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What Does It Mean to Adopt?

The word adopt is used in a number of contexts. For most people, it means to legally take another's person's biological child as your own. But the word has been taken - or, adopted - by other causes, so it can now have a number of different meanings, depending on the circumstances. In almost all cases, the word is used deliberately to both recognize and foster the emotional attachment that is part of the relationship.

International aid organizations such as Save the Children have long known that humans are more moved by the needs of one individual with whom they have an emotional connection than by the overwhelming need of a group. The tradition of sponsoring a needy child is designed to parallel the adoption experience, with sponsors receiving photos, letters, and updates on the child they have chosen to "adopt." Sponsors know that the money they send goes to support the community, not directly to "their" child, yet the concept works so well that the sense of connection and relationship are encouraged.

The same concept is used in zoos, where patrons are encouraged to adopt an animal - that is, to provide a specific amount of money for the care of an individual animal. Zoos have found that people are more inclined to give when they feel their money will support "their" elephant/emu/lion than when it is earmarked only for general administrative costs.

Pets are adopted, not purchased, from the pet store, emphasizing that this is an emotional relationship. Picking up on the theme, Cabbage Patch dolls - the rage of the early Eighties - came with a name and an adoption certificate. And who didn't yearn to adopt a Pet Rock in the Seventies?

But in most cases, to adopt means to take a child to be your own - to love, care for, and support the child who is yours by law, as you would the child who is yours by birth. Zoos and agencies and doll companies use the concept of adoption for the same reason it has lasted from earliest history: because it works.

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