Dear Dr. Ray,

What can we say to those who warn us, “Aren’t you nervous about the genetic makeup of an adoptee? After all, you really can’t know.”


A simple rule of life: You don’t have to answer every question. Actually, you don’t even have to know the answer to every question. I’m a psychologist, one who lives in the realm of questions. Sometimes I just shrug my shoulders, smile a little and answer, “Good question.”

Since you’re probably not a psychologist, you may feel more pressure to give an answer to something asked of you just because it was asked. So I’ll try to help. Good question.

First of all, no parent, biological or adoptive, can fully know what genetic makeup will be expressed in a child. The offspring of two parents is a unique individual, genetically unlike either Mom or Dad. Indeed, it is impossible to gauge – except in certain clear-cut genetic disorders – which genes will interact with which other genes to create the child. Mom and Dad may “know” the gene pool from which God formed their child, but they can’t know the unfathomable combinations all interplaying to make up this absolutely one-of-a-kind human.

Furthermore, even though ambitious attempts to “map” the human genetic code have been proceeding for some years, this knowledge has not trickled down to the everyday understanding of the vast majority of people. Meaning, when someone asserts, “You can’t know what you’re getting,” he is really saying, “No one can know because it’s just not possible yet, if ever.” Human genetic understanding is revealing one overarching reality: The more we know, the more we realize there is to know.

Now you may be saying, “Hold on, Dr. Ray – in some abstract sense your argument may be true, but most people are not looking from this logical angle. They simply mean that a lot less is known about the genetic history of an adoptive child than that of a biological one. And lurking in that history could be some innate trouble that no one can know is coming until it shows itself.”

True, but again, to a degree this is true with any child. One can’t fathom what inborn predispositions are present and how they may be expressed years later. This is an unchallengeable reality of our existence.

For debate’s sake, however, let’s allow the questioner to set the terms of the question. That is, let’s acknowledge that, kid for kid, there may be more uncertainty in the “wiring” of an adoptive child than a biological one.

To address this, adoption professionals routinely explore the biological family history to provide a good medical picture for prospective adoptive parents. If there are potential genetic conditions, physical or mental, every effort is made to identify them. The adoptive child is not a blank genetic slate allowing only speculation of what might be hidden. In many if not most cases, “You don’t know what you’re getting” is inaccurate. You know more than one might think.

The most convincing answer to the genetics objection is still left. Assume little or nothing genetically is known. Assume the medical history is an empty record. Assume you suspect that the family history is suspect. A marvelous and consoling truth of our creation is that, for most of our existence, genetics is not destiny.

Yes, our genes, alone or in combination, do lead to particular dispositions, good or bad, helpful or harmful, for all of us. Nevertheless, the full composition fo who we are is an unfathomably complex interplay of genes and environment, or as the shrinks say, nature and nurture. If a child has a genetic leaning toward learning problems or asthma or impulsiveness, a mom and dad (nurture) are still influencing and shaping in response to that child’s unique makeup (nature).

My children are wildly diverse in their development, intellect, temperament and almost every other aspect of personhood. Of course, most parents of a bunch of kids, birth or adopted, can observe a similar diversity. Indeed, the more kids you have, the more obvious will be the innate differences, even if all flower from the same two plants.

Despite my kids’ genetic differences, all are being raised with sameness in expectations, morals and discipline. We hope this consistency will lead to similarity in character down the road. Genetics may be the foundation of the road, but Mom and Dad are driving the bus. The kids sit in separate seats, but the bus is going in the same direction.

Once more, “you can’t know what you’re getting.” Absolutely true, no one can, be it with a birth or an adopted child. Much of the genetic world lies beyond our control, even understanding. Yes, there may be more unknowns in the histories of adoptive children, but how and where those whose unknowns become known is the big unknown. If one wants certainty in life, having a child is not the place to start.

Last and most critically, whatever one’s genetics, in most expressions, they are powerfully affected by one’s experiences. I think it’s safe to say that most adoptive parents are genetically inclined to shape and influence their kids in the most positive direction possible.

Adoption: Choosing It, Living It, Loving It Pages 43-45
Copyright © 2010, Dr. Ray Guarendi
Servant Books