical tests before we adopted them, we might have not gone ahead with the adoption if any serious medical problem (especially HIV) had surfaced. But that was before. They are now no less to us than our own biological children would be. And if your biological child turned out to have a medical problem, or turned out to be “delinquent” or “criminally-minded” – what would you do? Would you disown him, saying, “I don’t know where he got that from but it’s not from me”?

It’s not as if biological children never go wrong. It’s not as if every biological child is an angel for life. There are plenty of misguided kids out there, so-called “delinquent” and “criminally-minded,” and most of them are biological. Has that stopped anyone from having biological kids? Does anyone say, “I know so-and-so, such a nice family, such decent, respectable people, but their son turned out to be a thief and their daughter ran away with the car cleaner when she was 13, so that’s why I don’t want to have kids.”

Maybe there are people who say that – but not too many, given the rate at which the global (and Indian) population is growing. More often, I believe (or hope) the reaction would be “my children will never turn out to be like that”; or at least, “I hope my children never turn out like that.”

So it upsets me that when an adopted child goes wrong, people blame it on adoption.

Some aspects of a person’s character and destiny are determined by their genes. There are some twin studies to show that identical twins brought up separately might grow up to look identical, have similar hairstyles, similar preferences, similar careers, similar illnesses, even similar names for their kids and dogs. They live similar and parallel lives, even though they’ve been subject to quite different environments. This is the “nature” part of the Nature-Nurture argument.

On the other hand, so many things are also influenced by environment, specially family and home. Our children are presumably Tamilian by birth, but they speak primarily English, eat the mixed up cuisine we make at home, listen to western classical music along with Hindi Oldies, and watch primarily tennis on TV. They are going to grow up a very confused, cosmopolitan mish-mash. This is what “nurture” is going to give them.

They might still turn “delinquent”. Or they might turn out to be geniuses at something quite unexpected – like bharatnatyam, or marine biology. Their character and their destiny can’t possibly be derived directly either from their genes or from their environment. Every person is a complicated outcome of both nature and nurture, along with a little something extra that they bring to the table which nobody can say where it comes from.

Then how – how? – can you point to a boy who was adopted and is now apparently “delinquent” and say, “See, adopted boys become delinquent, that’s why I don’t want to adopt.”


There are many reasons that people might choose not to go for adoption. Some I can sympathise with, others I can understand even if I am not in sympathy with those. But this? I simply cannot comprehend. The only way I can make sense of this is to conclude that this person essentially does not want to adopt and is looking for a way to rationalise/justify it.

But it’s sad.


* On re-reading this (yes, sometimes I read my own posts…) I realise it sounds like these psychiatric conditions can be justifiably blamed on genes. This, as far as I know, is only partly true. As with most things, the causes here are partly genetic, partly environmental. But at least these are demonstrably partly genetic or congenital – as opposed to behaviour which is not caused by psychiatric factors and has no discernible genetic cause.


Postscript (27 Nov 2010): Today’s paper, strangely enough, had an article about the genetic origins of criminality as demonstrated by a study of criminal tendencies in adopted children. If the new article is taken at face value, it is indeed correct to say that adopted children whose biological parents had criminal tendencies are more likely to have criminal tendencies. I still think that at the moment this study shows only a correlation, and not cause-and-effect relationship demonstrating that criminality is in the genes, but I could be wrong. It’s a bitter pill to swallow, though.

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