Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Discussions on Issues on Adaptive Parents and their Adaptive Children

Several predominant social scientific theories predict that the absence of biological parents or the presence of a non-biological parent is detrimental to the normative functioning of families and the well-being of children. This prediction has public policy implications: recent court decisions rely in part on the presumed irreplaceable bond between biological parents and their children to uphold the constitutionality of laws banning same-sex
marriage. Nearly all of the research supporting this claim, however, refers to differences between two-biological-parent and step- or single-parent families. Here, we demonstrate that the absence of a biological tie between parents and their children does not unequivocally constitute a disadvantage in at least one key family process—the allocation of resources to young children. We find that the two-adoptive-parent family structure is remark-ably similar to the two-biological-parent family structure in that it provides adoptive children an advantage over children in other alternative family structures.

Our analyses indicate that adoptive parents allocate more economic, cultural, social, and interactional resources to their children than do parents in all other family types. Their high levels of investment are due, in part, to their greater levels of income, education, and older maternal age. When these socio-demographic characteristics are controlled for, an adoptive advantage still remains. Two-adoptive-parent families invest as much and, in some cases of marginal significance, more in their children than do two-biological-parent families, holding all else equal. The adoptive advantage becomes more apparent in comparison with children from other alternative family types. Net of socio-demographic characteristics, adoptive families invest significantly more than at least one alternative family type for most resources included in our analyses. Regardless of the family types to which they are compared, two-adoptive-parents’ higher levels of investment are spread across all four types of resources.

There is one exception to the pattern described above. Models that include socio-demographic controls indicate that adoptive parents are significantly less likely than biological parents to talk regularly with the parents of other children. This finding supports prior research that highlights the cultural importance assigned to a particular parenthood experience: adoptive parents may lack experiences with their children’s birth and early months/years that make bonding with other parents difficult. Additionally, they may be less likely to identify talking with other parents as something that directly helps their children. Thus, they may not direct the same level of effort to this specific resource.

Earlier, we presented several theoretical perspectives that could address the question of how two-adoptive-parent families’ resource allocations to their children compare to those of other families. These analyses generally are consistent with socioeconomic explanations and compensation theory. Adoptive parents’ higher levels of income and education, and their advanced age, increase the level in which they invest in their children. However, these factors facilitate adoptive parental investment but cannot explain the advantage that remains over other alternative family structures with the inclusion of socio-demographic controls. Compensation theory suggests that a social context favoring biological parenthood will disadvantage adoptive parents but they will overcome this obstacle as they work toward becoming ideal parents. Their efforts should mitigate factors that might otherwise reduce levels of parental investment. As a result, two-adoptive-parent families will invest in their children at the same or higher levels as two-biological-parent families and at a higher level than do all other alternatively structured families, net of all socioeconomic resources.

Compensation theory reveals an interesting paradox. Individuals who are not granted the title of “parent” via biology may actually fulfill (and even exceed) the accompanying expectations better than those who have been accorded this title. Research on adoption suggests that three potential factors may combine to create this effect. First, the primacy of genetic ties in American society may create a social climate in which adoptive family structures are devalued. The stigma surrounding their family form may cause many adoptive parents to struggle with presenting themselves as “real” parents. Second, adoptive parents are likely to encounter and incorporate the belief that adoptive children will face intellectual, social, and emotional difficulties growing up. Sensitivity to their children’s real or perceived needs may lead adoptive parents to allocate resources to allay such difficulties and absolve themselves of any blame. Finally, adoptive parents may enter into parenthood with greater levels of commitment than do other parents. The lengthy adoptive process itself may facilitate parental investment in children.

Theories that highlight compensatory mechanisms do not deny that adoptive families face unique challenges or that social stigma negatively affects the experiences of adoptive families. In fact, there is ample research on adoption that recognizes the complexity of this relation-ship—pointing out the unique struggles and benefits of this family form. Literature suggesting that adoptive parents struggle to be “perfect parents” provides a good example. Experts depict this as a particular challenge rather than as a strength—one that is rooted in feelings of powerlessness, guilt, and illegitimacy as parents. Therefore, some of the same issues that cause adoptive parents to invest in the first place may temper their high levels of investment. They may increase their parental efforts so as to contradict considerable social and psychological barriers to operating as culturally supported two-biological-parent family forms might.

Notably, these findings do not square with two prominent theories of family investment—sociological family structure explanations and evolutionary science’s kin selection theory. Family structure explanations highlight similar challenges to adoptive family functioning as do compensation theory explanations. The predicted outcome of these challenges, however, is much different: family structure explanations suggest that any deviation from the institutionalized, traditional, two-biological-parent structure may result in lower levels of investment by parents. What some might interpret as a scientific stamp-of-approval for traditional families ultimately may contribute to a social context in which other family forms are marginalized, have less support, and are unsure of how to operate as a “family.”

Our research indicates that alternative family structures do not necessarily result in a disadvantage for children, and, in certain cases, alternative family structures may contribute to greater parental allocation of resources to children. This finding is part of a growing recognition of the strengths demonstrated by alternative family structures. The resources provided by parents in biracial families are generally greater than those provided by parents of corresponding races in mono-racial families. The limited scholarship on gay and lesbian parents similarly suggests that their children may be less traditionally gender-typed, have greater ability to express their feelings, and possess more empathy for social diversity—qualities that many would deem as positive. In addition, adopted adults—like adults from two-biological-parent families—show advantages in terms of educational achievement, employment success, and asset accumulation over adults raised in all other alternative family configurations. Further research should consider the ways that nontraditional family structures positively—as well as negatively—affect the children in them.

These results also do not comport well with kin selection theory—a central tenet of evolutionary science. One of the impediments in encouraging dialogue between evolutionary science and sociology is the difficulty in locating empirically testable questions of interest to scholars in both fields. Adoptive parental investment is one such question that provides some leverage on kin selection theory. Although not disallowing for individuals’ conscious decisions to invest or not invest in children, kin selection theory states that, in general, parents will direct their investments to biological progeny. Consequently, this theory suggests that adoptive parents as a group will invest at lower rates than will other parents. Our analyses indicate that, in fact, the reverse is true: adoptive parents invest in their children as much if not more than do biological parents.

Because these findings are restricted to a specific case (adoptive families) in a specific context (the contemporary United States), they should not be interpreted as categorically negating the long-standing kin selection theory or denying the potential role that biology may play in family life. Rather, our study suggests that the presence of non-biological parents (or absence of biological parents) alone may not cause lower parental investment. These findings thus call for a reconsideration of evolutionary theories as the sole explanations for parental investment in other family structures, such as step-families. The role of biology should be understood as powerfully mediated by social context. What counts as a “family” and the approval or stigma surrounding particular family forms may have great import for how biology ultimately does or does not matter for parental investment.

Although our findings are not congruous with kin selection theory, some of the results can be seen as compatible with some evolutionary psychologists’ claims that cognitive and physiological mechanisms developed in the EEA are no longer adaptive. These scientists posit that kin selection mechanisms among adoptive parents may misfire, causing them to invest in adoptive children as if they were biological children. This is consistent with our finding of high levels of investment on the part of adoptive parents. However, this account also logically implies that parents across all parental structures—including step-households—should invest similarly in response to an innate love for children. In other words, if the predisposition to invest in children is indiscriminate, then parental investment in children should be indiscriminate. Yet, while evolutionary psychologists might use this reasoning to account for adoptive parents’ investments, they also see lower investments by stepparent households as evidence for the general tenets of evolutionary theory. We question the extent to which the same social and historical context can be interpreted as both supportive of and unsuited for kin selection. It is difficult to argue that large scale economic and cultural changes in the United States, such as the move to post industrialism and the development of the institution of marriage, have not affected all families. We contend that this evolutionary argument is most persuasive when evoked on the basis of specific temporal, historical, and geographical locations rather than on a case-by-case or post hoc basis. If used to delineate the scope conditions of kin selection rather than explain away contradictory findings, the EEA could have great analytical value.

Admittedly, this study is limited by issues of selectivity that affect virtually all family research. Family life does not easily lend itself to experimental design; most scholarship identifies the consequences of parental structure through analyzing the behaviors of individuals already in them. We cannot, therefore, assume that becoming an adoptive, step, or single parent will cause any given individual to behave in a certain way. Additionally, elements of selectivity are at work in every family structure. For example, stepfamilies are formed only after the dissolution of at least one marriage or relationship, making it difficult to separate out the effects of divorce from those of being in a step-family. Recent research also indicates that step-fathers are significantly different from other men—having lower levels of education, less income, and lower rankings on the marriage market. In the absence of adequate controls for the vicissitudes of family life, we account for the same socio-demographic factors as others, even additional ones, in order to address the issue of selectivity. Ultimately, to the extent that one is willing to accept the viability of research on stepfamilies(and single-parent families) used to support family structure and kin selection theory, the same standards should be applied to work on adoptive families.

Our findings indicate that social scientists still have much to learn about how family structure advantages or disadvantages children. We find little support for well-established theoretical frameworks, but we do find promise in compensation theory to explain our findings. Although some research on biracial families hints at the presence of compensatory mechanisms for parental investment, we know little about how this theory applies across other alternative family forms. Lesbian and gay parents—facing high levels of discrimination, homophobia, and stigma—may also engage in compensatory parenting mechanisms that benefit their children. Ironically, the same social context that creates struggles for these alternative families may also set the stage for them to excel in some measures of parenting.

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