The Importance of Positive Adoption Language

“Giving baby up” for adoption is a phrase we hear often when speaking of adoption. She “gave her baby up for adoption,” or she “put her baby up for adoption.” It’s been commonplace to use these terms for years. Are they really in bad taste? Actually, they may be. Think for a moment about the term “give up.” It evokes the feeling that someone doesn’t try. They just…give up. “Put up for adoption” gives off the vibe that they were put on the market and sold to the highest bidder. In most adoption placements, nothing could be further from the truth. If you ask a birth mother if she gave up, she will most likely tell you that she did not. She fought. Hard. She tried everything she could to make the right decision. She put forth so much effort, so much time, and so much of her heart into making the best decision for her child and for herself. Perhaps a better phrase to use is, “she placed her baby for adoption,” or she “made an adoption plan for her child.” This more accurately describes the choice that most birth mothers make. The decision to place her child in the waiting arms of a loving family is not a decision that is taken lightly. It is a plan, often well thought out and struggled with. Choosing life (and choosing what she feels is a better life) for her child is one of the most selfless and caring decisions a woman can make. It takes a strong person to place the best interests of her child ahead of her own feelings.

They’re just words, so why does it matter how we phrase them? Think for the moment about the perspectives of those involved. If birth parents feel they have “given up,” they may feel that they haven’t tried hard enough or that they have failed in some way. Most birth parents try their best but still find themselves in a position where they aren’t prepared to parent. “Giving up” is a confidence breaker. It sounds like nothing good is going to come from this. “Making a plan” is a thoughtful decision. “Placing a child for adoption” is the conscious choice to place a baby in a stable home with a bright future.  

For an individual who was adopted, the phrase “given up” makes it sound like he wasn’t wanted, like he was abandoned. Being “placed” for adoption means that someone loved him enough to make sure he grew up in a home where he could thrive and excel. Someone made an “adoption plan” for him because he is worthy of only the best. He is part of a plan.  

From an adoptive parent’s point of view, if a baby was “given up,” it sounds as if they could just come to get the child without putting forth any effort. The truth is, parents who have adopted are part of an adoption plan as well. They have often gone through extensive training, financial obligations, and faced many emotions. They have waited patiently for their plans to come to fruition, for a child, their child, to be placed into their homes.

If you have found yourself using the phrase “give up for adoption,” don’t feel bad.  Many people have used this phrasing, even birth parents! As adoption journeys have evolved over the years, so has the language we use concerning adoption. It’s never too late to learn something new and to change the way you speak about adoption placements. There are many phrases pertaining to adoption that can be reworked. It is important to acknowledge the emotions of all parties involved and to avoid the misconceptions that commonly misused terms can convey. By learning about and utilizing positive adoption language, you can show educated respect for all parties involved.

“Real Parents” vs “Birth Parents”

Another term that’s often misused is “real parents.” For example, people might say, “He was adopted, but he’s never met his real parents.” What is a “real parent”? Is there any such thing as an imaginary parent? Any person who has a biological child raises a child, or adopts a child is considered a “real parent.” While most people are well-meaning, the term “real parent” can be upsetting. People who have devoted their lives to raising a child are definitely real parents, even if the child isn’t theirs biologically. How do we rephrase this to be more considerate of others?

Instead of using the term “real parents” or “natural parents,” consider saying “biological parents” or “birth parents.” Some birth mothers prefer the term “first mom” as another alternative.

“Adoptive Parents” vs “Parents”

Unless you are using the term to differentiate the birth parents from the adoptive parents, most families who have adopted children would prefer to just be called parents. When introducing your friend’s family, there is no need to say, “This is Julie, and these are her adoptive parents.” Just say, “I’d like you to meet Julie and her parents.” Families built through adoption may have had a different beginning, but that’s often the only difference. Anyone who raises a child is a parent, regardless of the biological connection.

“Adopted Child” vs “Child”

This one is similar to the previous one. There is no need to make a distinction as to whether someone’s child was adopted or not.  Even in a blended family, where some children are biological and some children have been adopted, there is no reason to differentiate. “These are Linda’s daughters, Grace and Joy, and this is her adopted son Thomas.” A better phrase would be, “These are Linda’s children: Grace, Joy, and Thomas.” By making a distinction between the children, Thomas may feel that he is somehow different and separated from his sisters, even though his parents love them all the same.

Is Adopted” vs “Was Adopted”

These terms sound very similar, but the small difference makes all the difference. “Is” describes a person’s current state. While adoption is a lifelong commitment to family, the adoption placement is a one-time thing. Just because a person was adopted as a baby doesn’t mean that “adopted” is who he or she is. It’s only a small part of that person’s story. Would you say that you “are born”? No, most likely you would say that you “were born.” They were born too, and they were adopted, but they ARE currently a part of a family. 

“Keeping the Baby” vs “Parenting the Child”

When a woman is asked whether she plans to keep the baby, it sounds like her other option is to give the child away. When we think about it, a baby isn’t a possession to be kept or given away. A baby is a human being who has needs. A woman facing an unplanned pregnancy has some difficult and life-changing decisions to make. She may choose to parent her child, she may choose to have an abortion, or she may choose to place the child for adoption. If she decides to proceed with the pregnancy, she will either choose to parent her child or she will make an adoption plan in which a loving family will become parents to her child instead. Either way, this child will end up with a parent (or parents) who can provide for her or him.

“Illegitimate” vs “Born to Unmarried Parents”

Many children are born to unmarried parents. Over the years, many terms have been used to describe these situations. Some people call these children illegitimate. Some use terms that sound even more crude and inconsiderate. Just because a child is born to unmarried parents doesn’t make him or her illegitimate. That child is legitimately worthy of love. He is born into this world just as legitimately as anyone else. People do not have control over the situation into which they are born, so there is no reason to label them in such a way.

“Unwanted Pregnancy” vs “Unplanned Pregnancy”

The term “unwanted pregnancy” gives the impression that there is no love, no care, and no responsibility to the child in question. Oftentimes, the birth parents “want” to raise the child they have conceived, but due to life’s circumstances, they are unable to. Even when the pregnancy comes at a very difficult moment in their lives and they find themselves unprepared, it doesn’t mean that this child isn’t cared for. If they decide to make an adoption plan for their unborn child, there is a family who very much “wants” this child as well. While the pregnancy may not have been planned, this child is very much loved and wanted. The same can be said for the term “unwanted” or “abandoned child.” A better and more accurate term to use is “child placed for adoption.”

“Child Taken Away” vs “Termination of Parental Rights”

Some adoptions are finalized after the biological parents’ rights have been terminated by the court. In this case, there is a legal reason as to why the child can no longer live in the same home as his or her birth family. We often hear that a child was “taken away” from her parents. This gives the impression that the child was snatched from the home. It almost sounds like a kidnapping. It can also give the impression that the parents are unfit. In the event that there was neglect, abuse, drug addiction, etc., the termination of parental rights is likely in the best interest of the child. The child is then placed in a home with parents who are better equipped to care for him or her physically, emotionally, financially, or a number of other needs. In other situations, biological parents may decide that they aren’t in a position to properly care for their children. Even though there is no abuse, neglect, or otherwise negative behavior, they may choose to have their parental rights terminated in favor of what they feel is a better situation for their child or children. A child being “taken away” evokes great emotion. A “termination of parental rights” is a legal matter.

Other Phrases to Avoid

While often said with the best of intentions, there are some phrases that can come across as insensitive. Here are a few that are best avoided:

“It’s so amazing that you have adopted a child in need!”  

“Your child is so lucky that he/she was adopted by you!”

“Your son/daughter is so much better off with you than with the birth parents.”

These phrases imply that the child who has been adopted should be grateful that someone wanted her or that she is somehow indebted to her parents for adopting her. Parents who choose to adopt aren’t saints; they are individuals or couples who wanted to grow their families just like those who choose to have children biologically. Other than the way the child comes into their lives, they are parents just like any other family. These phrases also imply that the birth parents were not worthy of parenting, even though they may have been wonderful people.

“I could never raise someone else’s child.”

This phrase is inaccurate because it’s not “someone else’s child” they are raising. It’s their own child. It’s not always blood that makes a family. Love forms an unbreakable bond that goes beyond biological relationships. 

“I could never give my baby away.”

Not only is the phrase “give away” inappropriate, so is the assumption. The truth is, we never know what we can or can’t do until we are placed in a situation where we have to make that decision. One person’s perception of what’s best may differ from someone else’s. It’s better to avoid judgment. By making these types of statements, it would imply that a birth mother should feel guilty. She may already be struggling with her decision. There is no reason to make her feel inadequate. The truth is, she is stronger than most will ever know.

Education Is Key

Even the most well-meaning person will accidentally say the wrong thing at times—especially in those moments when we really aren’t sure WHAT we are supposed to say. After all, we are only human. If you have used these phrases, give yourself some grace. You probably didn’t mean any harm. From now on, you can do your best to intentionally use positive adoption language. By educating ourselves and others, we can be certain that we are respecting the feelings of everyone involved. By using the correct terms, we can help instill confidence and avoid common misconceptions. Birth mothers don’t give up; they give love. And love is what family is all about.

Leslie Bolin is a happily married mama of 3 amazing kids. She is also the birth mother to an adult son. She is just beginning the reunion process, which makes her nervous and excited at the same time. Leslie enjoys educating others about adoption and has done her fair share of outreach, writing, and public speaking on the subject. She has an Associate of Arts degree in Social Work and plans to continue her education. Leslie enjoys spending time with her family, finding peace in the beauty of nature, and laughing as much as possible. She believes that smiling is contagious and that music is good for the soul. She is a firm believer that even the most difficult moments can be turned into something beautiful when we use our stories to help others.