Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Issues on Adoptive Parents and the Non-biological Link to their Adopted Children

Contemporary legal and scholarly debates emphasize the importance of biological parents for children’s well-being. Scholarship in this vein often relies on stepparent families even though adoptive families provide an ideal opportunity to explore the role of biology in family life. In this study, we compare two-adoptive-parent families with other families on one key characteristic—parental investment. Using data from the Early
Childhood Longitudinal Study, Kindergarten-First Grade Waves (ECLS-K), basic group comparisons reveal an adoptive advantage over all family types. This advantage is due in part to the socioeconomic differences between adoptive and other families. Once we control for these factors, two-adoptive-parent families invest at similar levels as two-biological-parent families but still at significantly higher levels in most resources than other types of families. These findings are inconsistent with the expectations of sociological family structure explanations, which highlight barriers to parental investment in nontraditional families, and evolutionary science’s kin selection theory, which maintains that parents are genetically predisposed to invest in biological children. Instead, these patterns suggest that adoptive parents enrich their children’s lives to compensate for the lack of biological ties and the extra challenges of adoption.

Adoptive families provide a critical case for evaluating the importance of oft-assumed biological ties between parents and children. Because they operate outside the context of biological kinship, adoptive families allow us to reconsider why and how family members provide for each other. In particular, adoptive families are well-suited for investigating the mechanisms behind parents’ allocation of resources to their children. Although scholars conceptualize parental investment differently, parental resources and practices are generally thought to play a crucial role in educational and occupational outcomes. Understanding what underlies the process of parental investment can help deter-mine how family structure benefits or hinders children’s life chances.

Sociological work on parental investment examines diverse American family forms such as stepfamilies, single-parent families, and biracial families; however, little is known about how the adoptive parent-child relationship influences levels of parental investment. This is perplexing given the ongoing public debates surrounding the meaning of family and who counts as family. Adoptive families intersect with many interesting family types—notably those formed through interracial and same-sex parenting—that have received increasing attention in recent years. Additionally, 2–4 percent of all American households include an adoptive child—a number that is projected to increase over time.

In this article, we use data from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, Kindergarten-First Grade Waves (ECLS-K), the first data set to provide a workable, nationally representative sample of adoptive families and to include a broad set of parental investments in the formative years of children’s development. These data permit a systematic comparison of adoptive parental investments with those by parents from other family structures. We broadly define parental investment to include the economic, cultural, social, and interactional resources that parents provide for their children. As some parental resources may have the greatest impact during the first few years of schooling, we look at children during their first grade year.

The following two questions guide our study:
1. How do resource allocations to children in two-adoptive-parent families compare to those of two-biological-parent families and other alternatively structured families?
2.How does the inclusion of socio-demographic factors alter the relationship between adoptive family structure and the allocation of resources to children?

This paper adds to a small but growing socio-logical literature on adoptive families. Over the past few decades, sociological research has expanded beyond the traditional nuclear family to include a variety of alternative family forms. Still, adoptive families remain under-studied by sociologists . This is not an accident. Limited availability of nationally representative data on adoption undermines the potential for productive sociological research and leaves work on adoption up to other disciplines such as psychiatry, psychology, and social work. These studies often rely on clinical populations that are more likely than the general population to exhibit problems, and they implicate the absence of biological ties between parents and children as a source of pathology; for an exception. In this study, we use a nonclinical, nationally representative sample to assess the assumptions that are often present in work on adoptive families.

Our work also follows that in questioning the re-emerging consensus among some social scientists that the traditional, two-biological-parent household is in the best interests of children. The implicit point of much empirical work on single-parent families and stepfamilies concerns “intact” biological families. For example, “The weight of the evidence strongly suggests that growing up without two biological parents in the home increases children’s risk of a variety of cognitive, emotional, and social problems”. Scholarship in this vein typically concludes that the absence of a biological parent and/or the presence of a non-biological parent are linked to lower levels of resource allocation, education-al attainment, and socioeconomic success for children.

The implications of these conclusions go beyond scholarly debate. Recent court cases regarding same-sex marriage cite this body of research as evidence of the superiority of biological parenthood and, in turn, as a compelling rationale for the current legal definitions of marriage. For example, in Andersen v. KingCounty (138 P. 3d 963, 969 [Wash. 2006]),which upheld a state law banning same-sex marriage, Justice Barbara A. Madsen of the Washington Supreme Court held that: “Limiting marriage to opposite-sex couples furthers pro-creation essential to the survival of the human race, and furthers the well-being of children by encouraging families where children are reared in homes headed by the children’s biological parents”.

Several theories inform the research emphasizing the importance of biological family structures for children’s well-being. A dominant theoretical paradigm in sociological research links alternative family structures to increased stressors that impede family functioning. Other disciplines, and an increasing body of sociological work, rely on theories that highlight evolutionary predispositions. These two theoretical frameworks, which we refer to as family structure explanations and kin selection theory, are accepted by many as underpinning processes of resource allocation among different family forms. We also discuss alternative explanations that emphasize an environment of evolutionary adaptedness (EEA), compensatory mechanisms among adoptive parents, and selectivity processes such as the indirect influence of a family’s socio-demographic characteristics. By evaluating the degree to which these theoretical perspectives comport with our results, we hope to better understand the processes that may drive parental investment.

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