How To Teach Proper Adoption Language To A Misunderstanding World.

Fourteen years ago, when we started the adoption journey, we quickly learned the difference between appropriate and inappropriate questions to ask adoptive parents, and how to respond to a misunderstanding world.

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I remember the first time someone used improper terminology in front of me. I was standing in our church lobby, holding my newborn daughter in my arms, and a well-intentioned elderly gentlemen asked if we were going to have any children of our own some day. I smiled and politely replied, “We’re not sure what the future holds but we may have children biologically. We’ll just have to see.”

After stumbling over himself for a moment, and saying the typical, “Oh you know what I mean,” he smiled, gave my daughter a grandfatherly tickle, and moved on. It’s not that he meant to say the wrong thing, it’s just the world he lived in had a limited understanding of adoption. And the lingo matched the misunderstanding.

Over the years, we’ve heard lots of incorrect terminology. Mostly, as in the case of the elderly man from our church, it’s spoken with good intention. We know how frustrating this can be. Trust me, we’ve dealt with off-handed questions and comments toward us and our children more than we could count. Out of our own experience, here are 2 ways to respond:

  • Compassion. You were once in the dark on what’s right to say, and what’s a little off, so respond with the same compassion someone once responded to you with. View it as though you’re bringing someone out of the dark and into the light.
  • Gentle Redirection. Simply respond with the correct terminology. There’s no reason to be rude. You may be talking to future adoptive parents, after all. However, you need to be firm in your redirection. Some people may be a little slower than others to respond. Firm redirection can expedite this.

This may sound elementary, but make education your overarching goal. Adoptive parents are interesting people. Even though our population is growing, we’re still an anomaly for the most part. Our very presence begs people to ask questions. And the world needs to know the correct answers.

Appropriate Verses Inappropriate.

In our 14 years as adoptive parents, we’ve heard it all. Some of that has been quite offensive. So here’s a run-down of some of the top incorrect questions we’ve received over the years, followed by correct terminology, answers, and even some of the humorous answers we’ve been known to give. The goal of this is to help, not criticize. Please don’t take it personally if you’ve ever asked one of these questions of an adoptive parent. We’ve all made mistakes (Even me, and I am an adoptive parent)

  • “Do you have any kids of your own?” or, “Are any of your children natural?” (trust me, this was asked of me recently). The correct way to say this is simply, “Do you have any biological children?” When we’re feeling ornery, or just looking for a good laugh, we’ll answer with something like, “Oh yes, no preservatives or additives included! They’re real flesh and blood human beings.”
  • “Where did you get them from?” or, “Are they local?” or, “Are they from this country?” The correct way to ask this is, “Did you adopt domestically or internationally?”
  • “Are they real brothers and sisters?” When you adopt or foster sibling groups, you get this question all the time. It’s understandable, but incorrect. The proper way to ask this is, “Are any of them biological siblings?” You could also ask, “Are there any sibling groups in your family?” We personally love to respond to this question with something along the lines of, “Considering that they fight ALL. THE. TIME, I’d say yes. Yes, they are real brothers and sisters!”
  • “Can’t you have children of your own?” NEVER ask this question of an adoptive parent, or human being, ever, at any time. Adoptive parents, we recommend answering, “We chose adoption.” It’s a simple answer and that’s the point. Of course, you could also say, “That’s none of your business!” 🙂
  • “Do you know their mom?” This is a common question we’ve been asked. Mostly because several of our children were adopted through foster care. The correct way to ask this is, “Do you know their birth mother?” The way to answer is “Yes, we have a relationship with their birth mother,” (If you do). To have some fun I like to answer, “Oh yes, I know their mother, I sleep with her every night!”
  • “Did her mom do drugs? Is that why she had to be adopted?” or “Did you adopt her because the mom was homeless?” or “Did she lose him because he was a crack baby?” First of all, our children didn’t “have to be adopted.” We chose them and their birth mother chose us. Even if they had to…none of your bees wax my friend! Furthermore, we refer to the woman who gave them life as their birth mother. These are examples of inappropriate questions that really shouldn’t be answered, or addressed, but we will. In the past, I have kindly asked the person inquiring to step back and think about their question. Some questioning can be blamed on ignorance, and to that you simply shed light on their question. Other times, questions are just rude and off-base. Some of our children have come from difficult situations, but that’s nobody’s business but ours. If you’re prone to ask questions, or be nosey, let me stop you. Asking questions like these are offensive and hurtful, especially if the child you’re inquiring about is listening. For yourself and the adoptive parent’s sake, think before you ask. If you are on the receiving end of this type of questioning, walk away.

Shedding Light, Asking Not.

After fielding many of the questions above, we decided to make it our goal to shed light into the lives of those who weren’t adoptive parents, or just didn’t think before they asked. While some questions warrant an abrupt answer, compassion and redirection has made a world of difference. You may receive the rudest, most off-color question in the world. It may anger you so much that you want to scream. Do your best to respond with compassion. You will be glad you did.

However, if you’re not an adoptive parent, or not educated on the adoption journey, or proper lingo, think before you ask. An even better policy is “Ask Not.” I know you’re curious, and I know inquiring minds want to know. We’ve had so many people ask us about our story in the past. That’s completely fine with us. We don’t mind answering questions. But please don’t pry. Don’t snoop for info. This goes for all adoptive families. If we want to share additional information, we will. If not, we won’t.

Question: Adoptive parents, leave us a comment with some of your examples of improper terminology. Traditional parents, what are some of your questions? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

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  • Jesse DeBoer

    Thanks Mike, this is a good read as always. It really is funny how frequent these questions get asked, and by which people. Like you recommend above, we find that re-asking the question in the correct terms before we answer it is a great way to educate.
    My dad is chief among those in the dark on appropriate language…boy does he wish that one day we’ll ‘just have kids of our own.’ My first instinct is one of your sassy responses above… But what I’ve come to say is that they’re all God’s kids anyway – biological, foster, forever…we just care for them for the time we’re given.