By Melissa Wiliams, LCSW // Executive Director
As you enter the adoption community, it’s important for you to learn how to talk about adoption.
Whaa? You might be saying. First I have to do a home study, NOW I need to learn a whole new vocabulary? What next?
I promise it won’t be that bad. But as you become a card-carrying member of the adoption community, you need to understand that the way we speak about adoption changes the way we think about adoption.
In writing this article, I hope to educate you not only on which terms are considered appropriate, but also on the reasons they are the preferred terms, so that you’ll understand their importance as you move forward in your adoption journey. When we use this type of language, we enable all members of the adoption triad (adoptee, adoptive parents, and birth parents) to more successfully navigate the adoption experience. We also help improve our culture’s overall perspective on adoption.
Please know that what I don’t want to do is make you feel bad about using the “incorrect” terms. These are the terms we’ve all become accustomed to. We hear them all the time–on the news, in casual conversation, in books. They’re engrained in our culture, so of course they’re the terms you’ve been using. Positive Adoption Language (its official name) was created to help remove the shame from adoption, and I certainly don’t want to pile on any more shame by making you feel like a louse for saying “put up for adoption.” Live and learn, right?
So here are some guidelines for talking about adoption.
Instead of this: Birth mother/birth father (before placement)
Say this: Expectant mother/father/parents (before placement)
Here’s why: It’s easy to think of someone making an adoption plan as a “birth parent,” even before they make a placement. However, it’s important for everyone to understand that they are actually that child’s parents up until the moment they sign their relinquishment papers. When adoption agencies or hopeful adoptive parents refer to someone who has not yet placed a child for adoption as a “birth parent,” they are (inadvertently) assigning a role to the expectant parents that they have not yet chosen for certain. Most people do not intend any harm in using this title, but some might perceive the word choice as being coercive, creating a sense that the expectant parent is already a birth parent and can no longer make the choice to parent his/her child.
Instead of this: Our birth mom/dad/parents
Say this: My child’s birth mom/dad/parents
Here’s why: In your excitement to invite your child’s birth mom into your family, you might start referring to her as “our birth mom.” That might be fine with her, but check first. Technically, she’s your child’s birth mom, not yours. And some people feel that they’ve been reduced to the status of a possession, rather than a person, when you say they’re “yours.”
Instead of this: Real/Natural Parents
Say this: Birth mother/mom / Birth father/dad / Birth Family / Birth Parents / First Parents / Biological Parents
Here’s why: When you refer to their birth parents as their “real” and/or “natural” parents, adoptive parents might feel that you perceive them as being “unreal” and “unnatural.”
Instead of this: Can’t have children of their own
Say this: Are infertile / Cannot have biological children
Here’s why: When someone adopts a child, that child becomes their “own.”
Instead of this: Adoptive parents
Say this: Parents
Here’s why: Unless you are trying to differentiate someone’s adoptive parents from their biological parents, you should refer to adoptive parents as simply being a child’s parents. Specifying that they are “adoptive” parents is can imply to listeners that adoptive parents are play a significantly different role than biological parents.
Instead of this: My adopted child / My own child
Say this: My child
Here’s why: If you are an adoptive parent, ALL of your children–both adopted and biological–are your own. There is no need to introduce any children who were adopted differently, unless you are discussing adoption specifically.
Instead of this:Adopted out/Gave up for adoption / Put up for adoption
Say this: Placed his/her child for adoption / Relinquished / Made an adoption or placement plan.
Here’s why: “Placement” draws a picture of loving intention, of birth parents who carefully chose a place in this world for their child. The alternatives can sound more careless, or even make the child seem to be more of a commodity than a loved and cherished human being.
Instead of this: Kept the baby
Say this: Chose to parent/decided to parent
Here’s why: A human being is not an object that can be “kept” or “given away.” When parents decide not to place a baby for adoption, they’re not “keeping” the child, they’re choosing to parent him or her.
Instead of this: Is adopted
Say this: Was adopted
Here’s why: Adoption is a moment in a person’s life, not a defining characteristic.
Please also bear in mind that “people first” language is always preferred in the adoption world. For example, try to say “a child with special needs,” rather than “a special-needs child.”
It is my hope that this quick guide has allowed you to understand not only the “how” behind Positive Adoption Language, but also the “why.” And now that you know, you can use your words to help make the world a better place for adoption.