Ten Tips on What To Say To Families Who Have Adopted

Know someone who has adopted?


Have you ever met or do you already know a family that has a child that they adopted? Did you feel awkward, uncomfortable, or don’t know what to say or how to act, like the adoption is a giant pink elephant in the room? Don’t feel bad. Often people are nervous about the “right” things to say or do when they meet or even already know families that came together through adoption, especially adoptions of children from a different race.

There are so many blogs and articles telling folks what NOT to do in these circumstances, it's time to provide a few tips on what TO do so that people don’t have to feel they need to walk on eggshells around adoptive families. We’re not a minefield and are usually approachable about adoption, as long as certain considerations are respected.

Here is a list of things TO DO when you encounter a family with a child or children that were adopted, or you suspect were adopted:

1. DO refrain from any of the following questions, or questions similar to these:

  • a) Was/Is your child adopted?
    Even if it is glaringly obvious to you that a child was adopted, ask yourself first why you need to know this information. If there is no relevancy to your relationship with the child or the parents in knowing if the child was adopted or not, then it doesn’t really matter if the child was adopted or not. For example, if you see a black child with white parents, asking “Did you adopt him/her?” only serves to point out to the child how obvious it is to strangers that he/she was adopted, and that often makes a child of adoption feel segregated, even if that isn’t your intention. Your best option is to patiently wait for the family or child to introduce the topic of adoption to conversation, or to ask with sincerity “I’ve always wondered certain things about adoption. Do you feel comfortable discussing it?” as this doesn’t point out the child as “adopted” and also leaves room for someone to politely decline to discuss adoption, if they don’t wish to.
  • b) Where did you get him/her? Or, Where is he/she from? 
    I must admit, for some reason this question is one of my bigger pet peeves! Once, I answered a woman with “At the black baby store.” Not a kind or gently educational response, I agree, but this is really not the question you want to lead with, folks. If you are already in an adoption-related conversation, it’s perfectly fine to ask “Did you adopt domestically or internationally?” and then follow up with “What country did you adopt from?” if it was an international adoption. However, if you are at Walmart and see a white/Caucasian person with a black/Asian child and you walk up to them squealing about how cute their child is and ask this question, DO be prepared for some serious icy attitude or outright verbal rebuffing. “Where did you get him/her?” is a question that should be used for things, not people. It shows a complete lack of appreciation for the process of adoption, as well as the emotional journey of both the child and the parents.
  • c) How much did your adoption/child cost?
    The real question here is – why do you need to know? If you are interested in adoption for yourself personally, the best way to find out the cost is to speak to an agency or an Adoption Practitioner. Talking about the financial aspect of adoption in front of a child who was adopted only serves to make that child feel like a commodity. Plus, buying children is illegal, which is sometimes the response I give to that question when I sense somebody is simply being nosy.
  • d) Do you know or meet their “real” mother/father/parents?
    I sometimes answer this question with “Of course! I see her every day in the mirror!” and people usually get it pretty quickly why this question is inappropriate. DO refer to the woman who gave birth to the child as their “birth mother.” The mother is the woman the child calls “mom,” most likely the woman with the child, but in some cases, especially for older adoptees who have contact with their birth mother, BOTH mothers are their “real” mothers, and “birth mother” is the best term for distinction between the two. Same terminology for birth father, and DO refrain from asking if we know anything about him, as well.
  • e) Is this your “own” child?
    Again, this question is along the same lines as “Is she/he adopted?” but I do try to consider that the person asking may just not fathom that a black (or Asian) child could have a white/Caucasian mother and father. Unless you are a child’s teacher or school staff and are ensuring you are releasing the child into the right person’s custody, or, you have some private, parents-only information or questions (i.e. you are medical personnel) to share with the parents about the child, then it’s probably not necessary to ask if this is somebody’s “own” child.

2. DO avoid using the phrase “gave the child up.” The birth mother did not “give up” their child and in most cases, the adoption plan that the birth mother or birth parents made was a difficult decision made with love and consideration for the child’s best well being. DO consider how hearing that they were “given up” would make a child feel and use the terminology “the birth mother made an adoption plan/decided to have the child adopted by another family” or anything that avoids making the child feel rejected.

3. DO ignore the fact that the child most likely does not look anything like his or her parent and feel free to discuss the weather, politics, religion or anything other than commenting on which of the parents you think the child looks like, especially if the child is of a different race or skin colour than the parents. If you must comment on the child’s looks, do tell them they are gorgeous, handsome, cute, adorable—you get the picture. DO also add in your comments that the child looks/sounds/seems very bright or very kind or something that also acknowledges more than just their looks, so that they don’t feel like their looks are all they have to offer (this can actually apply to ALL kids, not just ones who were adopted!).

4. DO refer to the child having “been adopted” or “was adopted” as a past-tense verb, not a pronoun or adjective. Say “Little Suzy WAS adopted” not “Little Suzy IS adopted” because adoption is not a medical condition, and even if it were, people with medical conditions such as diabetes, autism and epilepsy are far more than just diabetics, autistics and epileptics. Adoption is a process that families go through to become families, it is not a description of who or what a family or a child or adult who was adopted is.

5. DO use your own imagination about why the child’s birth parent(s) made an adoption plan and leave that question unasked. That’s private information and often not even known. Even if it is known, sometimes there are painful details as part of that story, and while it should not be treated as a shameful secret, it is a private part of an adoptee’s history. DO simply make the assumption that in some way or another, life with the family who adopted them was intended to be in the best interest of the child who was adopted. That’s really all that matters, isn’t it?

6. Do talk about how lucky our family is, not how lucky the child we adopted is. Unless you have some definition of luck that we’ve never heard of, it is not lucky to be separated from your birth parents at any point in your life, or to endure waiting in an orphanage environment, foster home (or worse) for some unknown strangers to come take you away from the only environment you know and sometimes speak to you in a language you don’t understand, nor is it “lucky” to often endure abuse, neglect, malnourishment or dehydration prior to adoption. Our family is beyond lucky to be blessed with the amazing child that adoption brought to us, not the other way around. While there may have been an element of wanting to help a child who needs a family in some people’s decision to adopt, we are not angels of charity – our primary reason for adopting was to add a child to our family, not to promote ourselves as do-gooders and our child as the “lucky” recipient.

7. DO empathize that the mother (and father!) may also be sensitive to the loss of fertility, pregnancy experience, birth experience or the loss of all kinds of “firsts” in the child’s life (first smile, first tooth, first steps, first words, etc) depending on the age that the child was adopted at. DO understand that any kinds of comments about how the adoptive family had their child “the easy way” is an insult and demonstrates ignorance on your part regarding the financial, emotional and sometimes even physical efforts required in an adoption process.

8. DO keep your comments about pregnancies that happen immediately after adoption to yourself. Adoption is not a fertility treatment, and if we do actually conceive, what we “will do” is welcome that child into our family exactly the same way we welcomed the child that we adopted. A bio child is not the ultimate prize over a child through adoption and asking such questions in front of our child who was adopted only serves to make them feel that they were the Plan B consolation prize.

9. DO be prepared to accept gentle education from some adoptive families. Our family is one of many that tries to not take offense to unintentional violations of the above tips, but we do also feel it is our obligation to our daughter and other children of adoption that we politely correct someone if they have said or done something that could possibly hurt or disrespect our child and her family, both adoptive and birth.

10. DO feel free to open up a respectful conversation about adoption, using the above guidelines. They are not meant as intimidation factors. We are not ashamed or embarrassed of our adoption, and most families enjoy talking about most aspects of their adoption journey, although some families do opt to keep certain details private. So do also be prepared to hear “I’m sorry, that’s something we keep private” as a response and respect that. A great opening line, if you are genuinely interested in adoption, is “I’ve always been curious about adoption and how it works. Would you mind if I ask some questions?” If you have a smile on your face and friendly curiosity in your heart (not nosiness in your eyes and mind) than there are few families that won’t share their beautiful, fantastic stories of how their incredible family came together.

On New Year's eve 2006, I married the man of my dreams. Well, ok – the second man of my dreams after the first dream ended in divorce. Seems the 1st and 2nd men of my dreams both have the same first name, but that has benefits sometimes.... With my man came his awesome mini-me son who lives with us 50% of the time so I got a 2-for-1 deal.  I always wanted children (that called me "mommy"), so after we married, we marched off to the fertility specialist. Scads of money and tears later, no baby appeared, so we began a new journey to adopt internationally.  Our brilliant daughter has been a part of our family since 2009 and is the joy of my life. Being a mom through adoption is hard. Being a stepmom is hard.  Being a transracial mom is hard. Being a mom of ANY kind is hard, as well as the most rewarding experience you could ever have. Come read all about my momiverse in my crazy, busy, fruity, sweet and spicy blog at: http://mypapayajambalaya.wordpress.com/

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