The Hand that Rocks the Cradle: How Children's Literature Reflects Motherhood, Identity and International Adoption Academic Article uri icon


  • Children's books are "a source of law" for children because "[children] are constantly trying to make sense of what is going on around them, and although literature itself is only a constituent of life experience, as a constituent it is potentially of the greatest importance." As adults and lawyers, we can also read children's books as a source of law because they reflect patriarchal ideologies about the family and stigma surrounding adoption. Like other myths, children's books tell stories about origins and constitute not only subjects but are also the foundation of law by reflecting legal norms and projecting legal changes. Children's stories dramatize the evolution of family and adoption through four narratives: the kinship narrative, the as-if narrative, the failure narrative, and the bad mother narrative. The kinship narrative, discussed in Part II, defines family to include those bound by kinship or blood. The kinship narrative labels adoption as second best and views adoption through three narratives discussed in Part III: the as-if narrative, which sees adoption as trying to replicate kinship; the failure narrative, which views adoption as the result of a failure to have birth children; and the bad mother narrative, which labels the mother who gives up her child for adoption as a bad mother. My discussion of these narratives focuses on books for children under the age of eight. According to research concerning developmental stages, children under age five accept adoption like any other fact about themselves. One survey response illustrates this early stage: "[My two year old] is still too young to conceptually understand the adoption concept. She does know that she was born in China and will tell people this." Researchers have found that children around ages six to nine start to distinguish birth from adoption and begin to question the permanence of adoption. Later, children focus on the legality of adoption and accept it as permanent. So, this project focuses on books for younger children because the simple and uncomplicated narratives offer a seemingly transparent and accessible source of law. It should be noted, however, that illustrations are a primary part of children's books because pictures are more important than words for young children. In addition, many of these books have illustrations of animals rather than people because children under age seven identify with animals and cannot yet separate fantasy and reality.

published proceedings

  • Texas Wesleyan Law Review

author list (cited authors)

  • Ayres, S

complete list of authors

  • Ayres, Susan

publication date

  • March 2004