Words matter. That’s especially true when it comes to adoption language. As a mom via adoption, I have a great appreciation for language and how people talk about adoption and families. As the mom in a transracial family, in particular, our ventures together can be an invitation for poor word choices simply because our family is blended. I’ve experienced countless cringe-worthy moments in public, with strangers asking if my children are “real” siblings, what country I adopted my daughters from (they were both born in the U.S.), and why my daughters were “put up for adoption” in the first place.
Not only can these questions be personal for families and adoptees; they can also be hurtful. Well-intentioned people may simply be curious about how a family is formed, but at the end of the day, inquiring minds need to know that my young girls are listening. They are learning from the words and phrases people use. That’s why it’s important to incorporate positive adoption language into conversations.
Here are four phrases that can be offensive to adoptive families, as well as some suggestions on positive adoption language people may consider using instead:
DON’T: Do you know his real mom?
DO: You’re a great mom! Do you keep in touch with his birth mom too?
WHY: Using the phrase “real mom” or “real dad” can be hurtful not only to adoptive parents but also to adoptees who may be insecure about their situation or who consider their adoptive parents real (they’re certainly not imaginary!). Consider using the phrase “birth parent” or “biological parent” instead.
DON’T: Why did his birth mom put her baby up for adoption?
DO: What a selfless decision she made to choose life—and to choose your family for her baby!
WHY: It’s a personal decision to make an adoption plan for a child, and many birth parents will tell you it’s not easy. If you must ask, be respectful and sensitive with your word choices, and honor the birth parents in the process. Adoption isn’t about “giving up” a child; rather it’s a loving decision choosing a life for a child that he or she may not otherwise have.
DON’T: How much was he?
DO: What a beautiful child! Can you tell me more about your experience adopting him?
WHY: The cost of the adoption process varies for each family. When done ethically, no parents will pay money for a child, but they will incur costs for court and legal fees, birth parent expenses, medical fees, travel expenses, etc. If you’re interested in learning more about how a family afforded the adoption process, ask them privately, away from their children, and respect their comfort level with what they choose to share.
DON’T: Your child is so lucky to have you.
DO: You’re great parents!
WHY: Adoptive parents aren’t heroes. And by most accounts, a child removed from his or her biological family is not “lucky.” Being separated from biological family members can actually be quite traumatizing for a child. Saying a child is lucky to have his adoptive parents may also imply he’s not lucky to have his biological family, and in many situations (particularly open adoptions) that’s simply not the case.