Talking to Adoptive Families: Dos and Don’ts

While reading a funny article called “Ten Things you shouldn’t Say at the Thanksgiving Table – and what to say instead” by Debra Fine. I started thinking about this concept with regards to adoptive families. So I compiled some “don’ts” and alternatives based on what people in the know – adoptive parents, therapists, psychologists, and adoptees – have to say.

  1. Don’t compare the adoption process to pregnancy. In general this is dangerous. Many families have adopted as a result of infertility. They are painfully aware of the differences between the two, so rather than unintentionally hurt them, it is best to just ask, “How is the adoption process going?”
  2. Don’t say “Your kids look so similar. They look like they could be real brothers.” Do real brothers fight? Play together? Get into trouble together? Well, yes, then biologically related or not, they are real brothers.  More importantly this question reiterates to the brothers that something is wrong with their family – i.e. something is un-“real” about the way their family was formed. If you must comment, then choose phrases like “You have a beautiful family!” Or, “I can’t believe how big the boys have gotten!”
  3. Don’t say, “Now that you’ve adopted! You will definitely get pregnant.” I have never understood this one. Why does adopting equate to getting pregnant? I would love to see the stats that led to that logic.  Although, our adoption process isn’t anywhere near complete, even I have been told this. Couldn’t it be possible that the family is choosing adoption as their first choice? (I know my husband and I are.) Maybe there are some personal health concerns that make giving birth or pregnancy more dangerous? Maybe they are in fact struggling with fertility related problems, but why rub salt in their wounds with such an insensitive statement?  Again, default to “What a beautiful family!” or just as you would for a friend who had just given birth, “Let me bring you dinner! What sounds good?”
  4. Don’t ask, “Weren’t there any kids from the US that you could have adopted?” If you have ever felt inclined to ask this question, I will answer it for you. Most likely the most simplistic, one-word answer to this question is “yes.” However typically this question is asked by folks with very little knowledge of the actual inner-workings and intricacies of adoption. Let me tell you, there are many, many factors that go into deciding which route to take in an adoption process. Dare I say, there are so many factors it would make your head spin. Since the adoptive family is likely more knowledgeable that you, the question asker, you can probably assume that they explored all of their options prior to landing on what worked best for their family’s unique situation.

With that said, all of those nitty-gritty details pale in comparison to the bigger issue here. Kristin Howerton at Rage Against the Minivan says it best:

This question both angers and amuses me.  Amusing because it is so completely petty and almost always posed by people who are doing absolutely nothing about the “kids here in the US” that they are so indignant about. And angering because it is so ridiculous to assume that children born in other countries have less of a right to be adopted into a loving home than those born in the states….Anyways, as always, my response to the question of ‘why adopt from there when there are children here?’ is: Why don’t YOU?

I encourage you to read her whole post. She really hits the nail on the head. So, instead of asking this question, I recommend biting your tongue.

  1. Don’t ask, “You didn’t want any real kids?” No, I wanted marionettes. No, I wanted fake ones, but they gave me these guys. If you ask me this some day, be prepared for some really creative – read: mildly rude and completely annoyed – responses. There are a few things wrong with this question. The use of the word “real” here can do the same damage as it can in #2 above. It can also reiterate to the children that they weren’t your first choice or are some sort of consolation prize.

The other danger lies with hurting a mother who has struggled with infertility and truly desired to have biological children. Again, just avoid the question all together and stick with, “You have a beautiful family.”

  1. Asking, “Are your kids adopted?” is dangerous.  While this question may seem innocuous, certainly don’t ask it in front of the parent’s children.  Although, I won’t say that the question is off limits all together.  Adoption is more complicated than many people realize. Adoption is born out of loss for the child, so reiterating to a child that his or her family was formed differently can be both personal and painful. Some families might not mind this question one bit, while for others it reiterates to the kids that they don’t “fit.” If you are curious, ask this type of thing when the children aren’t around.
  2. Please avoid asking, “What happened to their real parents?” Again, adoption is born out of loss. This question is likely re-opening a very painful wound for the child or reinforcing how little the child knows about his or her past history and family history. It also reiterates to the parents that they aren’t the original parents of this child, which can actually be a very painful loss (with regards to time spent bonding with their child earlier in life or in the womb) for the parents as well as the child. Just stick with, “You have a beautiful family.”
  3. If you aren’t sure whether or not a question is potentially offensive or hurtful, try following this handy rule: “If you wouldn’t say if about a boob job…” don’t say it to an adoptive family.

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