It’s common for parents to feel nervous about talking to their child about adoption and to wonder how to best answer his questions. Questions from adoptive parents may be normal considerations: When to start? How much to share? What’s appropriate? What should I say? What shouldn’t I say?
No matter how you go about it, it’s important to remember that the only wrong way to talk to your child about adoption is to say nothing at all. It’s also important to remember that as your child grows, so will the conversation, along with his understanding of adoption at each stage of his life.
Concerned parents often look for help with how to best initiate conversations, as well as how to respond to questions from others—well-meaning family, supportive friends, and curious (and sometimes) nosy strangers—concerning adoption. It’s very easy to forget that your adopted child most likely shares all of the same concerns that you do—and then some—when reaching for the right words to answer questions about their adoption.
In order for your child to be able to answer questions about adoption, he will need to know what adoption is and how to talk about adoption—specifically, his own adoption—before he can talk about adoption in general.
One way that you can and should begin the conversation about adoption is to start early. You can take the taboo out of talking about adoption (and at the same time prepare your child to answer questions himself) by introducing the subject early on and making it an open-ended discussion. This doesn’t mean that you have to or even should talk about adoption on the daily or force the topic if your child doesn’t seem interested. However, don’t assume that everything is fine and he doesn’t have any questions or concerns just because he’s 8 years old and still hasn’t asked a question. The problem may be that he doesn’t know what to ask or how to ask it.
While you’re not going to want to overwhelm a toddler or preschool-aged child with too much information or details that they may not yet be old enough to understand, repeating your child’s adoption story to him, sharing the basics of how you came to be a family, and watching and listening to any signs that he may be thinking about adoption or questioning what adoption is will go a long way in the way he receives his story. This may also determine how he eventually feels comfortable (or not) in responding to questions from others about it.
Being age-appropriate when speaking to children about adoption is important. In the Adoption.com article, “Age-Appropriate Ways to Talk to Your Children About Adoption,” the author suggests that parents be real and honest. As children enter grammar school and move into middle school their understanding of adoption will most certainly change faster than you can even imagine. Mortality now becomes a more understandable and relatable concept and the differences between birth child vs. adopted child will be very clear; he will understand that whereas most of his peers may not be adopted—he is. And even if it’s not quite clear exactly why that makes him different, he will feel different. And he’ll most likely want to know why. At this stage, he will have established relationships with some teachers and classmates and will be well aware of his teachers’ and peers’ family dynamics (my kids started coming home to share stories of other kids’ families as early as kindergarten) from (teacher) engagements to separations to divorces to who has stepparents and half-siblings to kids who are living with their grandparents to other kids who are adopted.
By the time my oldest was in kindergarten, both she and I were targeted by certain kids in her class who were curious as to our relationship since our skin tones didn’t quite match up (some seriously perceptive and sweet kids, by the way). It was around this time that the term “real parents” also entered our reality and we would touch upon the different types of families and relationships (for the record, a lot of these kids would also share their stories with me whenever I’d go in to volunteer with the class).
By second grade, the questions were coming in more frequently, from “Why did you want to adopt us?” to “Why didn’t our birth mom keep us?” to “Would you rather have had your own kids?” Children may start asking these questions because these may be questions kids at school are posing, oftentimes, unaware that their questions may come across as hurtful or confusing to an adopted child who may or may not have the answers.
We all know that as children become tweens and teens, oftentimes, the window of open conversation closes while their desire for privacy increases. What they may have been more comfortable talking about or being open to at 10 may vary by the time 13 rolls around and they are worried about how their peers may react upon knowing they are an adoptee. And why wouldn’t they? Adoption was not their choice and now that they have a much better understanding of biology and relationships (puppy love and dating anyone?), their take on adoption may very well change as well.
Honesty is Your Best Policy
“Oh, what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive!” (Sir Walter Scott, 1808)
With the exception of wanting to protect your child from imminent hurt or harm, I can’t imagine why a parent would choose to lie about a child’s adoption; however, some parents do feel that telling little white lies are an easier path than sharing the honest truth.
Obviously, especially when a child is young, there are details better left unspoken until such an age where the details will matter or be better consumed.
Just know that whatever you share with your trusting child, they are believing every word of it and if questioned by another child, they will be sharing the information that you’ve sold them. And while millions of kids share in the belief of a jolly old soul with a fluffy white beard who wears red and passes out presents to good children all over the world (until the truth about Santa Claus comes out one blue-skied morning on the way to school), bending the truth of your child’s adoption is just not the same thing. When the truth of it comes out, you will need to be prepared to answer some hard questions.
That said, there are definitely issues associated with adoption that you may feel your child is not ready to know and rightfully so. But rather than being dishonest, you should be as honest as you can be with what you know and let him know that you will share more details when he is older. In other cases where you may not know the details—or the truth, for that matter—it is also okay to be as honest as you can be with what you know and let him know that you do not have all of the details or you don’t know all of the answers.
The truth has a way of coming out—better to be on the side of honesty than not. The Adoption.com article, “Best Articles for Adoptees 2015 Roundup“ shares stories of adoptees who point to the importance of honesty early on in the process as having helped them to put the pieces of their life together and others who spend years searching for the truth.
Share Your Story
Adopted children are often just as curious to know why their adoptive parents chose to adopt them as they are as to know why their birth parents chose to make an adoption plan for them. No matter what led you to adoption, the result typically involves opening your home and growing a family through an endless amount of unconditional love. Many adoptive parents work with their children to create a lifebook about the child’s life leading up to adoption and thereafter. When making a lifebook, consider also sharing your story of how you came to become an adoptive parent—the research you muddled through, sharing the news of this choice with family and friends, the excitement you felt leading up to the adoption, the worry and the frustration associated with the process—all of it. It’s important for children to know that, unlike how adoption is portrayed in some circles, adoption tends to be the culmination of a lot of things and not a decision made on the spur of the moment. The Adoption.com Why Adopt Guide offers a variety of reasons why certain people choose to adopt—from feeling a calling to adopt to infertility. Of course, once again, parents should be age-appropriate in sharing certain information with an adopted child. But parents should never feel the need to not share the main reason any parent chooses to start a family (be it through natural birth or adoption) to love and care for a child.
Adopted children love to hear that they were thought of, wished for, and desired. Knowing that an adoptive parent chose to adopt and wanted a child through adoption is an important piece of your child’s adoption story and can help him to validate where he belongs, not only in your family, but within the larger world that is opening up around him from first friends to best friends to future loves and his own family someday.
Things Change—People Change
Couples looking to get married tend to focus on that big looming day as if it’s a destination. Months and, in some cases, years are spent plotting and planning everything from the flower selection to table settings to color schemes to favors to who will be sentenced to sit next to Cousin Harry at the reception. Yes, we’re talking about a wedding. A big one-day to-do. For many people, their wedding day is remembered as the best day of their life—a day that they’ve dreamed about since before they knew who they would eventually be saying, “I do” to. People tend to forget about what comes after the last dance and what to expect when the honeymoon ends.
Like marriage, the act of adoption is not just a one-day event, even if it can feel that way while doing all of the prep work, paperwork, worrying, and waiting—all in anticipation of that letter or phone call. This eventually leads you to the big day when you receive a reference and a placement and finally meet the child who you’ve dreamed about and worked toward for what feels like forever. Like marriage, adoption should be viewed as being a life-long event.
Your lives as an adoptive family will change you—all of you. What you perceive to be the most important facet of adoption today may slip to the bottom of the list tomorrow, while something you couldn’t possibly even consider today may take top billing, to you or your adopted child, a decade from now. In other words, adoption is fluid and our perception of adoption needs to be as well.
Be the Example
You’ve probably heard it before—words are cheap and it’s easier said than done, but leading by example goes a long way. By not just telling, but showing your child how to respond to questions, you are arming him to answer questions about adoption in a similar and healthy fashion when you’re not around to serve as his protector. We’ve all been there before, in a grocery store, at school, at a relative’s house, when an inappropriate or awkward comment is lobbed and we quickly and calmly gloss it over to avoid the harm that could be done should we react in a negative way (no matter how understandable that may be).
It does no good to lose control, however, and by showing your child how to respond to questions—or how to ignore questions and go about your life—is a huge tool that allows them to eventually make a similar choice themselves someday when you’re not there to lob it all away.
Learn the language—it can be important to understand adoption language and understanding that what may offend one adoptee may not offend another. Do not assume that because someone uses an outdated term or a term that disagrees with your way of thinking that they are being rude or purposefully initiating conflict. Instead, either take a moment to use your chosen terminology or briefly school them on what is considered to be more appropriate language. The Adoption.com article, “What You Need to Know About Talking About Positive Adoption Language“ discusses just a few adoption terms that have changed throughout the years.
How to Respond to Questions About Adoption?
So, now that you’ve talked to your child and been an example, now what? There is no doubt that no matter how well prepared he is, there will be situations in which he will feel uncomfortable or unsure as to how to respond to certain questions. Remind him:
It’s Their Story to Tell. Adopted kids should know that without a doubt and with no exception, their adoption story is theirs to tell. They can say as little or as much as they like. Typically, unless you’re talking about a close relative or friend, less is usually more than adequate to satisfy another’s curiosity about one of the most important and personal issues of your life.
Keep it Simple, Stup…Simply put, try to keep it simple. If someone wants more details or seems to be looking for the dirt in a gossipy way (there’s usually someone), it’s okay to let them know that you’re not comfortable sharing any more than they would be when sharing the very personal details of their own family’s personal history. It’s okay to keep your personal life personal if you so choose.
Your Opinion and Your Feelings are Yours Alone. It’s okay to feel a certain way about things that another adoptive family, parent, or child doesn’t. It’s okay to have a different opinion about adoption.
Is it Better to Educate or to Fade Away? Some adoptees enjoy the opportunity to engage with others and to take the time to educate someone who is seriously interested in adoption about adoption. It’s also okay to point the asker toward the thousands of articles, books, movies, and TV shows available that discuss adoption or show different types of adoption.
Be Their First Line of Defense
While your child may never feel awkward about answering questions about their adoption, taking the time to talk to them early and (as often as they like) is not a bad thing. The Adoption.com article, “How to Answer Ignorant Questions About Your Adoptive Family“ discusses the importance of responding to some of the harsher adoption questions with dignity and understanding, while still protecting your family. Providing a child with an example of what works and giving them some guidance and the confidence to set limits and feel entitled to keep private what they feel comfortable keeping private will help to prepare them for many situations they will face throughout their lifetime—both adoption related and non-adoption related.
Sue Kuligowski is a staff storyteller at Adoption.com. The mother of two girls through adoption, she is a proposal coordinator, freelance writer/editor, and an adoption advocate. When she’s not writing or editing, she can be found supervising sometimes successful glow-in-the-dark experiments, chasing down snails in the backyard, and attempting to make sure her girls are eating more vegetables than candy.