A Little More on What Families Look Like

I’m still thinking about yesterday’s post–the whole story of the blond Roma children.   I’m inclined to agree with Kisrita when she says “the fact that a kid looks different should never be a cause for authorities to get involved unless you have clear evidence of wrongdoing” (that’s in the comments from yesterday)  but I’m afraid there’s some distance between should and is.   What I mean is that it does happen, even though I think it shouldn’t.

There are at least two different things I think about here–or maybe two different levels on which I think about the same thing.   First, there’s the  mere fact that different looking adult/child dyad can raise eyebrows or attract attention.   Second, there are the specific ways in which this plays out depending on the specific differences we observe.    I’m going to consider these in reverse order–second one first.

The second thing is very much about race.    So, for instance, a dark-skinned adult and a pale-skinned child might be assumed to be nanny/caretaker and child rather than parent and child.   If you switched the races (dark-skinned child/pale-skinned adult) I think you’d be much less likely to find that assumption made.   Some of this is discussed  in a new post on Code Switch–the NPR blog I mentioned yesterday.  And it is telling.   When an adult/child difference in appearance maps on to race-based stereotypes you get stark reactions.  So for example, the stereotype about Romas laid over the difference between adults and child created real problems.   People were especially quick to leap to an assumption of kidnapping (and then of child-selling) where they might not have absent the stereotypes attached to the Roma.

But there are problems even absent the dramatic play of race stereotypes. As the Code Switch post notes, parents and children who do not look like each other are frequently treated in ways that many would find demeaning, to say the least.   As the statistics in the Code Switch post suggest, this can easily include a lot of families.

It’s worth noting that there are many reasons why children and parents may not look (that much?) alike.   The Roma story out of Ireland demonstrates that even genetic parents and children can be quite different.  I assume (though I might be wrong) that this is more likely to be true in cross-racial relationships but even in intra-racial relationships (as the Roma’s seems to be) you can find striking difference.   Beyond genetics, though, there are all the blended/step-families and adoptive families and families conceived using third-party gametes.

All of these families are subtly (and not so subtly) undermined by our assumptions that parents and children should look alike.  I’m fairly confident that this causes pain and, at least in some cases, harm.    I’m include to echo the closing note of the Code Switch piece:

how long will it take for our perception that members of a normal family will “look like” each other to catch up with the way American families really look?

I don’t mean to minimize how difficult it is to move away from the automatic assumption that families look alike.   But I do think we should try to move away from it, because it just isn’t true.

I know that lying under here someplace is the fundamental divide between many who read/write here about how much and/or what genetics should mean.  For some, family relationships should follow from genetic relationships, and so perhaps the assumption of common appearance is somewhat more defensible.  (But see the dark Roma and the genetic but pale child.)   But those of us who think that families are defined by the way they function in the real world, there’s really no excuse for not trying to get beyond this assumption.

I don’t mean, by the way, to suggest that genetics is of no importance.  The question is really what its importance is.   And on that note, I think I’ll leave you all with this video clip from the New York Times Modern Love.   It’s an account of a woman who, after many years, was contacted by the genetic child she had given up for adoption.     It’s quite clear that the connection between them is important to both of them, but it isn’t a parent/child relationship.



12 responses to “A Little More on What Families Look Like

  1. The reason I am skeptical of those who tout the advantages of genetic modeling stems from my own experience.

    My father is about as dark as the Roma. I have light olive skin, but was a very blonde child. My genetic sister was much darker then I. Children at her elementary school asked if she was of Native American heritage.

    People told us all the time that we didn’t look like sisters. It was deeply annoying.

  2. people will look at things that seem unusual to them, but they can still mind their own business about it. Which i generally do. On line, i may be quite outspoken about certain things but in real life i keep silent unless i’m asked. I don’t go around asking people if htey had their kid by donor egg or adoption.

  3. Julie – have never met an adult adoptee who was searching for a parent child relationship. Rather a familial relationship. Although I suspect there is always going to be someone who is…

    People are always going to find topics to talk about – it’s the nature of random conversations. My last run in was meeting some of mom’s senior friends, and one was looking at us and you could see she was searching to find a commonality between the two of us – so she said I can see the resemblance between you…which there isn’t any whatsoever – we both laughed. I would rather she had just said something like you must take after your dad? or asked if I was adopted – because being adopted isn’t something to be ashamed of. I was actually surprised to find anyone who didn’t know we were all adopted – she must have moved to town well after we left home.

    If you want the public to accept that families don’t look alike, you also have to be open to being open about adoption or donor conceived. If it is okay for people to assume you are related – why isn’t it okay to assume you are adopted or donor conceived? Hiding something creates a feeling of “it’s shameful” – that was our belief anyway.

    • It was not uncommon for people to ask my sister and I if one of us were adopted when we were growing up, particularly if they had not yet met our parents and see the physical differences between them.

      But we were full genetic siblings, despite our physical differences.

      People are free to ask if they want, but as children we found it annoying. As kids we were close and would play together quite a bit. It made it feel as if people were questioning our family, or suggesting that one of us didn’t belong.

      • Tess if your parents had prepared you for the questions with explanations of why – would it have helped?

        Perhaps being adopted and being prepared made all the difference – plus I have an odd matter of fact personality. The bastard comments and stuff stung but never felt they reflected on whether or not we were family…

        • The comments about my sister’s skin color didn’t occur until after we moved from a large city to a area with a less diverse population. Dad did warn us that people were more provincial in that area.We understood that people can be racist.

          Once I was with my sister when a driver yelled out the window at my sister calling her a derogatory name for spanish-speaking people. We weren’t doing anything to draw attention, simply walking on the sidewalk. But that was a very uncommon event, and I don’t think my parents ever saw it.

          I don’t know if my parents saw how often people would ask us if we were sisters. Mostly if happened when we were out playing with friends, and, now that I think about it, it tended to be other children asking us about our relationship. Reflecting on it, I think my parents would have been surprised that anyone would have assumed we were not related.

        • I asked my mother about this on the phone today. She told me that people used to say she couldn’t possibly be the mother of my sister. She laughed about it over the phone. I hadn’t remembered that people questioned her relationship to my sister.

          It wasn’t until this discussion that I realized why I’m skeptical of the genetic link/ genetic modeling arguments. I grew up in a family where people questioned our relationships because of our physical differences.

  4. “For some, family relationships should follow from genetic relationships” Since your concern is law, not emotion and sentiment, whats say we totally eliminate genetics as the basis for parental responsibility and familial connection.

    CDC mandates the collection of information about people and their parents at birth because that information is vital information about the individuals named on the record and it is vital information for their relatives and is vital information about the health of the general population statistically. CDC does not want copies of the revised records that name adopting parties as parents because it is not a real vital medical record. It is not an accurate representation of the reproductive health of the individuals named as parents nor is it an accurate representation of the true origin of the person the certificate is issued for. Why not get rid of the birth certificate if we are not concerned about who is reproducing and who is not. If we really don’t care how someone came to obtain the child they are raising then we should just let people obtain children from whatever channels they are able and let them to private transfers of title registered with the Tax assessor instead of CDC.

    Everyone could just be issued a birth code like KaiserSF-002-2013-10-31 and be done with it. No parents named.

    While we are at it why not eliminate the requirement for people to be held financially responsible as parents for their own offspring. Get rid of paternity testing altogether.

    No child should be entitled to citizenship or financial support from either genetic parent.

    There that’s better. What should we use to determine who a minor is entitled to receive support from? The woman that gave birth and her spouse? Not all women have spouses, that’s unfair to the child. So just the woman who gave birth? Nobody else ever. Step parents only and only during marriage through joint income. That’s fair. But be sure not to record the woman on a vital record not on a birth certificate because there is no guarantee she’s the child’s actual mother so it should not be used as a medical record.

    Lets also stop asking people for their family medical histories.

  5. DNA does not make a family, it is evidence of a familial relationship and generally what flows from familial relationships is the obligation to provide and a right to support. Correct? Is that because of the DNA? No. It’s because of assigning responsibility based upon action.

    If your son got a girl pregnant and you found out I believe you would not want him to hide from his responsibility to support and provide for his child once born even if he had hidden the fact of his girlfriend’s pregnancy from you and was a shmuck and ignored her for 9 months. I bet you’d march his 17 18 or 19 year old but to her house with diapers and clothing carriages and cribs and whatever else she needed because he caused a dependent child to exist. It may have been the girls idea to go through with the pregnancy despite his support while pregnant but I bet you would not encourage him to ignore his responsibility once the child existed.

    DNA is just evidence of who reproduced and who should be standing up and being accountable for a dependent minor. Nobody can reproduce another human being and no human being can exempt themselves from personal responsibility for their own reproductive behavior. You could hand your gametes to someone else and say do with them what you will I have no further responsibility but in the end you will be the one who winds up with offspring not them and in such a case are not being forced to reproduce you do so knowingly and willingly.

    It is important that minors right to be supported by the people who caused them to be dependent be protected by law. It is furthermore important that minors be protected from exploitation by people who caused them to exist in that dependent position because sometimes they’ll sell them, or give them as gifts or trade them for something they want more than responsibility for a dependent minor. And this is why it is important to keep track of who has offspring and who does not and also important to identify which offspring came from which individuals because graft and exploitation are very possible despite the blood ties that you think I love so much. I don’t think it makes them good parents, I think it makes them parents which gives them the power to do terrible things to their children and that children broadly deserve protection from that and adults broadly deserve protection of kinship rights within their genetic families.

    You seem mostly concerned with creating permanent kinship rights between people and those that raised them off the books when their parents failed to care for them themselves. I think the only way this should happen is out in the open where the reproducing parents are still identified and held accountable as parents – where their failure to provide support is documented and treated accordingly and where any new kinship that arises does not cancel out legal recognition of the person’s kinship in their own biological family.

  6. Was’t fishy appearances what led to Elizabeth Smart and Jaycee Dugard’s discoveries?

    I know people look at white people with children of other races and know or at least think they are adopted, which I think is fine because people are computing in their head that there is probably a legitimate court approved adoption or foster placement behind the person being in possession o that child or that it’s just a friend’s kid. I hardly think anyone can take offense to that. People are quickly ascertaining the legitimacy of the person having control of a child who appears to have other parents somewhere else. The issue with the Roma’s I suppose was that their custody was assumed not to be approved in court.

    The paternal grandmother of my friend’s son is black and runs a daycare in the projects. Really nice place and I know she’s had white foster kids before. I’m sure people assume her custody of them is legit out in public but I doubt they are jumping to the correct assumption about the reason they’re calling her mom or grandma. She actually had custody of my friend’s son for a while in the beginning but one look would tell you they are related despite being fairly white with green eyes he looks just like his father who is black.

  7. Isn’t this exactly why epigenetics and a longer-term genetic history are important? Lots of characteristics skip a generation (my hair colour comes from my grandparents not my parents for example).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s