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Originally Authored by Emily J. Helder, Marjorie L. Gunnoe, and Hannah Timmermans in Adoption Quarterly


The purpose of this study was to examine religious motivation to adopt and how this relates to decisions families made while adopting, firm discipline, attachment, parent stress and affect, and child externalizing and internalizing. Within the United States, 44 internationally adopted children and their parents participated in this six year, longitudinal study. Families endorsing greater religious motivation adopted older children and had larger family sizes. Controlling for these factors, greater religious motivation also predicted firmer discipline practices. Religious motivation did not predict parenting stressor parent negative affect. Additionally, positive longitudinal child outcomes were best predicted by larger family size, fewer baseline attachment disturbances, and less baseline externalizing and internalizing–rather than religious motivation, firm discipline, or the interaction between the two.


A variety of studies have examined motivations of individuals considering adoption and/or foster care (De Maeyer et al.,2014; Howell-Moroney,2014; Malm & Welti,2010; Rhodes et al.,2006; Vandivere et al.,2009). Many of these studies have been conducted in the context of identifying groups more likely to consider adopting or fostering in order to target recruitment of potential families. Common reasons raised across this body of literature include wanting to provide a home for a child in need, a desire to expand their family, infertility, and wanting siblings for children. This research has also revealed that families generally endorse multiple motivational factors that drive their decision to adopt or foster, rather than a single motivation (Vandivere et al.,2009).

Although generally receiving less attention in the literature, religious motivation to adopt or foster has also been documented in a consistent percentage of families (i.e., Brooks & James,2003). The current study describes the presence of religious motivation among families adopting internationally and links this motivation to decisions families make in the adoption process, such as family size and age of the child at adoption. Additionally, this study examines the associations between religious motivation and: firmness of discipline, attachment, parent adjustment (stress and negative affect), and child adjustment (internalizing and externalizing symptoms) over a six year period.

Theistic religiosity and religious motivation to adopt.

Theistic religiosity involves feelings and beliefs centered around God (or deities) and what God wants humans to do. Religious motivation often overlaps with altruistic motivation, but is more than that, in that religious motivation rests on the premise that God is directing, helping, or evaluating. Some depictions of religiosity also make a distinction between intrinsic and extrinsic orientations (Allport & Ross,1967). Persons who are intrinsically oriented sincerely believe and internalize the teachings of their faith and attempt to live accordingly. A person high in intrinsic religious motivation might adopt because they believe their Scriptures direct them to do so or because they felt God was personally convicting them to help someone. In contrast, an extrinsic orientation is characterized by using religion to achieve certain self focused benefits or as a means to an end. A person high in extrinsic religiosity motivation might adopt to be esteemed by fellow church members promoting adoption.

Reports of religious motivation to adopt or foster.

Religious motivation has been linked to the parenting of non-biologically related children. In nationally representative datasets, 11% of U.S. current and former foster parents (Rhodes et al.,2006) and 15% of Canadian foster parents (Rodger et al.,2006) cited religious reasons as important in their decision to foster children. Among domestic adoptions, estimates of families motives to adopt by religious reasons is slightly higher. For example, in a large sample of White adoptive parents adopting from foster care, 24% endorsed religious motivations (Brooks & James,2003). Similarly, Berryite al. (1996) reported that 27% of their large sample of both private and public adoptive parents endorsed religious motivation.

When studies utilize highly religious samples, the percentage of participants reporting religious motivation to adopt is even higher. Specifically, Belanger et al. (2008) reported that 86% of their U.S. sample attended religious services weekly and 64% reported that their faith was essential to their decision to adopt a child from foster care. Religious reasons for choosing adoption over assisted reproductive technology were also cited in a qualitative study of gay and lesbian couples from the UK (Jennings et al.,2014). There are also a number of studies linking religiosity in general, and/or frequent church attendance, to the propensity to consider and/or actually adopt (Bachrach et al.,1991; Bernal et al.,2007; Hollingsworth,2000; Lamb,2008; Park & Wonch Hill,2014).

Unfortunately, operational definitions of religious motivation tend to vary widely between studies. Some are very broad and nonspecific [e.g., “religious beliefs, “Howell Moroney (2014)], and many studies offer no insight into the relative strength of multiple motivations an individual family endorses. Several prior studies provided participants with a list of possible motivations to adopt or foster and asked families to indicate whether each motivation was present in their decision (e.g., Brooks & James,2003). Other studies requested that participants use a 5point Likert scale to indicate their agreement with the presence of each motivation type (Belangeret al.,2008; Cole,2005). Still other studies utilized a semi structured interview and qualitative coding of responses (Jennings,2010). Further challenging the ability to draw firm conclusions, some studies have combined religious motivation with altruistic motivation when reporting results (Malm & Welti,2010). In an attempt to better understand how one specific element of religious motivation might impact adoption, the current study employs a very specific measure of religious motivation: “Believed God was explicitly directing me/us to do this.” This measure goes beyond general altruistic motivation and is likely more indicative of an intrinsically oriented religiosity than an extrinsically oriented one. Our general expectation is that religious motivation measured as such will be linked to family structure, family process, and family adjustment–for reasons we will now present.

Religious motivation associated with choices of adoptive parents.

Existing research documents a link between religious motivation and choices that families make in the adoption process, especially choices related to family structure/membership. Across both quantitative and qualitative studies, families have cited religious motivation as important in their decision to adopt a child with special needs (Belanger et al.,2012; Glidden,1985; Jennings,2010). Additionally, White families adopting from the US foster system who endorsed religious motivation to adopt were more likely to consider trans-racial adoption than those who did not endorse religious motivation (Brooks & James,2003) and in a nationally representative sample of U.S. adults, levels of religiosity were found to be positively correlated with support for the concept of trans-racial adoption (Perry,2010). Finally, greater intrinsic religiosity has also been associated with adopting more children and having a larger family size in a small sample of U.S. families adopting from foster care (Belanger et al.,2008). Our interest in family structure/membership is twofold. First, we are interested in replicating these associations with our very specific measure of religious motivation. Second, because demographic factors may independently impact outcomes, we recognize the necessity of controlling for these factors in our investigations of family process and adjustment.

Religious motivation and parental discipline

Parents who express religious motivation for their adoption may also parent differently than those who do not report religious motivation, especially if the adoption is intrinsically motivated by a comprehensive set of beliefs organizing family life. Outside of an adoption context, parental religiosity has been linked in a meta analytic review to more positive, less negative parent child relationships (e.g., more hugging and praising, less verbal aggression) and to firmer and more consistent discipline (Mahoney et al.,2001; see also Murray Swank et al.,2006).

Despite an extensive search, we could find only one study linking religiosity to specific parenting practices within an adoption context. Reilly and Platz (2003) examined parenting among U.S. adoptive families who had adopted a child with special needs, 73% of which endorsed being active or very active in their religious faith. Their findings linked religious activity to stricter parenting attitudes, though they did not directly assess parenting behavior. Parents ‘more favorable view of corporal punishment seems to have been the impetus for the authors ‘statement that “parents reporting to be very active in religious or spiritual practices endorsed more high risk parenting” (p. 798). However, somewhat limited measurement information was provided, and the authors acknowledged that their Parental Expectations measure “may reflect some middle-class bias.”

We were particularly interested in discipline because firm discipline (especially corporal punishment) is an area of concern for many social workers. A policy approved by the National Association of Social Workers (NASW)Delegate Assembly explicitly opposes the use of corporal punishment in all contexts, including homes (NASW,2003). According, awareness of prospective parents ‘religious motivation and discipline practices may influence an agency’s decision to encourage or permit an adoption to occur.

Whether religious motivation to adopt is more of a benefit or a detriment is unknown. As stated earlier, religiosity in general is linked to more positive parent child relationships. Per rigorous analysis that have controlled for baseline child adjustment (Ferguson,2013; Larzelere et al.,2018) the risk of customary (no abusive) spanking is debatable. Even studies that focus on Conservative Protestants tend to find that some (but not all) effects of discipline are moderated by religious context. Conservative Protestants are a common focus in studies of discipline because they are: “modestly” more likely to value child conformity and obedience; more favorable to corporal punishment; and more likely to use corporal punishment. However, the latter association is “less robust than might be expected” (Mahoney et al.,2001, pp. 577–578). For example, Gunnoe et al. (2006) found that fathers ‘authoritarian parenting predicted greater externalizing and internalizing among early adolescents, but not in Conservative Protestant families. Results from these studies suggest that possible risks associated with religious motivation to adopt may be offset by likely benefits such as a willingness to adopt older children and a more positive parent child relationship.

To be clear, we are not endorsing authoritarian parenting or spanking objectives were simply to determine whether parents who believed that God was explicitly directing them to adopt engaged in firmer discipline and if so, whether this discipline was predictive of children’s later adjustment. Because prior research suggested that the impacts of discipline can be moderated by religious context, we tested for main effects of religious motivation and firm discipline on child adjustment, as well as interactive effects.

Religious motivation and family adjustment

Family Systems theorists recognize that the quality of relationships and the adjustment of each family member impacts the entire family system. Mindful of this inter-connectedness, the current study examined both the attachment relationship as well as the individual adjustment of the reporting parent (stress and affect) and the target child (externalizing and internalizing). As with discipline, an extensive search yielded very few studies linking religiosity or religious motivation to family relationships or adjustment in an adoption context.


We found no studies linking religious motivation to post-adoption attachment, but one study linking it to attachment in the context of foster care. Cole (2005) reported that in a small sample of foster caregivers of infants greater levels of motivation to foster as “spiritual expression” were associated with an increased risk for insecure or disorganized attachment, as measured using the Strange Situation procedure. Cole theorized that these parents may have felt compelled to participate in foster care due to pressures from their faith communities (i.e., extrinsic religious motivation) and encountered difficulties they had not anticipated, making it more difficult to facilitate a secure attachment.

Parent adjustment

To the best of our knowledge, adoption adjustment as a function of religious constructs have been examined only by Belanger and her colleagues (Belanger et al.,2008,2012) in a cross sectional study of domestic adoptive parents. With respect to parent outcomes, these researchers examined the impact of both religiosity (generally) and religious motivation for adoption(specifically) among a convenience sample of 113 adoptive parents who had adopted domestically, most commonly from foster care. With both general religiosity and religious motivation in the analyses, only greater general religiosity predicted lower parenting stress. Whether religious motivation to adopt would predict parenting stress if it was the only religion related variable in the analyses is unknown, but we expect that it would. This expectation is based on the fact that studies utilizing a wide variety of religious variables support the role of religion for managing stressful situations [meta-analyses by Ano & Vasconcelles (2005)]. Relatedly, many studies have linked greater religiosity to less negative affect/mood [for a review, see the Discussion section of Byrd et al. (2007)].

Child adjustment

Utilizing the same data set, Belanger et al. (2012) reported on child outcomes and found that religious support (which likely contributes to motivation to adopt) was significantly correlated with parent reported child behavioral improvement since adoption, although the association was only measured cross-sectionally and behavioral improvement was measured with a single item scale. Outside of the religiosity literature, but pertaining to adoption motivation, researchers examining international adoptees adopted to the UK from Romania found no link between altruistic vs. infertility related motivation to adopt and child behavior outcomes longitudinally (Kumsta et al.,2010). Outside of the adoption literature, but pertaining to religiosity, a meta-analytic review by Mahoney et al. (2001) linked greater parental religiosity to a variety of positive youth outcomes including lower levels of externalizing and internalizing.

Current study

The relevant but limited research suggests that religious motivation is associated with choices that families make in adopting and maybe linked with family process as well as family adjustment. Much of the research just reviewed is cross sectional, correlational, and context specific (e.g., based on domestic adoptions). Clearly much more research is needed.

The current study sought to contribute to the limited literature within an international adoption context using a longitudinal design. Motivation to adopt was measured retrospectively in the first wave of the study, which occurred within 3 years of adoption. Parenting approach and a variety of parent and child outcomes were measured longitudinally across a total of four study visits (i.e., four waves) over six years. It was hypothesized that:

1. Greater religious motivation to adopt would be associated with adopting older children and with having a larger family size at Wave 1.

2. Greater religious motivation to adopt would predict firmer, more consistent discipline in Wave 1.

3. Greater religious motivation to adopt would predict lower levels of parenting stress and negative affect in subsequent waves.

Links between religious motivation and: attachment disturbance, externalizing and internalizing were also examined. These analyses were exploratory because so little research was available. Additionally, we tested for main effects of religious motivation to adopt on child outcome as well as interactions between religious motivation and discipline practice because some aspects of discipline seem to be moderated by religious context.



Participants were recruited through advertisements distributed by Modestus. adoption agencies and organizations that provided social opportunities for internationally adopted children and their families. Adoptive parents were screened via telephone interview to assess whether their children meet the following inclusion criteria: (1) adopted internationally, (2) under the age of 18 years old at study onset, (3) no known evidence of alcohol or drug exposure prenatally based on parent and pediatrician report, (4) no known medical condition that might independently affect the child’s performance on testing (i.e., epilepsy, down syndrome, brain injury). For the current study, we only used data from families who completed the Wave 1 assessment within three years of adoption. This was due to the current study focus on motivations to adopt and because of our desire to avoid a longer time period for retrospective reporting of motivations. In all but one of the families, parent data were collected from the mother. No incentives were offered to families for participation in the study.

Forty four children met the inclusion criteria. This included 29 girls and 15 boys, adopted from: China and Southeast Asia (n=21), Northern Asia and Eastern Europe (n=9), Africa (n=10), and Central America and the Caribbean (n=4). The mean age at adoptive placement was 5.01 years (SD=4.04) and children had been in their adoptive home an average of 16 months (SD=11.4) at Wave 1. Prior to adoption, 86% of the children had spent time in orphanage care and 14% had been in foster care.

Adoptive family structure for the sample was primarily two, currently married, heterosexual parents, but three children in the sample were parented by single mothers. Ninety five percent of adoptive parents were White and 5% were Black. Adoptive family size varied. Six of the child participants were an only child; the maximum number of children in a single family was seven (mean number of children in family=3.45, SD=1.6). Of the 38 child participants with siblings, six lived in families where all children had been adopted (but were not necessarily biologically related to the participant), 15 had siblings who were all biological children of their adoptive parents, and 17 had a mix of biological children and other adopted children as siblings. Adoptive mothers had a mean of 16.29 years of education (SD=1.9), while adoptive fathers had a mean of 16.52 (SD=2.02) years of education. Families were quite religious, with 86% reporting that they attended Christian worship services weekly. The remaining 14% stated that they were not religiously affiliated.


Descriptive data for all measures are reported in Table 1.

Religious motivation to adopt.

To assess motivation to adopt, a new scale was developed based on previous research examining motivation to foster (Rhodes et al.,2006). Most existing measures of motivation to adopt ask parents to evaluate a list of possible motivations as present/absent or endorse each motivation separately on a Likert Scale. These measures do not ask parents to compare the relative strength of various motivations (i.e., if religious motivation and altruistic motivation are given the same Likert score, the measure offers no way to prioritize these motivations). In response to this, the scale created for the present study asked parents to compare the relative strength of multiple motivations, affording measures of both rank (provided for descriptive purposes only) and percentage (used for descriptive and predictive purposes).

At the Wave 1 study visit, adoptive parents were presented with 12 possible motivations to adopt along with the opportunity to write in additional motivations. Options included commonly endorsed motivations from past research such as: desire to parent, infertility, wanting to help a child in need, and wanting a sibling for current children. Options also included one particular aspect of religious motivation: Believed God was explicitly directing me/us to do this (see Appendix A for full measure). Parents were first asked to rank any motivations that were relevant in their decision making (1st, 2nd, 3rd, etc.) and then asked to estimate a percentage for each of the options they had ranked. Specifically, they were told that the sum total of their percentages assigned to all motivations must be 100% and were shown an example of this procedure with a non-adoption-related decision making process (motivations to buy a new home). For example, an adoptive parent who endorsed three motivations (such as religious, altruistic, and infertility) was then asked to rank these three in order of importance. Then the parent was asked to assign percentages, perhaps assigning their highest ranked motivation 70%, their next ranked motivation 20%, and their lowest ranked motivation 10%. This would confirm that their highest ranked motivation was primary and more influential than other ranked motivations in their decision to adopt. Parents who did not endorse the item Believed God was explicitly directing me/us to do this were assigned a percentage of zero for the calculation of the group mean. For the sake of concise writing, subsequent uses of the term religious motivation when discussing analyses and results specific to the current study refer to the percentage assigned to this particular item.

Because our measure of motivation was designed for the current study and administered only at Wave 1, we are unable to provide information on reliability or predictive validity (save the analyses to follow). A correlation of .44 (p=.002) for percentage of religious motivation with the frequency of parents ‘church attendance suggests some construct validity.

Firm discipline

At each of the four waves, the adoptive parent was asked to complete the Parent Relationship Questionnaire (PRQ, Kamphaus & Reynolds,2006). Wave 1 discipline was operationalized using the Discipline Practices scale, which is a 9item measure that is designed to assess parents ‘consistency in providing consequences to misbehavior and parents ‘valuing of rule following and obedience (e.g., “Children should do what parents tell them to do”). Standardized scores on this index were calculated using age-based norms for the measure, resulting in T scores (standardization sample M=50, SD=10), with higher scores indicating greater consistency and valuing of rules and obedience and lower scores indicating a more permissive parenting style.

Disturbance of attachment (DAI)

The presence of attachment disturbances from the parent’s perspective was assessed with the Disturbances of Attachment Interview (Smyke & Zeanah,1999), which was administered at each of the four waves as a part of the study visit. This 13item semi structured interview addresses a range of attachment related behavior relevant to internationally adopted populations. This includes questions addressing whether the child seeks comfort when distressed, is overly friendly with strangers, and displays hype vigilant attachment behaviors. Each item is rated by the interviewer on a scale of 02based on parent response to interview probes and a total score is formed by adding the ratings together for items (possible range 0  26). The interview was administered and scored by the first author, who had training in the useof the interview and in attachment formation in the context of early deprivation. Higher scores indicate a greater disturbance in attachment relationships. Internal reliability for each wave was acceptable, given the heterogeneity of the measure that assesses symptoms of both dis-inhibited social engagement and reactive attachment disorder (a== 64, .81, .68, .77).

Parenting stress

to do”). Standardized scores on this index were calculated using age-based norms for the measure, resulting in T scores (standardization sample= 50, SD= 10), with higher scores indicating greater consistency an devaluing of rules and obedience and lower scores indicating a more permissive parenting style.Disturbance of attachment (DAI)The presence of attachment disturbances from the parent’s perspective was assessed with the Disturbances of Attachment Interview (Smyke & Zeanah,1999), which was administered at each of the four waves as a part of the study visit. This 13item semi structured interview addresses a range of attachment related behavior relevant to internationally adopted populations. This includes questions addressing whether the child seeks comfort when distressed, is overly friendly with strangers, and displays hyper vigilant attachment behaviors. Each item is rated by the interviewer on a scale of 02based on parent response to interview probes and a total score is formed by adding the ratings together for items (possible range 026). The interview was administered and scored by the first author, who had training in the use of the interview and in attachment formation in the context of early deprivation. Higher scores indicate a greater disturbance in attachment relationships. Internal reliability for each wave was acceptable, given the heterogeneity of the measure that assesses symptoms of both disinhibited social engagement and reactive attachment disorder (a = 64, .81, .68, .77). Parenting stress Frustration and stress surrounding the parent child relationship were examined via parent report at each of the four waves through the Relational Frustration Index from the Parent Relationship Questionnaire (PRQ, Kahaus & Reynolds,2006). This 12item scale includes items addressing both overall parenting stress as well as stress related to specific difficult situations (e.g., arguments). Standardized scores on this index were calculated using age based norms for the measure, resulting in T scores (standardization sample M= 50, SD= 10), with higher Scores indicating a greater level of parenting stress.

Parent negative affect

because the Wave 1 interviews revealed that some parents were experiencing multiple negative emotions, we included in Waves 2–4, seven items assessing negative affect. Five items were taken from the Center of Epidemiological Studies Depression Inventory (CESD, Husaini et al.,1980). Two additional items were added to more fully capture all the emotions parents had reported. The two items were: I felt helpless and felt angry. Parents were asked to describe the degree to which they had experienced these feelings over the previous two months, using a 5point Likert scale ranging from “never” (1) to “a lot”(5). After reverse scoring the item “I enjoyed life,” the seven items were summed. Higher scores indicated higher negative affect. Because the seven items shared a good deal of overlapping variance, they were treated as a scale. Internal reliability was high at all Waves (2, 3 and 4) where this questionnaire was administered (a= .82, .80, .90)

Child externalizing and internalizing

At each of the four waves, the adoptive parent completed the parent report Behavioral Assessment Scale for Children 2 [BASC2, Reynolds &Kamphaus (2004)]. This instrument yields an Externalizing Problems Composite composed of items from the conduct problems, aggression, and hyperactivity sub-scales of the BASC2, and an Internalizing Problems Composite composed of items from the anxiety, depression, and somatization sub-scales. Standardized scores on this index were calculated using age based norms for the measure, resulting in T scores (standardization sample M=50, SD=10). Higher Scores indicate a greater degree of symptoms.


Following telephone screening, eligible child participants and their adoptive parent(s) (98% mothers) completed the Wave 1 study visit in a laboratory setting. This visit consisted of informed consent procedures, a semi structured interview (including the DAI), cognitive testing of the children (results described elsewhere, Helder, Mulder, & Gunnoe, 2016), and parent and child questionnaires, as described above. At Wave 1, children’s mean age was 6.35 years (SD = 3.99).

Participants completed the Wave 2 visit approximately one year later (mean age at Wave 2 = 7.16 years, SD = 4.05) when children had been in their adoptive home for an average of 28.42 months (SD = 11.5). Five children left the study between Wave 1 and Wave 2 study visit; they and their parents did not differ from participants who remained in the study in terms of demographic or adjustment variables measured at Wave 1. The Wave 3 visit was conducted one year after Wave 2, when child participants were an average of 8.18 years old (SD = 4.13) and had been in their adoptive home a mean of 40.42 months (SD = 11.18). All 39 child participants who completed Wave 2 also completed the Wave 3 visit. A final follow up visit, Wave 4, was conducted approximately three years after Wave 3, when child participants were an average of 10.66 years old (SD = 3.73) and had in their adoptive home for 73.26 months (SD = 16.33). One family did not complete the Wave 4 visit due to a dissolution of the adoption. Study visits for Wave 2 4 consisted of the same semi structured attachment disturbance interview (DAI), cognitive testing, and parent and child questionnaires. These and all other aspects of the procedure were approved by the Calvin University Institutional Review Board.

Data analysis

To examine the degree to which adoptive parents believed that God had explicitly directed them to adopt, we calculated frequencies for the number of adoptive families who had endorsed this item, as well as the mean percentage assigned to this item for the full sample (including zeros).

Hypotheses 1 and 2 were tested using cross sectional Wave 1 data. To evaluate whether religious motivation was related to choices families made in the adoption process (Hypothesis 1), we calculated two bi-variate correlations, one between percent ratings for religious motivation and age of the child at adoptive placement and the second between religious motivation and family size. Following this, we conducted a regression to examine the relationship between religious motivation and firm discipline at Wave 1 (Hypothesis 2), controlling for age at adoption and family size since these emerged as significant correlates of religious motivation in the previous analysis. Current age of the child was not included as a covariate in this regression since age normed scores for discipline, rather than raw scores, were utilized.

We employed longitudinal data to test Hypothesis 3 and to conduct exploratory investigations of family adjustment. Because preliminary data analysis suggested a general stability in measures of family adjustment from Waves 2–4, and because we wanted to capture both early adjustment and later adjustment without having to employ statistical corrections (for running too many analyses with a small sample), scores on all family adjustment variables were averaged across Waves 2 4. This averaging process yielded a single outcome variable for each individual measure of family adjustment (i.e., attachment disturbances, parent stress and negative affect, child externalizing and internalizing), henceforth termed “later” adjustment to distinguish it from “baseline” adjustment measured at Wave 1 (see Table 1).

The impact of religious motivation on later parent adjustment (Hypothesis 3) was examined in two regressions. In the case of the parenting stress regression, the covariates entered in the first block were: child’s age at adoption, family size, and baseline parenting stress from Wave 1. Religious motivation to adopt was entered as a predictor in the second block. The dependent variable was later parenting stress (i.e., Waves 2–4 averaged). In the negative parent affect regression, the covariates entered in the first block were child’s age at adoption and family size, because negative parent affect had not been measured in Wave 1. Religious motivation to adopt was entered as a predictor in the second block and later parent negative affect was the dependent variable.

We explored the connections of religious motivation with attachment disturbances, child externalizing, and child internalizing in three regressions. As previously stated, we anticipated (and thus, tested for) main effects of religious motivation and firm discipline on these later outcomes, as well as interactions of religious motivation with firm discipline. Prior to conducting the regressions, centered values were calculated for religious motivation and firm discipline, and these were utilized in the regressions, to address multi-collinearity. For all three regressions: child’s age at adoption, family size, baseline score on the family adjustment variable being tested, religious motivation, and firm discipline were entered in the first block. The interaction of religious motivation and firm discipline (obtained by multiplying the two, after values were centered) was entered in the second block. The three dependent variables were later attachment disturbances, externalizing and internalizing.


Presence of religious motivation


Thirty one adoptive parents (70% of sample) endorsed religious motivation as present in their decision making process. Of those, 20 parents (45% of total sample) ranked it as their top motivation.


Across all parents in the sample, mean religious motivation percentage rating was 35.3% (SD= 28.8, range = 0 90%). Across the 31 parents who endorsed religious motivation, the mean was 49.5% (SD = 22.6, range = 10 90%). All remaining analyses were conducted using these percent ratings.

Religious motivation and choices of adoptive parents

Hypothesis 1 was that greater religious motivation to adopt would be associated with adopting older children and with having a larger family size at Wave 1. This hypothesis was supported. Religious motivation was positively correlated with age at adoption, r (44) = .35, p = .023, and with the number of children in the adoptive home, r (44) = .492, p = .001. These correlations, as well as correlations between all variables used in the subsequent regressions can be seen in Table 2.

Religious motivation and firm discipline

Hypothesis 2 was that greater religious motivation to adopt would predict firmer, more consistent discipline in Wave 1. The overall regression predicting firm discipline was significant, R2 = .31, F (3, 36) = 4.85, p = .007. As hypothesized, greater religious motivation to adopt was a significant predictor of greater use of firmer discipline at Wave 1 (b = .57, p = .002), after controlling for age at adoption and family size (see Table 3).

Religious motivation and attachment

Exploratory analysis of attachment disturbances failed to reveal any link between religious motivation and later attachment disturbances. The regression examining attachment disturbances was significant (R2 = .68, F (6, 31) = 9.01, p < .001), but only higher baseline attachment disturbances (b = .72, p < .001) and smaller family size (b = .34, p < .05) were associated with greater attachment disturbances longitudinally.

Religious motivation and parent adjustment

Hypothesis 3 was that greater religious motivation to adopt would predict lower levels of parenting stress and parent negative affect in subsequent waves. This hypothesis was not supported for either construct. The regression examining parenting stress was statistically significant (R2 = .67, F (4, 31) = 13.78, p < .001), but the only significant association was an auto-regressive one; greater baseline stress predicted greater stress later (b = .77, p < .001). The regression predicting negative affect was not statistically significant (R2 = .09, F (3, 31) = 1.43, p = .25). (Recall, parent negative affect was not measured at Wave 1, thus, we cannot document an auto-regressive association involving Wave 1.)

Religious motivation, firm discipline, and child adjustment

As stated, prior, regressions predicting child externalizing and internalizing tested for both main effects of religious motivation and firm discipline, and interactions between these two constructs (controlling for child’s age at adoption, family size, and baseline adjustment). The regression examining later child externalizing was statistically significant (R2 = .64, F (6, 31) = 7.45, p < .001). However, the only significant predictor was baseline externalizing (b = .66, p < .001), with higher initial externalizing predicting greater subsequent externalizing. Likewise, the regression examining child internalizing was statistically significant (R2 = .72, F (6, 31) = 10.19, p < .001) and higher baseline internalizing predicted higher later internalizing (b = .67, p < .001). Additionally, smaller family size was associated with greater internalizing (b = .27, p < .05), paralleling the results for attachment disturbances. With respect to the main constructs of interest, neither religious motivation, firm discipline, nor the interaction term were significant predictors of either externalizing or internalizing.


The current study sought to examine the presence of religious motivation (measured as: Believed God was explicitly directing me/us to do this) and the ways that it was associated with choices that families make in the Table 3. Multiple regression results for firm discipline. Firm discipline Model 1 Model 2 Variable B b B b Constant 49.87 50.18 Age at adoption –.06 –.26 –.08 –.39 Family size .96 .16 –.59 –.09 Religious motivation .19 .57 R .28 .55 R2 .08 .31 F 1.41 4.85 DR2 .23 DF 10.91 p < .05. p < .01, B = un-standardized coefficient, b = standardized coefficient. adoption process, firm discipline, and parent and child adjustment in a longitudinal study of international adoptees. Religious motivation to adopt was present, at some level, for over two thirds of the sample. This figure is similar to the 64% parents in the Belanger et al. (2008) study who reported that faith was “essential” to their decision to adopt. Statistics based on both our sample and the Belanger sample (the “vast majority” of whom attended church at least weekly, p. 109) no doubt overestimate the presence of religious motivation among adoptive parents more generally. As stated in the Introduction, research with representative samples of domestically adopting parents puts the figure closer to 25% (Berry et al., 1996; Brooks & James, 2003). As hypothesized, and consistent with past literature, the current study found links between religious motivation to adopt and family structure. Specifically, families with greater religious motivation had adopted older children and had larger numbers of children. Past literature has supported the influence of religious motivation in special needs adoptions (Belanger et al., 2012; Glidden, 1985) and the adoption of older children from institutional care is certainly consistent with this. Families motivated by religious reasons may see adoption of children with special needs or who are older at the time of adoption as a particular calling. They assume that there will be challenges, but plan to rely on their faith, trust in God, and support from religious community to allow them to meet those challenges (Firmin et al., 2017a, 2017b). Larger numbers of children among adoptive families motivated by religion are likely a reflection of the way that this motivation compares with motivation to adopt due to infertility. While there were several families in the current sample who endorsed both religious motivation and infertility, many of those who placed a greater emphasis on religious motivation already had several biological children before deciding to adopt additional children. Given the association between motivation and family structure variables, and the fact that family structure is uniquely related to outcomes among adoptees (reviewed in Julian, 2013; see also Helder et al., 2016), it is crucial for researchers examining motivations for adoption to properly control for family structure when examining links between motivation and outcomes. Very few studies have examined the link between religious motivation and parenting in the context of adoption; or religious motivation and later outcomes for parents and/or children. Almost all existing research has been done within the domestic adoption or foster care contexts and none has been longitudinal (Belanger et al., 2008, 2012; Cole, 2005; Reilly & Platz, 2003). The current study found that greater religious motivation to adopt predicted a firmer, less permissive parenting approach that emphasized consistent application of consequences and punishment and a high valuing of obedience, even after controlling for age at adoption and family size. 16 E. J. This finding was consistent with our hypothesis and with the adoption research of Reilly and Platz (2003). It also makes intuitive sense. Across theological bents, most religions seek to foster an appreciation for and posture of submission to an authority greater than oneself. Parents who view themselves as under authority are probably more likely than those who do not, to attempt to foster this same appreciation and posturing in their children. In contrast, the current study did not find that religious motivation impacted parenting stress or parent negative affect averaged across Waves 2–4. This was discordant with our hypothesis and surprising, given that religiosity in general has been linked to more positive coping strategies across many stressors including the parenting of children with medical illnesses and developmental disabilities (Mahoney et al., 2001). One possible explanation for this lack of obtained association is that it is not religious motivation for adoption per se, but other aspects of religiosity such as social support that matters for post adoptive parent outcomes. This may be why Belanger et al. (2008) included two religiosity variables in their analyses. A second possibility for this lack of association is that religious motivation served as a protective factor for some parents, even as it served as a risk factor for others – and the two directional processes statistically canceled each other out. Believing that God is directing one to adopt is an example of what Mahoney and her colleagues have termed “sanctification” (the imbuing of an activity with spiritual character and significance). Sanctification tends to enhance good family relationships, but may exacerbate poor ones (Mahoney et al., 2003). Exacerbation may be particularly likely when people believe that they should be able to fix a difficult family situation. Mahoney et al. (2001) proposed that positive religious coping is likely to occur when faced with a problem that is “uncontrollable” (e.g., obvious medical problems), but opposite effects may occur in response to child or family problems that fall under the perceived responsibility of the parents (p. 583). With respect to international adoption, it is possible that the psychological duress associated with a difficult one is greater for parents who believed that God explicitly directed them to adopt (and they trusted and obeyed) than for parents who did not believe this. In a subsequent examination of the sanctification of parenting (not specific to adoption), Dumas and Nissley-Tsiopinis (2006) found that both low parental satisfaction with the parent child relationship and high child opposition were linked to negative religious coping, writing that “some parents might turn to negative religious coping when their own functioning or that of their children does not fulfill normative social expectations of healthy family functioning” (p. 290). Religious motivation to adopt was also unrelated to attachment disturbances, child externalizing and child internalizing. Even in exploratory analyses that included firm discipline and the interaction between religious motivation and firm discipline, we could find no impact of religious motivation on these three measures of family adjustment. Again, there are many plausible explanations for this seeming lack of association. These include both measurement problems and the possibility that positive impacts (direct and indirect) of religious motivation were canceled out by negative ones. More likely, baseline child effects were simply so powerful that differences in motivation and parenting practices (within the generally good, limited ranges manifest amongst parents screened and approved for international adoption) just did not stand a chance as a predictor. This hypothesis is supported by the fact that the Wave 1 score on each child outcome was the best or only predictor of subsequent adjustment across all three indicators (attachment disturbances, externalizing, and internalizing). Our findings are most consistent with Kumsta et al. (2010) who found that families adopting internationally from Romania due to altruistic motivations did not differ in outcomes from those adopting primarily due to infertility, though religious motivations were not measured explicitly in their study. Interestingly, subsequent (Waves 2 4) attachment disturbances and internalizing were predicted by family size, with smaller size predicting more attachment disturbances and internalizing as rated by parents. We are not sure how to explain this association because there are many reasons to think that smaller adoptive families would be better able to offer things known to be beneficial to children (e.g., greater parental attention, more available family income). However, although not directly assessing family size, Cole (2005) did find that caregivers whose primary motivation to foster was to increase family size were three times more likely to have securely attached infants in their care than those who did not endorse this motivation. In an attempt to explain this association, we resort to pure speculation. One possibility for the negative association between family size and adjustment problems could be an underreporting of problem behavior in larger families. Perhaps parents with more children are not as dismayed by behaviors that parents with fewer children notice and/or view as problematic. This may be because parents with more children have a larger comparison group, or more experience that helps them take problem behavior in stride or feel less personally defined by the problem behavior of one child among many. A second possibility is that adoptive children genuinely benefit from being part of a larger family. A greater number of siblings with a variety of strengths and weaknesses, and varying levels of closeness to the parents, may help a child feel like an integral member of a heterogeneous family group rather than an outsider residing with a more homogeneous family group. Regardless of the explanation for the association between family size and child adjustment, it is clear that researchers investigating the impact of parental factors such as motivation to adopt need to control for family structure variables associated with the parental factors being considered in their prediction of child outcomes.

Limitations and contributions

There were several limitations related to our sample. First, the families who participated in the study were, on average, more religious than adoptive parents generally. This is because most adoption agencies in the region where the study was conducted are faith based. This likely led to a higher estimate of the presence of religious motivations than would be found in other samples and made it difficult to disentangle religious motivation to adopt from other aspects of religiosity such as church attendance (a variable with a very restricted range in our sample). Second, the sample was relatively small. This was due to the longitudinal design of the study and the desire to conduct comprehensive assessments with each child and family, thus reducing statistical power and increasing the chance that we would fail to detect an effect, especially in the analysis examining religious motivations on child outcomes which were underpowered give the number of predictors. Third, the sample was quite heterogeneous in terms of age at adoption, although age at adoption was included as a covariate in the regression analyses. Fourth, our convenience sample was recruited from persons known to agencies organizing social opportunities for adoptive families. Thus, it is possible that our families differed from families we might have obtained with a more rigorous sampling method on some dimension that may have impacted our results (e.g., adoption savvy parents seeking to help their children maintain a healthy sense of ethnic heritage, struggling parents meeting with other adoptive parents for emotional support). There were also limitations in the way we measured religious motivation to adopt. In addition to assessing only one specific aspect of religious motivation (for better and worse), we collected these data retrospectively (at Wave 1), after the children had joined their families. While the average time between adoption and measurement of motivation was only 16 months, ideally, we would have been able to measure motivation to adopt prior to the child joining the family. Despite these limitations, we have made several important contributions to the scant literature on motivations to adopt. First, we forged new territory. Few studies have examined religious motivation to adopt and to our knowledge, no studies have examined its link with parenting practices and outcomes longitudinally or within international adoption. Second, we have contributed a new way to measure motivation to adopt that allowed us to assess the contribution of religious motivation relative to other motivations (see Appendix A). Although further honing is in order, we have provided a protocol for researchers to gather both rankings and percent ratings, and better facilitate cross sample comparisons. Third, and perhaps most important, we have demonstrated how critical it is for researchers investigating adoptive parent characteristics to control for their associated covariates in the prediction of outcomes. Specifically, we demonstrated that parental characteristics such as motivation influence the types of adoption that parents are willing to pursue. Reckoning family structure covariates, such as age at adoption, number of children in the family, and baseline child adjustment, is critical to understanding family dynamics in adoptive families.


There are at two very obvious applications of this study. First, our results support the growing awareness that religious families are an important resource when it comes to finding a home for difficult to place children (see also Belanger et al., 2008, 2012; Glidden, 1985). Religious motivation, indicated by the belief that God had explicitly directed them to adopt, was associated with parents’ choice to adopt older children, and more of them. This tendency of religiously motivated persons to welcome these children should be capitalized on. Second, our results confirm that religious motivation to adopt is associated with firmer discipline and suggest that the prospect of firm discipline (as a main effect or interacting with religious motivation) should be viewed as neither a protective factor, nor a risk factor, when it comes to child adjustment. Although agencies should expect firmer discipline from religiously motivated parents, this expectation should neither persuade nor dissuade them from placing a child with a religious family who meets agency criteria. That said, religiosity in general may contribute to the success of an adoption and the adjustment of those involved in ways not assessed in this research. Future research is needed that better distinguishes which aspects of religiosity impact which aspects of post adoptive success, through which mechanisms. Finally, better research is needed on initial motivations to adopt. Such research should seek to determine whether the impact of various presenting motivations is direct and/or mediated by associated family structure and process variables. A more nuanced understanding of which predictors are linked with later outcomes can assist adoption professionals in identifying families who are more likely to require additional supports postadoption and perhaps intervene earlier to prevent more serious challenges later.


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