KeywordsParental Care Related Child Adoptive Family International Adoption Complex Decision Process
What child traits influence parents’ desire to adopt?
Adoption is a complex behavior that can take many forms and offer many functions. There are numerous factors that influence an adoption, including cultural norms, parent’s traits and resources, and the social and legal parameters surrounding adoption. One important potential influence on parents’ decision to adopt is information about the children themselves. In particular, cues of resemblance/kinship, age, and child attributes can all influence the desire to adopt a child. From an evolutionary perspective, each of these traits can influence the costs and potential outcomes of an adoption, making them highly relevant to adoption decisions.
Evolutionary theory suggests that parents should invest in related children so long as the cost to themselves (i.e., their own genes) is offset by the benefit to the shared genes in the related children (Trivers 1972). This means that for many parents, cues of resemblance or kinship will be high on the list of preferred traits in an adoption (Volk and Quinsey 2002). The most likely circumstances for this form of adoption are when one or both of the parents die (Halbmayer 2004), a not uncommon event in the evolutionary past (Volk and Atkinson 2008), or when they are incapable of caring for a child (a more recent likelihood; Scelza and Silk 2014; Stolley 1993; Testa 2004). Under these circumstances, the related adopting parent functions enable the survival of the related child (a large benefit) for a relatively modest cost (a smaller cost than birthing and raising one’s own child – particularly if the child is older). This is likely a relatively ancient pattern of behavior as chimpanzees have been observed to adopt younger siblings if they are maternally related (Hobaiter et al. 2014). In these circumstances, resemblance is likely to exist to some degree due to shared genetics. In North America, just under half of all adoptions are by kin who are supporting children with a living parent (Stolley 1993), while 31 % of fostered children are raised by kin (Testa 2004). These numbers might well be higher as many families rely on informal systems of adoption and fosterage to support ill-equipped biological parents. Thus kinship appears to be an important motivating factor in adoption.
But clearly, known kinship is not the only motivation behind adoption given that at least half of adoptions in North America occur with parents adopting unrelated children. Under these circumstances, cues that suggest resemblance and kinship may still matter. Many adoption practices are well aware of most parents’ desire to adopt children who resemble them physically and/or behaviorally and often attempt to simulate or generate that resemblance (Hamilton et al. 2007; Howell 2006). A North American social worker was quoted by Wegar (2000, pg. 367) as saying “We also try to match physical appearance. I had one family that I was able to match a child, a little girl, with a family that the mother looked remarkably like a biological parent. I mean, if you look at the pictures you would think that they were related… It was a fantastic match…because the child looks like she belongs to the family…we make an effort to match people in terms of physical appearance, in terms of values…religious believes, those sorts of things.”
Both men and women express a greater desire to hypothetically adopt a child that resembles them (Volk and Quinsey 2002, 2007). Families invest more in offspring who are genetically related than in unrelated children (Gibson 2009). Facial cues have received the most attention, in part because they are at least moderate predictors of actual genetic relatedness (Alvergne et al. 2007).
Interestingly, numerous studies have documented that men value cues of resemblance more than women do in a hypothetical adoption paradigm (Volk 2009; Volk and Quinsey 2002, 2007). From an evolutionary perspective, this may be due to the fact that men face paternity certainty risks, while no such risks occur for birth mothers, making men in general more sensitive toward cues of paternity (Alvergne et al. 2009). Anecdotally, during the 1990s when Western adoption of Chinese infants was highly pervasive, it is widely believed that the Chinese government deliberately matched children with adoptive families based on the resemblance of the child to the adopting father (Volk 2011).
Another crucial cue for adoption is age. From an evolutionary perspective, older children are much more likely to survive than younger children (Volk and Atkinson 2013). Thus, it is something of a paradox that adopting parents strongly prefer to adopt younger children (Howell 2006; Stolley 1993; Volk 2011). Adults also show a preference toward hypothetically adopting children with younger-looking faces (Luo et al. 2011; Volk et al. 2005). Among older children, adults prefer cues of immature behavior (Blasi et al. 2015). Older adopted children are more likely to be raised by kin than non-kin (Volk 2011), presumably to offset the costs of adopting an older child with the benefits of adopting one who is genetically related.
Thus, child age presents an apparent paradox – why would adults prefer to adopt younger children who are less likely to survive? One proposed answer is that younger children allow parents more flexibility in shaping a child’s behavior and identity to fit their own (Hamilton et al. 2007; Howell 2006). This may be less important for kin, explaining part of the reason why they would be willing to adopt older children (Talle 2004). An alternative answer is that infants have evolved facial cues that are more effective in soliciting parental care than older children because of their greater need for parental care (Volk et al. 2007). Lorenz (1943) termed these cues as “kinderschema” and noted that they are present in nonhuman species as well. In all likelihood, the influence of age likely represents a combination of these factors, as adults prefer the malleability of younger children while simultaneously being more affected by more effective solicitation of care by younger facial cues.
Health is another important cue for parents as it is a signal that relates to both the potential costs (investment) and benefits (survival) of parental care (Volk and Quinsey 2002). Given the very levels of infant and child mortality in the environment of evolutionary adaptedness (~26 % and 47 %, respectively; Volk and Atkinson 2013), it is not surprising that cues of good health are positively associated with a desire to adopt while cues of poor health are not (Volk et al. 2005; Waller et al. 2004). Most national (vs. international) adoptions in Western countries tend to involve children who are at a higher risk of having physical and/or mental issues (Stolley 1993). In contrast, international adoptions are often used as a means of reducing or even eliminating the higher health risks associated with national adoption (Howell 2006; Miller 2005). Among hunter-gatherers and pre-modern societies, cues of low health were potentially lethal signals that could result in infanticide or abandonment of infants (Cunningham 2005; Silk 1990). Nevertheless, it is worth nothing that in comparison to cues of youthfulness, that are themselves associated with lower health, health is a weaker predictor of adoption preferences (Volk et al. 2007).
Yet another important cue for parents in adoption scenarios is cuteness or attractiveness. Anecdotally, cuter children are more likely to be adopted than less attractive children in actual adoptions (Volk 2011). This is backed up by research showing a cross-cultural preference for cute children (Volk 2009; Volk and Quinsey 2002). In contrast to resemblance, the appeal of cuteness appears to be stronger for women than for men (Volk and Quinsey 2002). The appeal of cuteness may relate to the display of good genes that signal a valuable investment (Volk and Quinsey 2002). It is therefore not surprising that cues of cuteness are strongly correlated to both younger age and positive health (Volk et al. 2007).
To summarize, adoption is a complex behavior that can have multiple forms and functions. It appears to be influenced by a range of infant and child characteristics including relatedness, age, cuteness, and health. Generally speaking, adults appear to be motivated both by cues that signal the benefits of adoption (e.g., genetic relatedness), the costs of adoption (e.g., poor health), and the mitigating factors on those costs and benefits (e.g., cuteness as an indication of good genes and young age as an indicator of familial malleability). These preferences are undoubtedly only part of a complex decision process that involves other parental, social, and economic factors. Nevertheless, it does appear that there are consistent patterns of adoption preferences that hold across cultures and history and that these preferences are generally aligned with adaptive evolutionary outcomes.
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