Excerpt from Benson Jaffee and David Fanshel, How They Fared in Adoption, 1970


A long-standing and basic working assumption in the field of adoption placement has been that the telling of “the adoption story” to the child is one of the central and most critical tasks confronting adoptive parents. Both the recent literature and the reexamination of practice on the part of some agencies have revealed that the optimal timing, content, and manner of handling revelation are still unresolved issues. Little question, however, seems to have been raised that the need to resolve these issues in some way is one of the primary and unique responsibilities of adoptive parenthood which sets it apart from biological parenthood and that the kind of resolution arrived at by adoptive parents may well have great implications for the adoptee’s future psychosocial adjustment.

In the light of these assumptions, our findings concerning the revelation practices of our one hundred adoptive families and the bearing of these practices upon subsequent adoption outcome are rather challenging. We discovered first of all that the way parents dealt with revelation was by and large a reflection of a more basic underlying orientation to child rearing in general. Families which tended to take a sheltering approach to the general upbringing of their children—e.g., supervising closely, not encouraging the development of autonomy and independence, etc.—were also likely to de-emphasize the adoption component in their children’s lives. They tended to postpone revelation, to give minimal information about the child’s biological background, to decrease the visibility of the adoptive status, and, in effect, to simulate a biological parent-child relationship. On the other hand, parents with a less protective orientation toward the rearing of children were likely also to be more “open” about adoption, to reveal more information about natural parents, and to acknowledge freely the nonbiological nature of their relationship with the adoptee. Revelation, in other words, tended not to take place as a separate and isolated parental activity but rather as an integral part of the overall task of the raising of children.

We were struck by our finding that the prevailing pattern among our group of families had been to withhold from their children most or all information concerning the latter’s biological parents and the circumstances leading to adoption. Seven in ten families reported that they had coped in this manner with the problem of the content of revelation although there were distinct differences in this regard among families who had adopted through different agencies. Only 12 percent of the parents had shared with their children the true facts of adoption as they knew them.

It is important to realize that these data offer no basis for assessing the relative merits of full versus minimal revelation. Nor are we aware of any rigorous research which might shed meaningful light upon this knotty question. It may well be, however, that it is not so much what and how much is revealed to the adoptee that is the decisive factor in the impact of revelation upon him as it is with the degree of comfort or ease his parents experience with their choice of approach. We would suspect that adoptive couples could choose to divulge everything they know about the adoptee’s biological background or almost nothing and carry off either posture well or poorly depending upon the amount of anxiety it entailed for them. That stance which is most congenial to their emotional-psychological make-up, i.e., which is most ego-syntonic for them, may in the last analysis also be the most positive and constructive one for the adoptee with respect to his subsequent psychosocial adjustment.

We learned with some surprise that only a single aspect of revelation was definitely associated with the nature of adoptive outcome. Adoptees who showed marked curiosity about their biological past and desired to learn more about it than their adoptive parents knew or were willing to divulge tended to manifest a more problematic adjustment in a variety of life-space areas. None of the other ostensibly important aspects of “the telling”—the timing of the initial revelation, the nature and amount of material revealed, or the frequency of subsequent allusion to adoption—was appreciably correlated with outcome.

We consider this finding (as well as the foregoing data suggesting the nonparamount role of revelation in the child-rearing behavior of our adoptive couples) to be among the most important and provocative findings to emerge from our study. Because they run counter to some fundamental assumptions of adoption placement practice, we believe they are suggestive of the need for further investigation of the dynamics of revelation in adoptive families and its influence on the subsequent life adjustment of adopted children.


Source: Benson Jaffee and David Fanshel, How They Fared in Adoption: A Follow-Up Study (New York: Columbia University Press, 1970), 311-313.

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