Justine Wise Polier, “Attitudes and Contradictions in Our Culture,” 1960

While there is a growing appreciation of the culture, art and history of remote peoples in far distant lands, and other ages, there is still great resistance to appreciation of “strangeness” or “difference” in values, culture and the way of life of newcomers in our midst. There seems to be a prevailing assumption that the “newcomer” should automatically accept our values. There is little evidence that we are as concerned that we should adapt that which we find good in the culture of the newcomer as that he should adapt our culture in toto. . . .

This contradiction is also responsible for a far too narrow concept in many fields of service to children, where it is assumed that, either in foster care or adoptive placements, a child must “match” a family if the placement is to succeed. Here the contradiction is rationalized into a theory that proclaims that adults can only like children who look like themselves and have backgrounds similar to their own, a veritable ode to Narcissus. By accepting this theory, we even justify the denial of loving family care to children who look different, speak differently, or have cultural backgrounds different from the stereotype of the American majority. This bulldozer approach to the newcomer or the “different” child, which seeks to level the peaks of cultural differences in American life, has contributed to the tragic shortcomings of our services.

The American Indian child provides one startling example. Oldest and most truly American according to all snobbish attitudes, the Indian child, when found to be without family, is often left in a hospital for years and then shipped off to a remote Federal school without ties to his family, tribe, or any other family. The assumption is that looking different, being different, he will not be wanted by an “American” family. It is only recently that the Child Welfare League of America has begun to pierce this wall of prejudice that separates the American Indian child from the American community.

Again in adoption work throughout the country, too much emphasis has been placed on the need to match child and adoptive family. The attitude prevails that only those who are alike can really like or care for one another in terms of family life. As a result, we overlook and underestimate the ability of adults to accept and like a child for what he is, and to enjoy helping a child become what he can become.


Source: Justine Wise Polier, “Attitudes and Contradictions in Our Culture,” Child Welfare 39 (November 1960):1-2.

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To learn more about The Adoption History Project, please contact Ellen Herman
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