defining “orphan culture”

I’m preparing to lead a workshop at the upcoming Idea Camp, and one of the aspects of my research is looking into the idea of “orphan culture”.   Culture is a huge topic of discussion in adoption circles: cultural loss, cultural heritage, cultural identity . . . and when we talk about it, we are invariably referring to a child’s racial or ethnic background.  As prospective adoptive parents we spend considerable energy educating ourselves on bridging the culture gap.  But as our Haitian son joined our family, what emerged as the greatest obstacle had very little to do with culture in the traditional sense.  It was the culture of family life that was most foreign to Kembe.


I don’t want to minimize the importance of a child’s cultural heritage and losses.  But I have to ask: does it really matter if we learn to make the perfect diri kole (or kimbap or injera) and remain oblivious to the ways our home environments and family systems are completely foreign?  Especially to a child who has spent most (or all) of his life in an orphanage or group home setting?

This is what I am really hoping to explore at Idea Camp.  We have a wealth of academic literature that tells us that institutionalized care is not best practice for the development of the psyche – but we live in a broken world and group care is an inevitable solution for the current orphan crisis.  It is also a solution in the US – though we substitute the word “group home” . . . perhaps to assuage our guilt, or perhaps as a positive reframe for the children, but the dynamics of institutionalized care are the same.  But I’ve seen very little research that talks about the culture that evolves in a group home setting, and how this shapes children as they either grow up in that setting, or eventually live in family environments.  It seems like everything I read focuses on the effects of deprivation of needs, which is related but perhaps not the whole picture for a child who is beyond the infancy period and has developed personality traits (both positive and negative) related to his or her environment.

We have such an idealized view of the orphan life – from Annie to Newsies to Oliver (in fact, is there a movie musical about children who are NOT motherless?)  We see orphans as the forlorn blank slate – the plucky yet sad child pining for family who embraces them with open and willing arms and lives happily ever after.   Parents who have adopted from hard places know that this is not how the story often goes.  On the other hand, I often hear of organizations who hope to raise children in orphanages to become the “future leaders of their country”.  And yet, we know from statistics of American foster care that children who age out are likely to have relational, occupational, and economic challenges.  Is it realistic to pose that children in 3rd world countries will have significantly different outcomes?

My hope is to take a realistic look at what orphan culture looks like, and what the implications are for children.   I don’t want to present it as a case for or against adoption, but rather a realistic look at what the typical orphan is developing, and how we can best help children wherever they are.  I’m hoping that this discussion can be useful for both adoptive parents and for those who care for children in their home countries.  More than anything, my hope is that as a society we can figure out how to best nurture and care for all children so that they can move into adulthood with the ability to form loving family attachments of their own.

Research indicates that post-institutionalized children may display things like superficially charming behaviors, difficulties with eye contact, indiscriminant affection with strangers, destructive tendencies, hoarding or gorging, manipulation, lying and deceitful behaviors, aggressiveness, entitlement issues, and power struggles.  Bear in mind that while we view these behaviors as undesirable in a family setting, such behaviors may have been adaptive (and even beneficial) in an orphanage or group home situation, especially when the caregiver ratios were less than ideal.

So, to employ a bit of crowdsourcing – I’m wondering if you are an adoptive parent of a child who spent time in an orphanage/group home/baby house (or an adult who spent time in one).  Are there aspects of behavior or personality that you attribute to orphanage life?  Did you observe this concept of “orphan culture” as a challenge in your child’s transition to family life?  What do you think was the greatest adjustment in terms of moving into a family setting?  I would love to hear your thoughts, either in the comments or via email.  If you have friends that may have input into this discussion, please pass along the link.  And if you are going to Idea Camp, let me know!

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