How To Teach Proper Adoption Lingo To The World.

Sixteen 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.

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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 (no pun intended), but make education your overarching goal. Adoptive parents, are interesting people. There are not as many of us running around as there are traditional families. Our very presence begs people to ask questions. And the world needs to know the answer….mostly.

Appropriate Verses Inappropriate.

In our 16 years as adoptive parents, we’ve heard it all. Some of that has been quite offensive. So here’s a run-down of incorrect questions and terminology 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 kids?” or, “Are any of your children biologically yours?” 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 freaking time, I’d say yes!”
  • “Can’t you have children?” I’m just going to say it- pretty much NEVER asking this question of any adoptive parent, or human, ever, at any time, is the best idea. We’ve been asked this and we know many other adoptive parents who have fielded this question. If you are going to inquire, the proper question is, “Were you not able to have children biologically?” Adoptive parents, we recommend answering, “We chose adoption.” Sounds simple 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 sleep with her every night!”
  • “Did their parents do drugs?” or “Was the mom homeless?” or “Was he a crack baby?” 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. Truth is, 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.

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.

We believe all of our posts on this blog are opportunities for dialogue. It’s one of our favorite parts of blogging. So, lets talk about this. If you’re an adoptive parent, leave us a comment with some of your examples of improper terminology. If you’re a traditional parent, or a curious person, what are some of your questions?

Question: Have you encountered people who’ve said inappropriate things to your, or your children, when it comes to adoption or foster care? Share with us in the comment section below. You can leave a comment by clicking here.

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  • Jen

    Single parent adoption questions…

    Incorrect question #1: “Are you a lesbian?” (Yes, I’ve been asked this….at work)
    Incorrect question #2: “Why didn’t you use a sperm donor and have one of your own?”

    Correct question #1: “What prompted your decision to adopt?” (don’t expect an answer…that’s a person question)

    Answer to incorrect question #1: No…are you?
    Answer to incorrect question #2: The baby I bring home is my own.

    Answer to correct question #1: Lots of reasons 🙂

    I know I have stuck my foot in my mouth more times than I would like to admit…I’ve learned so much about adoption terminology from Kristin over the years! She’s also taught me that there are times when someone needs to be gently corrected on the incorrect terminology, times when a sarcastic response is needed, and times to say nothing and move on.

    • This list made me laugh. Thanks for commenting.

  • Mike Berry

    Oh my goodness, I about spewed when I read the first line of your comment. Unbelievable. But then again, completely believable. And, great answer to that sort of question. Love it!

  • Derek

    I can’t think of anything to add. This is very well written Mike. I especially like the fact that your goal is to educate and not criticize. I try to not ever respond harshly when people use the wrong terms (even though it can be frustrating). It only scares people off from the whole topic, which doesn’t do any good. We should promote the idea of adoption, not make people more afraid of it. Great job.


    • Mike Berry

      Thanks so much for the comment bro! It was a tricky post to write because my goal wasn’t to offend or put out. Glad it did not do that! See you soon.

  • Shaun

    We foster and have 6 boys 6 and under and we get asked all the time:

    Are they all yours?
    If I am by myself, I usually respond with: My wife tells me they are.

    If we’re together we play it off with something similar to: They were on clearance at Target. I think they have a few more!

    It is a lot of fun. If they continue to probe which some do as they aren’t satisfied and just too curious I guess, I proudly call it the “Lease option to buy” program, and then explain the foster system a little bit.

    • Shaun, that’s hilarious. I’ll have to use that one. Thanks for your comment!

  • Jason VanHalle

    A friend that I met while in Colombia posted this for National Adoption Awareness Month on Facebook – I was shocked to find a blog post about adoption written by a Father! Sometimes I feel like I’m the only guy in the World who is active and involved in adoption advocacy, which I know isn’t true. It’s just a shame how often it feels like it.
    I never really had much of an issue with these quesitons when people ask me them, because I probably would have asked the exact same thing before my wife and I chose to adopt. I think it just shows how far we have to go as a culture when it comes to being aware and accepting of adoption. I also think it’s a shame that even within the Church people will look at you like you’re insane for wanting to adopt certain children or have large families.
    Anywho, thanks for taking the time to write.

    • Hey Jason, glad you found this post and glad you enjoyed it. I would have to agree that it’s nice when you find out that you’re not the only guy who believes in adoption. Were in this together. Thanks for your comment!

  • This is very helpful. My husband and I would love to adopt when our four biological kids are a little older, and I’ve long been interested in adoption, yet I still learned some things from your list. Thank you.

    • Becky, so good to hear that you picked some stuff up from the post. I encourage you guys in the area of adoption. It is quite a journey and one that will bless you richly but also challenge you greatly. Thanks again for your comment.

  • zayzaymom

    As a foster parent people ask for details all the time. “What was their life like? Were they exposed to drugs? Where they abused?” I usually respond with statistics or a generic answer -“Every situation is different but most children come into care for a reason.”

    This was a great post to share with my non fostering/adopting friends. 🙂 I love reading your blogs! Thank you

    • Ahh, thanks so much. We are so glad to have you as a reader. Glad you liked this post. Great way to answer those questions. We’ve been there before.

  • Pingback: How To Successfully Help Your Family Understand Adoption | Confessions of a Parent()

  • Kathy Miller

    I’m a great-grandmother, had 3 biological children who kept me very busy. While I do wonder all those things you mentioned, when I encounter a family of 5+, I usually smile, interact with the children & compliment the parents. I ask name & ages, often parents share origin info (adopted, step, foster, biological) but if not, I don’t ask. I recognize that they are doing something I had neither the patience or stamina to tackle! “God bless them, 1 and all!”

  • Lindsey

    I’m an adoptive mom of a son who looks different from me, but it’s totally conceivable to people we encounter, based on our appearances, that he could be my biological son. So, I’ve been asked on a number of occasions, “Is he your son?” I always just reply “yes” with a smile (which is the only answer I’m comfortable with, of course). Most of the time, the conversation either ends or goes on happily about parenthood, etc., but in a recent conversation at the park, another mom went on to talk about her family, and how her son doesn’t look like her either (“oh, they both must look like their fathers!”). It felt awkward to correct her, since she wasn’t even asking a question anymore–just continuing on under faulty assumptions, so I never clarified, and after only a minute or so, the conversation ended and we went along our way, as my son was running to play with something else (as any toddler at the park might). But, I’m curious what others may have done in this or similar scenarios? Would you clarify at the outset? Is there a non-awkward way to clarify once the conversation’s continued? Thanks for any thoughts you have–I’ve read stuff before about ways to respond, but in the moment, it can be so hard to figure out what to say! And thanks for this post–I found it really helpful!

    • Janet Acker

      My daughters are Chinese. I am not so I am often asked if their father is Chinese. Depending on the circumstance I will either educate or have a laugh and say “You know, I have no idea. But I would think so.”

  • melanie.beltz

    We chose to foster and adopt older kids. We have been not only asked, but persuaded by family to accept handouts to adopt an infant. Yes, it is pricey, but that’s not why we chose this. To think that at 8 or 10 you aren’t worthy of a family makes us very sad. Our kids are wonderful. They aren’t the violent, out-of- control people that their files made them out to be. They are just our kids. One calls me mom, the other calls me by my name. But no matter what, these are my kids, and titles and biology doesn’t hold a candle to our relationship.