Each year, hundreds of thousands of children are adopted in the United States. According to the Adoption Network, almost 100 million Americans have adoption in their immediate family, and 60 percent of the U.S. population have had personal experience with adoption. Numbers like these suggest that all of us know someone involved in adoption, if we don’t have personal experience with it ourselves.
Despite these statistics, general knowledge about adoption is sometimes lacking. Many people don’t know what to say to adoptees or families who’ve adopted, or they don’t say anything for fear of saying the wrong thing. Even well-meaning family or friends can unintentionally say something hurtful simply due to lack of education on the topic. Whether you know someone personally involved in adoption or not, it’s important to be versed in terminology and phrasing that help remove the stigma surrounding adoption, so that it will be accepted for the common experience that it is. As a family therapist and a woman with friends who have gone through the adoption process, I’ve learned there are some common words, questions, and phrases to avoid when it comes to adoption, and what can be used instead.
Using positive adoption language
AdoptMatch provides a selection of positive adoption terms that can be used in place of commonly-misused ones. In my experience, possibly the most common misused term is “unwanted pregnancy.” Instead, “unintended pregnancy” conveys much less stigma and is more accurate.
Other widely used but problematic terms include “to keep her child” and “put up” or “given up” for adoption. These phrases unwittingly convey that a child is a piece of property or a possession. Additionally, AdoptMatch notes that“give up” is usually something associated with bad habits (i.e. she “gave up” drinking or smoking) or connotes something done without much thought. On the contrary, the decision and process a birth parent goes through in choosing adoption is incredibly thoughtful and emotionally intense, not to mention a responsible and selfless action. Instead of these potentially harmful phrases, use positive adoption language: a birth mother chose “to parent or not to parent her child,” and she “made an adoption plan” or simply “chose adoption.”
Identifying key participants in adoption
I’ll never forget when I was only seven years old, asking my best friend’s mom about her youngest daughter’s “real mom” while she was driving me to soccer practice. She kindly but matter-of-factly told me that she is her daughter’s real mom, and that maybe I meant her “birth” or “biological” mom. While I was young and naive, I’m glad someone set me straight (and gave me grace) at a young age. Though it may seem like adults would know better than to use such terminology (and ask such invasive questions), some really don’t know better. Rather than making the mistake I made as a child, use “biological parent” or “birth parent” instead of “real parent.” Another common misconception is that parents of a child who was adopted should be referred to as the “adoptive parents” rather than simply “parents”—which is what they are.
Likewise, their child need not be called an “adopted child.” Simply calling the adoptee who they are—child, son, or daughter—is appropriate and respectful. Adding “adopted” as an adjective here adds an unnecessary qualifier that implies this child is not the parents’ “own child.” As AdoptMatch notes, this implies “there is a different value placed on this child because he or she does not share a biological connection to their parent,” which could influence the child’s self-identity, self-esteem, and her perceived role or value in her family.
Remembering adoption doesn’t have to be connected to infertility
Comments that imply that adoption is a couple’s second option to conceiving biologically perpetuate the stigma that adoption is somehow inferior to biological parenting/birthing. Unfortunately, a comment (and incorrect assumption) like, “Now you’ll get pregnant!” could be incredibly hurtful to parents. This likely well-meaning statement implies that getting pregnant and having a biological child is still the preferred option. Consider how damaging it would feel to a child who was adopted to overhear someone saying this to a friend.
Comments like this also ignore the fact that, for many couples, choosing to adopt has nothing to do with their fertility. So don’t assume that all couples who’ve adopted could not have children biologically; couples choose adoption for a number of reasons, not just due to infertility.
Not commenting about appearances
In our modern world, one would think that people would be more familiar with families that don’t appear homogeneous. Yet that doesn’t stop people from commenting about differences in appearances within a family, which is common with adoption. While adoption can certainly be discussed openly and parents are usually well-versed in handling such comments, it is likely that neither the parent nor the child needs a reminder that they don’t look alike. Especially if the family has both biological children and children who were adopted, avoid questions like, “Which one is yours?” or “Are all of them yours?” They are.
Respecting the dignity and past of the child
Even when meant as compliments, comments that praise parents for adopting or that call their children “lucky” set adoptive families apart unnecessarily. Parenting is parenting, which for any family will include its fair share of difficulties, joys, and everything in between, even if some of those difficulties may be different.
Comments that suggest an adoptee is “lucky” or “blessed,” or that he should be “grateful” to be a part of his family, ignore this fact and the “both/and” factor of adoption. As one of my therapy professors in graduate school gently reminded me when I made a cheery and naive comment along these lines, “Adoption starts with loss.” A child who was adopted may feel both love for his family and sadness for the losses associated with adoption. Plus, it makes an unnecessary distinction between this child and a biological son or daughter. What child isn’t in some sense “lucky” to be a part of his or her family, and conversely, what child doesn’t deserve a happy and stable home? Implying that an adopted child should have more “gratitude” than a biological child can be a failure to take into account both the child’s own dignity and the struggles of his or her early life.
While some of these phrases and questions seem obvious to avoid, others are more subtle and unfamiliar, and therefore more difficult to incorporate into our vernacular. But the pay-off is well worth the effort. What we say—and don’t say—to adoptive families can be powerful, and learning how to discuss adoption can help build up our relationships with adoptive friends and family.