The phrase "one of a kind" takes on special meaning in adoption. There are many ways to look at it, from the uniqueness of each child to the often unique position that families may be in when they create a family by means of adoption.
In small-town America, an adopted child may very well be one of a kind. Since school children spend most of their time with other children their age, one adopted child can easily be the only one in her class. An adopted sixth grader's friends, for example, might consider her completely unique, since she is the only one they know who did not grow up in a biological family.
This child may grow up feeling that her adopted status is an asset, helping her to stand out and be counted as someone special. However, if she doesn't like or isn't used to the spotlight, she might view her adoption as something shameful. She may not want to be different from everyone else - she might just want to fit in with the crowd.
Adoptive parents, feeling secure and happy with the family they have created, might forget that adopted children could face problems related to their being adopted. These parents might not be aware that this difference makes a difference, and thus will not be able to tackle these issues before they erupt into full-blown ordeals.
I remember several children from my own childhood who were singled out negatively for being "different," from the German girl who couldn't quite pronounce words correctly, to the boy who wore the same jeans and sweatshirt every day, to the girl who wore thick, awkward glasses that made her eyes look disproportionately large. These were all unique children - as, of course, all children are. What made others treat them negatively was that these children stood out as different - that is, either their differences were more obvious, or they had the courage to let their uniqueness show. Simply because of this obviousness, they were labeled as freaky, strange, or less intelligent than most.
Children often receive the message very early, and very clearly, that being different is wrong. No matter what makes them unique, they may never want to reveal it for fear of what others might do or say in response. Most incidents of teasing originate in some way from a child's being "different." The little German girl was teased daily for months, until next fall when she and her family moved away. The boy who wore his favorite clothes every day was shunned by many as being "dirty" all throughout middle and high school. And the little girl with the big glasses was continually treated as "dumb," even though she was a straight-A student.
Such teasing happens every day and is often allowed to go too far. Who knows what effect it had on them at the time, and what effect it has on them to this day. Parents, teachers, and any adult in contact with children must pay much more attention to this problem. As adults, we are consistent models of behavior. If we do not provide positive examples of unique and successful people, and create more ways to celebrate being different, then we may easily model negative behavior.
But is it dangerous to celebrate being different? Historically speaking, humans have never looked at uniqueness as an advantage unless it later proved to benefit others in tangible, obvious ways. Sure, there are stories that inspire us - Amelia Earhart, the Wright Brothers, Galileo, Picasso, Rosa Parks - all stories of people who had the courage to stand out and be counted as unique, and later were rewarded with success, praise and fame.
But what about now? Children should be encouraged for their unique interests and qualities, however mundane they are, as long as they aren't hurting anybody. It would be a lot easier if adults would model such behavior themselves, instead of unconsciously perpetuating a negative attitude about being different.
It's our job as adults, as guardians, to be aware of what our children are/may soon be going through. Adopted children, as we now know, often share similar experiences and feelings throughout their lives. They may feel or be treated badly for being different. If we don't look out for signs of such treatment or negative feelings, we may never know about them.
Adoption families are different, even though they are as legitimate as any other kind of family, because history links adoption to shame, fear, and secrecy. Though times have changed, we still haven't fully examined the common misconceptions and negativity related to adoption. When we do, we'll disconnect from that outmoded way of being, and create new, more positive ways.
Until then, adoptive families should keep an eye out for special problems that their children might face because they are adopted. But it is not just adoptive families who must be involved. We must all focus more energy on telling children, including adopted children, that being different is okay.
November is adoption awareness month. This national focus on adoption should be used as a springboard for more communication and action. This month, go up to that adopted child you know and tell her you think it's great that she is adopted. Thank her for being in your life and for teaching you something new. Tell stories about adoption and adopted people, read books and watch movies that include adopted people or related themes.
If you don't know of any such stories, books, or movies, ask around. Make an effort to find them. Then tell everyone you know to find them, too.