The other day I was working at a coffee shop while my son was at his karate practice. A family of three, including a mom, dad and what appeared to be their four-year old, were getting ready to leave. The little girl was stalling, as little girls are wont to do, and as the parents began the familiar negotiation of trying to get a child to cooperate, Mom says to her daughter, “If you don’t get your coat on, we’re going to leave you here, and you’ll be adopted by strangers. I don’t know who they will be, but you’re going to have to live with them. Look, your dad is leaving. Better hurry up or you’ll have to live with strangers.”
I immediately posted this on my Twitter and Facebook page, resulting in a very interesting conversation on Facebook. Almost immediately several adoptee friends responded with comments like, “oh hell no!” and the expected chorus of “What the…”, etc. But one of the details I held back for a few minutes was the race and ethnicity of the family, because I had a feeling it was a detail that mattered.
Threatening to put a child up for adoption if they don’t behave or cooperate is not a new phenomenon and I think it’s probably uttered from parents who have absolutely no intention of ever following through. As a coercive parenting strategy it is, of course to many of us who were adopted or have adopted, extremely offensive and I wondered aloud if it was a particular cultural parenting strategy.
The family in this story, from my observation, appeared to be South Asian Indian. Both parents had heavy accents, their daughter did not. I might assume (incorrectly perhaps) that the parents were first generation or 1.5 generation immigrants because of the accent, although I know that is not reliable evidence. I have heard from other children of immigrant parents similar threats of abandonment.
That this threat works is telling – as one friend on Facebook said, “Is it possible that such a threat would be used by an immigrant family because the risk of being taken and “adopted by strangers” is or was real in their country? In that context it might have been a true warning at one time that, over time, has become colloquial. This isn’t to say it’s an appropriate phrase to use to admonish a child, rather to find a rational reason someone might say it.” I also wondered about that, it was my first reaction.
A few friends who are children of immigrant families chimed in and I thought their comments were really worth thinking more in depth. They talked about cultural contexts for these threats. One said, “I think it is to remind a child to understand the value of parents and to use shame to enforce attachment. In certain cultural context, it is not as horrid as it sounds to American ears. I’m not saying that I would ever say to my kids but I think context is important, particularly individualistic vs collectivistic cultures.” Another responded, “this is a common threat among immigrant families. My parents did not say this to me (at least I don’t remember hearing it) but as an immigrant child growing up around other immigrant families I did hear this from time to time…the difference is context.”
Regardless of the reasons the threat of leaving a child to be adopted by strangers (or a more active threat of “putting you up for adoption”) is uttered to a child, or the race or culture of the person saying it, I think this threat says a lot about how we have constructed adoption; that adoption is the child’s fault and that adoption is a bad thing. There is also an acknowledgment in this comment that there is nothing that could be worse for a child than to have to live with strangers away from the comfort and love of his biological parents. How deep these thoughts are embedded in our cultures! What are the differences between cultural groups and in which cultures might this be seen as acceptable and which are not? Are there differences across socioeconomic class as well? Some friends said they’ve heard this from white families too and that it’s not just immigrant families. I recall hearing the phrase “sold to Gypsies” as a threat back in my childhood too – do people still say that?
I have known adoptees whose adoptive parents have threatened to “send them back” and as we know all too well, there are some who have followed through and literally “returned” their adopted children a la Torry Hansen. If anything, this threat is effective because it gets to a fundamental fear of abandonment. As someone who was adopted, it hits way too close to home.