Monday, April 16, 2007

The Educational Stigma of Adoptive Parenting

Now that Claudia and I have passed the ten-year mark of fostering and adopting, I have been reflecting on what I have learned in the past decade. I can't begin to elucidate in one blog entry what this learning adventure has been like, but I can confidently say something about the social stigma of adopting. This is counterintuitive, I know, because so much of what the public hears about adoption via the media is positive. That certainly is a good thing, but sometimes the good publicity only makes the stigma more apparent. I guess what I'm trying to say is this ... when we began the adoption journey I did so with a sense of deep fulfillment in providing what I considered to be a relatively healthy family life for kids who needed committed adults in their lives. Philosophically I'm sure most of society would agree that adoption is a noble, significant action on behalf of the world at large and of children more specifically.

Adoptive parents hear things like: "I respect you so much. You are doing something I could never do." "Adoption is such a noble thing; it takes a special person to do that." "You are doing such a good thing for your children; I'm sure they really appreciate it, don't they?" Well-meaning people who don't quite get it try to affirm what adoptive parents do.

But the stigma is built through other, less obvious, insidious ways which cause adoptive parents to doubt their decisions or question their ability. It is, for example, frustrating to hear your child's classroom teacher identify specific areas where your child is not succeeding, with the clear implication being that if only the parents were more involved in his or her life, things would be different. I find it ironic that if teachers, who have bachelor's and master's degrees and are "professionals," and who spend seven or eight hours a day with my child -- if these people are unable to address my child's specific needs, how is it that a parent, who typically has less time and less training, is going to be the educational savior of the academic year? Do they not understand that many adoptive parents are dealing with more foundational, taxing issues in their child's life? Do some naive teachers not understand that by the time my ADHD, borderline autistic son arrives home after hours in the classroom he is tired and unable to focus on additional homework that "he didn't get done in school today"? My son is not like every other fourth grader, and while I am not seeking to justify his slipping academic life, there is only so much I as a parent can do when both of us are tired and seeking moments of respite.

I am in no way anti-education. I am myself well educated, having worked the various educational levels halfway to a doctoral degree. I value education, support the difficult work classroom teachers encounter and understand that there are certain competencies children need to attain along the way. But why does my son's or daughter's educational success (or lack thereof) seem to rely so heavily upon the parents? Could it not be that my child's special needs will not allow him or her to achieve at the same level as other children who have emerged from healthier genetic or environmental origins? Where is the acceptable balance between expecting children to do well in school and the realistic acknowledgment that not every child will excel in similar ways? And why is it always the parent's fault when the educational system or structure does not work for a special needs child?

I confess I am being hyperbolic, for I have met many teachers over the past ten years who understand the challenges a parent of a special needs child faces. It is true to say that most of our children's teachers have been supportive, fair-minded and judicious in their communications with us. So, I do not mean to paint with a broad brush every teacher who has encountered our children over the past ten years.

But, yes, I do mean to address the stigma that parents (and not simply adoptive parents of) special needs children face from some in the educational system. Since the teacher is unable to make my child "successful," and since evidently I am unable to make my child "successful," why can't we simply agree that we will each do the best we can do without questioning the other's motives or concern? Can we not simply agree that my child has challenges not of his (nor, for that matter, of my) own choice or creation? If you can't accomplish with him in the classroom what your years of education and experience have trained you to do, perhaps I will not be any more successful as a parent than you.

And why can't that be OK? Why do there need to be subtle, stigmatic inferences ... that he isn't receiving the kind of discipline he needs at home, or that his family environment is too chaotic, or that his parents are too busy, or that he is over-medicated or not medicated enough, or whatever ... why can't it be OK that my child may not meet the educational expectations of his school ... and that it will not be anyone's "fault"?

Why can't we move beyond stigmatizing to find a realistic, humane, respectful approach that exemplifies best efforts to educate at appropriate levels, and then accept the reality of my special needs child's unique situation in life?


Mammy said...

This is why we chose to homeschool two years ago. I am by no means "anti-education", quite the oppostite actually. (I am going back to school myself, to finish my degree) I think learning is lifelong and should be vigorously pursued by everyone. Use it or lose it, I always say.

However, how we approach learning varies from person to person. Unfortunately, institutionalized learning only allows for so much variance.

Of my four at home, I have one with ADHD , one with ADHD and dyslexia, one with Aspergers, and one with Aspergers and a seizure disorder. To some people, these aren't even "special needs", only because they are ignorant of the facts. Sometimes, it is the educators who need the educating! lol

We're going to try public school again this upcoming schoolyear, at my childrens' request. They understand it is possible they may have to have IEP's and other concessions. I am still a bit apprehensive though!

Jennifer said...

Thank you for this post. You put into words so many of my own feelings. I added a link to this blog entry on my blog for all my readers out there who have special needs children.