Unfortunately, out of unfamiliarity, ignorance, or plain carelessness, people often say rude or foolish things about adoption. This frustrates people involved in adoption. It often offends them deeply. It’s nice to “mean well” when you speak, but meaning well doesn’t erase the careless or hurtful words already spoken.
So, as an adopted person, whose life is invested in the subject, allow me to offer you some tips on what NOT to say when talking about adoption:
What NOT to say to Adopted People 1. Anything at all – without asking first.
Believe it or not, adoption is an intensely personal subject which cuts to the core of who an adopted person is. It is personal. It is that person’s story, and no one else’s (not even their adoptive parents’). Please do not assume that you have a right to delve into the details of a person’s adoption unless they give you permission, or they have already publicly expressed their willingness to talk about it in the past. Even then, tread carefully. It’s personal.
For another perspective on this,click here to read an incredible and piercing article: “My Child’s Adoption Story is None of Your Business.”
2. Who are your “real” parents?
Stop talking, right there. Never, ever, under any circumstances, use the word “real” when talking about adoption. Whether you mean it or not, you are distinguishing in value between my birth parents and my adoptive parents, as if one set are my “real” parents and the other are “not really” my parents. In a very real sense, both sets are my real parents. When you want to distinguish between those sets, use more specific, non-value terms like adoptive/biological, or parents/birth-parents.
3. Where are you from from?
Non-adopted people get the privilege of treating this like the normal question it should be:
Person 1: “Where are you from?”
Person 2: “I’m from Odessa. What about you?”
Person 1: “I’m from Fort Worth. Hey, I’ve been to Odessa!”
This naturally becomes a very friendly conversation about who you are, where you grew up, how you got to where you are now. Very pleasant. I love knowing where people are from!
But OFTEN, when people know that you’re adopted, they don’t want to know where you’re from. They want to know where you’re from from:
Person 1: “Where are you from?”
Person 2 (adopted): “I’m from Odessa.”
Person 1: “Oh, well I mean, where are you from from?”
Person 2: Well, I’m from Odessa, but I was born in San Antonio…”
Person 1: “No, I mean…what is your background? You know…”
And so on. Watch the video below (it’s instructive, and hilarious). This has happened to me so many times. So many times. And it shouldn’t. Now, I’m happy to talk about where I’m from, where I was born, and my ethnicity. But it is not ok to pass over what is basically human about me (where I grew up) in order to satisfy your curiosity about my adoptive/ethnic past. (P.S. – I’m 1/4 Korean. And no – I don’t speak Korean. Seriously. Stop asking).
What NOT to say to People Who Adopt 1. ANYTHING in front of their children
If you have a question about a person’s children – adopted or not – do NOT ask when their children are present. You have no idea what those children know or don’t know, especially about a subject like adoption. You have no idea how their impressionable little brains and hearts are processing the information they do know. I have heard generally nice people ask parents, in front of their adopted children – “Do they know who their real parents are?” No person – especially a child – should ever have to hear that. It’s not always that bad, but the rule always applies: if it’s about the kids, ask the parents when the kids aren’t around.
2. Could you not have your own kids?
Stop, right there. First of all, allow me to politely say: it’s not really your business. Second, like the word “real,” you should never, ever, under any circumstances, use word “own” when talking about adoption. When you use this word, you are distinguishing between parents’ children in a way that you should not – “own kid” versus “someone else’s kid.” That’s not how adoption works. All their children – adopted or biological – are their “own” children.
3. How will you love a child who is not related to you?
I’ve heard this one in several forms (blood vs. non-blood; own vs. not-your-own, yours vs. someone else’s, etc.), most often from other married people. All forms of this question are unacceptable. Let me ask you this: are you married? Did you marry someone from your family – a sibling or a cousin? No? Good. You have now successfully loved someone as your “own” who is not blood-related to you. We humans do it all the time!
I know that most people say these sorts of things not out of meanness, but out of well-meaning ignorance. I get it, and I will forgive you. But now I strongly exhort you to do better next time. In fact, I hope all readers will heed this advice not as a chastisement, but as a loving lesson on how to improve, and love your fellow humans better.
Adoption is not something we should avoid talking about, and it’s certainly not something shameful. It’s beautiful and glorious, and I’d love to talk to you about my own adoption. But it is personal, complex, and often difficult. Let’s talk (or not) about it that way.
Dr. Brian Franklin is the Associate Director of the Center for Presidential History at Southern Methodist University. He holds a Ph.D. in American History from Texas A&M University, and has a special interest in the intersection between religion, politics, and society in 18th- and 19th-century America.