Learn what not to say to parents of adopted children -- and why you shouldn't say it -- with this adoption etiquette primer.
What Not to Say
"Who are his 'real' parents?"
"Aren't you wonderful to adopt this child?"
"How could his 'real' mother give away an adorable baby?"
"Do you know anything about his background?"
"What will you do if he searches for his 'real' mother?"
"Your kids look so different? Which one is yours?"
"It's just like having one of your own, isn't it?"
"Why was she given up for adoption?"
"How much did you pay for your baby?"
"Now that you've adopted, you'll probably get pregnant, don't you think?"
What Non-Adoptive Parents Should Know
If you're an adoptive parent, chances are you've heard all or some of these questions. Neighbors, strangers, friends, and yes, even family, may mean well, but their remarks can really grate on adoptive families. Often, non-adoptive parents don't even realize they're asking intrusive questions.
The answers to your questions are going to be framed using these basic points about adoption:
- Adoption is permanent.
- Adoption is a legal change, involving the court.
- Adoption is another good way to create a family.
- Some aspects of adoption are private.
- Most adopted children grow up to be just fine.
Adoption Language Etiquette
Unless you are part of an adoptive family yourself or know adoptive parents, you probably aren't familiar with words that connote positive adoption feelings. Certain phrases and questions can imply that an adoptive family is inferior. So that you can tell which statements might be considered mettlesome to an adoptive parent, here's an adoption etiquette primer.
It's All in the Family
Foremost, details about adoption belong to the family. When talking to adoptive families, respect their privacy. Be careful what you ask, especially if the adopted child is nearby. You don't have the right to know how much the parents paid for the child, the circumstances leading up to the adoption, or the names of the biological parents. You can ask what country the child was adopted from, how old he is, for example.
Remember that sometimes an adoptive parent doesn't divulge information with his child about the adoption of his sibling until the children are old enough to grasp the family history. Accept that doctors, family members, baby-sitters, and teachers all deserve and will require more detailed information than you will or might receive.
Saints, No. Parents, Yes
Ninety-two percent of adoptive parents have been called "saints," says author David A. Kirk in his book Shared Fate: A Theory and Method of Adoptive Relationships (Ben-Simon Publications). Even such praise can be unsettling: If parents are "special" for adopting, it implies that it takes an extraordinary person to take on an unlovable child, a charity case.
Don't Use Disparaging Language
Use what the experts call "positive adoption language." For example, don't call a biological mother a "real" mother. Isn't the real mother the one who changes diapers, cares for an ill child, and drives him to school? If the biological mother is called "real," then is the adoptive mother "fake?" Similarly, an adopted child is not "given away," or surrendered; his biological mother made an "adoption plan." Why? To ensure a loving home for a child she could not bring up herself.
Adopted Kids Are Not "Chosen!"
You may think this is a compliment, but it can put an unreasonable burden on a child: Because she was chosen, she has to be perfect to be worthy. Besides, it's not truthful -- the adoptive parents were chosen over other applicants.
More on What Not to Say
Don't Portray Adopted Kids Like the Media Does!
Be careful that you don't insinuate that adoptive families aren't as good as other families. Realize that the media often portrays birth mothers as teenage runaways and regards adoption as "second-best" parenting. Studies of adoptive kids prove that they are no more problematic than non-adopted children. So, don't form your adoption views on outdated stereotypes.
"Now You'll Get Pregnant!"
Adoptive parents rarely get pregnant after adopting. Only five percent of infertile couples will spontaneously conceive after ending fertility treatments, says author Patricia Irwin Johnston in her book Adoption is a Family Affair! What Relatives and Friends Must Know (Perspectives Press). Besides, it's irrelevant now for parents who've adopted children to grow their families: The child is their own so don't tell them "it's just like having one of your own." Parenting, with all its joys and trials, is parenting.
Want to Know More About Adoption? Ask Later.
Perhaps you're thinking of adopting. If your questions are prompted by obtaining more knowledge about adoption, then make a date or ask to telephone the adoptive parent when his child is not present. You will probably receive more straightforward information privately.
Take a Hint!
Many adoptive parents have been coached on how to reply to tactless questions. If they respond: "Why do you want to know?", "I'll have to think about that one," or "I don't have time to answer this now," or if they use humor to deflect your question, then you've probably invaded their territory. Back off!
"Which One Is Yours?"
With foreign adoptions, the child will probably not resemble the adoptive parent. So don't comment on the striking dissimilarity. Who does the child look like? He looks like his biological family. In the case of a biological and adopted child within the same family, don't ask, "Which one is yours?" They both are, and they're siblings, too.
If you do put your foot in your mouth, don't worry. The adoptive parent will probably not get angry with you, especially if his child is present. Why? It gives the message to the child that there is something bad in asking about adoption and that his parent is annoyed at his adoption. Adoptive parents don't want to sound defensive, curt, or angry; it sets a bad example for their child who needs to learn how to answer his classmates' similar questions.
If you're considering adopting or just looking to become more familiar with the topic, read more:
Adoption is a Family Affair! What Relatives & Friends Must Know (Perspectives Press)
By Patricia Irwin Johnston
Making Sense of Adoption (Harper Paperbacks)
By Lois Melina
Parenting Your Adopted Child: A Positive Approach to Building a Strong Family (McGraw-Hill)
By Andrew Adesman, M.D. with Christine Adamec and Susan Caughman
The Unofficial Guide to Adopting a Child (Wiley)
By Andrea DellaVecchio, MA
Shared Fate: A Theory and Method of Adoptive Relationships (Ben-Simon Publications)
By David A. Kirk
Wesley Davidson lives in Chappaqua, New York. She is an adoptive parent of two and has been asked questions for over twenty years.
Originally published on AmericanBaby.com, August 2006.