When Children's Books and Movies Misrepresent Adoption


On Friday night, I climbed into bed next to Katie for story time.  Although she’s a big kid who enjoys reading chapter books to herself, Katie still loves being read to at night.   We are currently making our way through Judy Blume’s Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing.

The book is told from the point of view of fourth-grader Peter Hatcher, who suffers endlessly at the hands of his misbehaving baby brother, Fudge.  I remember reading the series of books about the Hatchers many years ago, and now it is fun to see Katie hanging onto every word. 

In Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, Mrs. Hatcher repeatedly indulges and mollycoddles younger son Fudge while expecting big brother Peter to act much older than he is.  She is actually a pretty crappy parent who has no consistent approaches to discipline and alternately tricks, bribes and threatens Fudge into compliance. 

(Hmm . . . I guess that makes me a crappy parent sometimes too, because I’ve been known to employ such techniques in moments of desperation with Annie Rose).   

Anyway, I was reading aloud from the chapter where the mother unfairly blames Peter for one of Fudge’s accidents, and I glimpsed ahead to Peter’s narration in the next few sentences:

“She loves Fudge more than me.  She doesn’t even love me anymore.  She doesn’t even like me.  Maybe I’m not her real son.  Maybe somebody left me in a basket on her doorstep.  My real mother’s probably a beautiful princess.  I’ll bet she’d love to have me back.”

I made a split second decision and chose not to read the above paragraph at all.  Katie was lying next to me, happily listening, and I was not about to read those words.  Instead, I sort of improvised and pretended to be reading as I said:

“I was really angry.  That was so unfair of Mom to blame me for Fudge’s accident!  How could she do that?  She acts like she loves Fudge more than me.  I felt really upset.”

Should I have censored the book?  Am I protecting Katie too much from unpleasant innuendoes about adoption?   Maybe, but I just couldn’t bear to read the book as it was written, because it promotes the false stereotype that only your “real” (i.e. biological) parents love you completely. 

Many children’s books build these types of dialogues into sections where a child feels upset, and I think it does a disservice to the families built through adoption.  I wonder how other adoptive parents and adopted children feel about this.

The very next day, I confronted another myth about adoption while watching a children’s movie.

Katie came down with a fever on Saturday, and she wanted to sack out on the couch in front of a DVD.  She chose Despicable Me, and Annie Rose and I hung out with her to watch it.  My expectations were pretty low going into it, and to my surprise, I ended up falling in love with Gru, the grumpy villain who is the show’s hero. 

Yes, of course there is a but.

Early in the movie, Gru adopts three little girls and tricks them into participating in his plot to steal a shrink ray from his rival, Vector.   Gru tries to remain emotionally removed from the girls, but their earnest personalities win him over.

Gru’s scientific assistant insists that the girls are a distraction to Gru, who is working against a tight deadline to shrink and steal the moon, so Gru returns the girls to the orphanage. 

And this is where my anxiety kicked in.  Adoption with give-backs?  That is not exactly how it works, folks.  Kids don’t come with a gift receipt.  They don’t have an exchange policy.  If you adopt a child, your child views you as her parent.  Forever.  Anyway, I resisted the urge to talk with Katie about her thoughts until the movie was over.

As expected, Gru becomes depressed without the girls and realizes that they mean more to him than anything else.  When Vector kidnaps the girls, Gru willingly gives up the moon in order to rescue them. 

The oldest girl, Margot, calls him out on his behavior.  “You gave us back,” she states, deeply hurt.  And Gru acknowledges that it was the biggest mistake of his life, reaches for Margot and fervently promises to never let go of her again. 

The next scene of Gru reading a book that he wrote to the girls is so touching that I actually started to choke up, corny as I am.   In all honesty, I enjoyed seeing the changes in Gru, but I was still concerned about the portrayal of adoption as a reversible option.

“Katie, what did you think about the fact that Gru gave the girls back?” I asked.

“Well,” she pondered, “it must have taken place back in the days when people could do that.  But people don’t do that now, do they?” she asked.

“No,” I reassured her, not wanting to get into the distressing case of the mother last year who returned her adoptive son to Russia.  That was a rare extreme, and there was no point mentioning it to a first grader.

“But then he realized it was a mistake to give them back,” Katie continued.  “I was so happy when he took them back that I wanted to cry.”

“I did start to cry,” I told her, smiling.

Annie Rose interrupted, “I was so happy when he took them back that I wanted to die.”

“Well, I’m glad you didn’t die,” I told her.

Later that night, Annie Rose and I were snuggling in her bed.  Out of the blue she said, “We won’t give Katie back.” 

“No, never ever,” I responded.

“Never ever infinity times infinity ever,” Annie Rose added.

I thought it was interesting that Annie Rose had abstracted what was happening in the movie and applied it to our adoption of her big sister.  It made me realize that I should consider how misrepresentations of adoption affect both my older girls, not just the one who was adopted.

I was so busy worrying about how Katie would feel that I almost missed Annie Rose’s anxiety.  Adoption affects the whole family, and the messages we receive from the media affect the whole family too. 

One more reason to urge responsible portrayals of adoption by authors, screenwriters and playrights.

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  • I think this happens for the same reason that a child who is adopted is almost always referred to by the community, by society, in the news, in books, you name it - as a person's "adopted" son or daughter and not simply as their son or daughter. When the word "adopted" is used to qualify the status of the child in the family (not usually by the family, but by others outside the family), there is at least a subconscious implication that the family entered into a contract to bring someone else's "real" child into their home; and because it is not their "real" child, they could rescind or breach that contract because they don't have the feelings of a "real" parent toward that child.

    When our foster daughter Nina went back to her birth mom after being raised by us for 13 months, the 6 year old neighbor's daughter asked me, "has Nina gone back to her real mom?" I cannot imagine any "real" mom feeling Nina's absence more acutely or with more heartache than I did. Yet, even for a child as young as 6, "real mom" obviously meant "birth mom." Thus, it is as you say, Carrie: there is a society-wide conditioning that only the birth parents can profess that pure, good, unconditional love that makes them stand by their children and keep them forever.

    Speaking of Nina, ever since she reunified with her birth mom, it is clear that she harbors some hurt that we "returned" her but kept Lenny, our adopted son. At 4 years old, she still does not fully understand why she is no longer with us, even though I have explained to her about her mom being sick for a while and needing us to take care of her during that time (and how Lenny has no other mom besides me to take care of him). Hopefully, in time, with the continued presence of all of us in her life, she will feel reassured that none of us really gave her away and we all want her and love her a whole lot. And like your Annie Rose, Lenny, too, even at the tender age of 3, is puzzled: "Why did Nina leave after being here when she was a baby? When will you bring her back?"

  • In reply to jiyer:

    I think that as with all things, the people who can relate most to a subject are the ones most sensitive to it. I see what you're saying but I think if we did this with all things we would eventually have to stop making any sort of fiction. Are royals accurately portrayed in The Little Mermaid? As a preschool teacher I may be offended by any movies that depict teachers as mean or abusive. I think it's best to be honest. No you can't just give children back, children aren't left on doorsteps in baskets (except, sometimes. but usually not by a princess!) but the characters in the movie are cartoons. I mean, what is a minion exactly? We'd have to scrutinize everything and it would get ridiculous. So while it is your choice as a parent to omit passages in a book, I don't think there is a cause for concern unless a book or movie is setting out to be a non-fiction account of adoption. And even then, many experiences are different.

  • In reply to jiyer:

    I found your blog by accident through a google search and then realized I have seen/known you about town for a few years now. Our kids play together at the gym. Small world. This is a fantastic blog. I especially appreciated your post about bullying and look forward to your book. Both you and Katie handled the situation with such grace and dignity.

    Regarding this post, I have shared similar situations with the two of our three children who joined out family through adoption. Sometimes I am genuinely surprised by what interests them and what upsets them. My eldest, for example, is fascinated by the musical, "Oliver". I thought, given her early years in an orphanage, that it would be hard for her to watch. I think, based upon our many conversations about it, that she is trying to remember her own life int he orphanage and is looking to "Oliver" to fill in the gaps. Given her desire to look to stories in literature and the movies to better imagine her own experience, it is especially important to us that these media handle the subject of adoption both realistically and sensitively. When they do not, we have to try and pick up the pieces.

    In our case, our adoption and their beginnings in the orphanage were very painful. When a movie comes along and treats adoption flippantly or casually, it belittles all involved. It is definitely a frustration we face regularly.

    I wrote a bit about our journey and some of the myths about adoption we have discovered just this morning. I'd be interested in your thoughts. http://www.lakeschooling.com/2011/05/truth-about-adoption.html

    I'll be back to read more!

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