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Social Attitudes Concerning Adoption

In many cultures, adoption of children stigmatizes both the adoptive parents and the adopted child. Adopted children are often tarred with the label of "bastard" or "bad blood", even by near-strangers who know nothing about their birth parents. Adoptive parents have to deal with whispers by neighbors and relatives, along the lines of "Adoptive parents cannot love a child as much as birth parents" or "Without blood ties, the relationship just cannot a 'true' parent child bond". Simply put, much of society just doesn't see adoptive parents as "real parents". Behind these criticisms is the common theme of genecism, that is, "your biology determines your destiny". Incidentally, genecism is also a key ingredient in modern racism.

'Friends' and neighbors blame common mistakes a child makes on his/her "adopted" status, for example, "he has 'bad genes', that's why he acts like that". Observers may attribute normal parent-child conflicts to the "adopter" status of the parent - "she is not the 'real' mother; she doesn't really love the child. Therefore they have these conflicts."

Given this constant stream of negative input from society, is it any surprise that some adoptive families encounter more problems? Some adoptive parents worry excessively about the "nature vs nurture" issue and some adopted children worry if their parents "really" love them. These torturous questions won't be as prominent if other people would just stop harping on them. It is possible that most problems in adoptive families do not originate within the family; they are caused by how society treats the family.

I've encountered people who do not know any adoptive families in person, but still think they are informed enough to spout bigoted remarks about adoptive families in public hearing. So I think it well to bring to attention a number of famous adoptive families in history and legend:

These lists are by no means exhaustive. There is a much longer list in FAMOUS AND REMARKABLE ADOPTEES, FOSTER CHILDREN AND OTHERS: A BIOGRAPHICAL DIRECTORY, compiled by Roger Ridley Fenton. Fenton's list differs from other "Famous Adoptees" web pages in that it includes people from all over the world (most other web sources are limited to the Western world). Fenton has reasons for creating this long list of famous adoptees and foster children (both historical and mythical):

Basically, because I think it could be a useful resource for adoptees, foster children, their parents and their teachers. Adoptees and foster children often feel isolated. Young adoptees, especially where they no longer have contact with the social services, may grow up not knowing any other adopted children, and may wonder whether they are unique. They may be ashamed of their status; they may not feel that they can aspire to high achievement; this list can help reassure them that they can aspire, that adoptees and fosterees have scaled the greatest heights of achievement. So just as there are lists of famous Black people, famous vegetarians, famous chess players, famous West Virginians and famous gay men and lesbians, now there is a list of high-flying adoptees and fosterees.

Social difficulties in adoption

In most Muslim countries, adoptions of children are a fuzzy legal issue. Some exceptions are Indonesia and Malaysia, which still retain a relatively adoption-friendly heritage from their pre-Islamic past. In Islamic law, children born of a Muslim marriage necessarily belong to the father. This fundamental principle makes it impossible for Muslim parents to adopt a child legally since adoption risks producing a fiction of paternity.1

In East Asian countries like Japan, China and Korea, adoption is a hush-hush matter. A woman from China related, "In China, most adoptive parents don't tell their children they are adopted, for fear that they will abandon them and return to their birth parents. In some cases, when the children are grown and find out who their birth parents are, they reject their adoptive parents and try to reunite with their birth parents." While the view of a layperson with no professional or personal knowledge of adoption issues should not necessarily be taken as authoritative, her statement reveals the predominant Chinese view that birth parents are the only "real" parents, and adoptive parents - no matter how much love and care they lavish on a child - don't really count. This attitude is also revealed in English language media in Chinese communities, which refers to birth parents as "real" parents.

In Korea too, secret adoption is the norm. The MPAK website describes:

Some Korean parents forbid their children from associating with adoptees for fear their children may be negatively influenced by the children who they consider are less than equal. Some parents will not permit their children to date or marry adoptees (or people with orphan backgrounds)...If an adoptee makes an ordinary mistake or gets into trouble, he/she is judged differently from their biological children who get into the same trouble.

...there have been many cases in Korea where some women faked pregnancy by stuffing soft pillows or cottons under their clothes to appear pregnant... When the time comes, she secretly goes away from the neighborhood for a while, supposedly to give birth to a child, and return a few months later with an infant in her arms, making others in the neighborhood to believe she has just given birth to a child.

Adoption-friendly cultures

However, not all cultures are adoption-unfriendly. Austronesian cultures (which includes Malayo-Indonesian and Pacific Islander cultures) are traditionally much more accepting of adoption than East Asian cultures. Such cultures show the rest of a world a model of what families can be.


In Malaysia, adoption in the Malay community bears little social stigma compare to adoption in the Chinese community. Among Malays, adoption of a relative's child by a childless couple is common.2 Transracial adoptions are not unheard of, and such adopted children are fully assimilated and accepted as Malays by the Malay community.


Adoption is very much accepted in Hawaiian society. In fact, the practice is so common that the word "hanai" (adoptee) appears in a Hawaiian phrase book for tourists. This continuing practice is described in Hawaii Attorney General Legal Opinion 93-01 Re: Entitlement of "Hanai" Children to Certain Benefits Available Under Chapter 88, Hawaii Revised Statutes":

The ancient Hawaiians cherished the principle of adoption, which took two forms: A child or adult one loves, but for whom one might not have exclusive care, might be adopted as a keiki ho'okama (child), or kaikua'ano ho'okama, kaikaina ho'okama, kaikuahine ho'okama, kaikunane ho'okama (adult). A child so adopted would be adopted as a child of the family, and entitled to inherit through his parents, while an adult would be adopted as a form of showing affection or respect. On the other hand, a keiki hanai is a child given to another to raise, as a foster child. O'Brien v. Walker, 35 Haw. 194, 128-30 (1939); Andrews and Parker, Hawaiian Dictionary 104, 158 (1922); Pukui and Elbert, Hawaiian Dictionary 52, 115 (1971). As adoption under statute replaced Hawaiian custom and usage, the term ho'okama has fallen into disuse and the term hanai has since been used to refer to all types of adoptions. Nevertheless the custom of giving children to grandparents, near relatives, and friends to raise whether legally or informally remains a strong one.

Adoption also featured prominently in Hawaiian royal families.3


The Maori have the traditional practice of Whangai, which is the raising of children by someone within the extended family other than the birth parents, and less commonly, the raising of a child in a non-related family.4 Since Maori tradition considered the whanau (extended family) and not nuclear family as the basic social unit, there was no stigma associated with being a tamaiti whangai. The traditional perspective is "there is no property in children. Maori children know many homes, but still, one whanau."5 The practice of whangai served a number of social purposes, including building bonds between families or between even larger communities, benefiting couples without children, temporarily relieving families under stress, or placing talented children under the mentorship of elders who could train them to be leaders or experts in various fields.6

Summing up

This quote from gives us some food for thought:

It isn't surprising that people contemplating starting or enlarging their family without the use of personal biology are often unsure of whether they can parent an adopted child as they would a child born to them... Long ago we figured out that the best response was "Does [your spouse] love you, even though s/he's not genetically related to you?". Turned out that most spouses were perfectly comfortable with that (also, fortunately, it turned out that most husbands and wives weren't genetically related!). In that case, we added, why couldn't one also love a child who was not genetically related?!

  1. Fatima Mernissi, The Forgotten Queens of Islam, p. 152
  2. Kuching in History
    The Encyclopedia of the Chinese Overseas, ed. Lynn Pan, under "Indonesia"
  3. The Royal Family of Hawaii
  4. The Maori Law Review - March 2000
  5. Maori Women - Caught in the Contradictions of a Colonized Reality
  6. Tamaiti Whangai -
    Maori Women - Caught in the Contradictions of a Colonized Reality
    The Maori Law Review - March 2000