What is a good childhood? A long, protected and materially secure childhood is a social reality in Germany as well as a normative pattern. Its core elements are taken for granted – currently, for example, the constant presence of at least one parent (preferably the mother), freeing the children from work and, of course, promoting the personality of the child, above all through education. Even if this pattern may differ culturally and socially, it is certainly the parents who are primarily responsible for a good childhood. “Good parenting” could be empirically represented by surveys, by evaluating the countless parent guides or by retrospective surveys of how children experienced their parents.
Alexandra König and Arne Niederbacher have now found a completely different approach: the adoption agency and the associated task of finding the best parents for a child. Although the current legal situation imposes narrow limits on the procedure, these primarily concern the question of who may apply to be adoptive parents at all. For the subsequent mediation of parents and child, on the other hand, the “Recommendations for adoption mediation” provide guidance for the responsible authorities in determining the “best parents”. These recommendations have been published since 1983 by the Federal Working Group of State Youth Welfare Offices. They are now in their eighth edition. In these 40 years, the normative concept of good parenting must have changed in line with changes in society, according to the authors’ assumption. So what separates the best parents of the 1980s from today?
The personality of the parents becomes the central criterion
The year 1976 was decisive: since then, the best interests of the child have been the decisive criterion in adoption practice. It was no longer the child’s “adoption suitability” that was tested, but the suitability of the parents. The age of the adoptees has been falling since then, and today there is an increasing demand for babies. The “incognito adoptions” that were common in the past are becoming rarer, and with them the desire to be able to fake biological parenthood to the outside world. Now it’s a matter of matching the child’s special needs and the parents’ ability to meet them. The placement authorities are faced with a very difficult task: they almost always have to make a decision before the child and the adoptive parents even meet. There are always far more applicants than children. And newborns in particular must be placed as quickly as possible. What do the recommendations advise in this situation?
If you look at the shifts over the years, the personality of the parents tends to become the central evaluation authority, while objective status criteria are suppressed. About the age: In 1983 it was still said that potential parents of infants and small children should not be older than 35 years. Today this provision is no longer included. Now there is only the reference to a necessary “natural age gap” between parents and children, which is much more open to interpretation. This also applies to employment: in 1983, both parents’ employment would have been a clear reason for rejection, but today people are asked whether raising children and gainful employment are compatible.
Today personality leads the list of criteria. In particular, the “individual self-concept” of the applicants should be examined using criteria such as flexibility, resilience, problem-solving strategies, self-concepts, empathy, tolerance and emotional expressiveness. It is also important to avoid that they “unreflectedly transfer their own upbringing patterns to the child to be placed”. The authors note that these keywords could have come from the relevant descriptions of the new middle class.
However, shifting the criteria from “objective status” to “self-reflecting subject” does not mean that applicants have the same chances of placement regardless of their status. On the contrary. With regard to the required “personality” it can be assumed that the adoption agency is oriented towards a middle-class habitus of the “emotional and entrepreneurial self”. Unfortunately, there is no data on who even goes to an adoption agency. However, one might assume that the children tend to come from below and the parents from above in terms of social structure.