Excerpt from H. David Kirk, Shared Fate: A Theory of Adoption and Mental Health, 1964

Source: Courtesy of H. David Kirk

The letter H. David Kirk used to request participation in his study. “You have helped us in the task of discovery concerning a unique and important institution, child adoption,” he wrote to adoptive parents. “I believe that in participating in our work you have also helped yourselves.”


We are now in a position to summarize the theoretical argument which has been developed in these six chapters.

1. Childless couples entering upon adoption are confronted with a series of difficulties which we identified as role handicap.

2. This role handicap is reinforced by the attitudes of other people.

3. In the form of parental dilemmas, the role handicap is carried into the evolving family relationship.

4. To cope with their role handicap and feelings of alienation, the adopters take recourse to various supports for their roles. These coping mechanisms appear to be of two types: those which serve the adopters in denying that their situation is different from that of biological parents (“rejection-of-difference”), and those which serve the adopters in acknowledging that difference (“acknowledgment-of-difference”).

5. The greater the original deprivation and the consequent role handicap suffered, the greater the likelihood that the adopters will lean toward mechanisms of coping by “rejection-of-difference”).

6. For all parents in our society, certain cultural goals may be assumed. There is no doubt that adopters, along with other parents, seek to have families of stability and permanence, yielding personal satisfactions. Stability requires rules of conduct. Families that are not regulated by tradition must depend on the interpersonal skills of their members for their internal order. In the situation of adoption, these skills imply empathic and ideational communication with the child about his background.

7. Adoptive parental coping activities of the type of “acknowledgment-of-difference” are conducive to good communication and thus to order and dynamic stability in adoptive families. Coping activities of the type of “rejection-of-difference” on the other hand can be expected to make for poor communication with subsequent disruptive results for the adoptive relationship. . . .



Summary of Mechanisms of Coping with Role Handicap

Coping mechanisms with apparently similar objectives have been placed side by side.

Rejection of Difference Acknowledgement of Difference
Changed Identity and Role Reaching for New Symbols of Identity and Role
  Desires for New Forms of Sanction
Infancy Adoption Adoption of Older Children
Simulation of the Biological Family The Heterogeneous Family
Guarding Adoption Secrets from Outsiders Announcement-Explanation-Education
  Group Membership as Role Support
Myth of Origin Defining Child's Status Celebration of Adoption Anniversary
Removal of Natural Parents' Image Admission of Natural Parents' Image
Shielding Child from His Origins Reciprocity in Parent-Child Problems
  Empathy in Parent-Child Problems
  Empathy with Child's Natural Parents
  Empathy with Adopted Child
“Forgetting” the Adoption Recall of Relative Deprivation
  Recall of Relative Satisfaction

Myth of Origin Defining the Adopters' Status

Emerging Role Models



Source: H. David Kirk, Shared Fate: A Theory of Adoption and Mental Health (New York: The Free Press of Glencoe, 1964), 98-99, 182-183.

Page Updated: 2-24-2012
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To learn more about The Adoption History Project, please contact Ellen Herman
Department of History, University of Oregon
Eugene, Oregon 97403-1288
(541) 346-3699
E-mail: adoption@uoregon.edu
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