An adoption ceremony during the Renaissance is illustrated in this diptych from the National Museum, Krakow. In the lower panel, the adoptive father stands behind the child as the final judgment is pronounced.
Conventionally, adoption agencies prefer to place a baby with a couple who are in their twenties or early thirties, and they prefer to place him as soon after his birth as practical. This procedure duplicates, as nearly as possible, the natural pattern of birth and rearing, and encourages the normal development both of the child and of parental feelings.
There are, however, some special pressures on all members of a family formed by adoption. The parents may harbor some doubts about the effect of heredity on the child’s development and may there-fore view with apprehension normal childish misbehavior. Psychologists and social workers do not accept this view of “bad blood, which they regard as an outmoded superstition. The noticeable effects of heredity are limited to physical appearance and some congenital for in-defects (nearsightedness, stance) and to an overall temperamental direction—phlegmatic or volatile, active or quiet.
Adoptive parents may, on the other hand, feel that the child’s misbehavior or his temporary rejection “I hate you’ —is a reflection of their own failure. This feeling is familiar even to natural parents, particularly when they are dealing with their first child. Many social agencies sponsor discussion groups for adoptive parents to give them reassurance as well as helpful information on child development. The major difficulty for the adopted child is, of course, his understanding and acceptance of the relationship. A very small minority of psychologists feel that it would be better for the child never to know that his adoptive parents are not his natural parents. Almost unanimously, however, psychologists and social workers agree that, even apart from the certainty of the child’s eventual discovery of the truth, he deserves honesty. He should be told very early—at age 2 or 3—about his adoption, but should not be burdened with specifics.
Nor should he be left with the feeling that his unusual relationship to his parents is a matter of crushing or worrisome importance. As he grows older, he will no doubt ask more specific questions about his natural parents. Since the adoptive parents ordinarily know very little themselves, they must often be honestly vague, but the child should be assured that he was in no way to blame and that his adoption was in no sense a personal rejection by his natural mother. By the time the adopted child is an adolescent, he will be able to understand the complex emotions, economics, and social pressures that forced his natural mother’s decision.
At all points, the child should be told the truth, within the limits of his maturity and curiosity, so that he feels secure of his rightful place in the lives and affections of his adoptive—which is to say, his real—parents. It is often helpful for adoptive parents to explain to the child that they chose him, while natural parents have to accept the boy or girl who is born to them.