“What NOT to Say”

In this 1st episode of “What NOT to Say” I would like to share some of the major no-no’s when talking to adoptive families.  I also want to share with readers what TO say to adoptive families.  For starters, I want to be clear that I understand that many people who say things that come across as hurtful or rude (or even racist) usually mean well.  Many of them have a genuine interest in the adoption process and are trying to celebrate the adoptive family.  However, that doesn’t mean that everything about the adoption process, how a family came to be, or a child’s history is “on limits,” especially when the children are within ear shot.  As an adoptive mama, I have learned how to accept intrusive questions and counter ignorant statements with love and grace (most of the time).  I have also taught my children how to graciously disregard intrusive questions and explained that, just because someone takes an interest in our family or them as individuals, they are not required to engage them in a conversation about their personal story.  I model a few canned phrases that my children can use when they feel uncomfortable with the questions being asked, or when they just don’t feel like sharing their adoption story.  I hope both adoptive families and anyone who ever meets an adoptive family finds this information helpful.

What NOT to Say (and some alternatives):
~Do not ask where the child’s ‘real parents’ are or whether two children are ‘real brothers.’  Instead, use terms like ‘biological’, ‘birth’, or ‘first’ family.
~Do not ask whether someone is adopting because they can’t have ‘children of their own.’  Adopted children are VERY much their own.  This statement gives the idea that adoption is a last resort, which speaks a terrible message to the adopted child.  Personally, I would never ask anyone why they adopted…just like I wouldn’t ask if someone became pregnant through in vitro, or if someone took a new job because they were fired from their last one, or why they recently divorced.  Some questions are just plain nosy and don’t need to be asked.
~Do not ask about the child’s birth family or history.  If the adoptive family wants to share about this (when the child is not around), they will.  A child’s adoption story is very personal and many adoptive parents wait until their child is older so they can determine what they would like to share with others.
~Do not ask any questions that sound like the family is picking out a puppy.  For instance, don’t ask if they are specifying age or if they got to ‘choose a boy or girl.’
~Do not assume that someone who already has a girl is going to adopt a boy because they want to have ‘one of each.’  Many people make remarks to adoptive families about how they need to adopt a __(insert gender here)__ based on the gender(s) of their current child(ren).  Personally, if we had a dollar for every time my husband has been told how he ‘needs a son’ or has been asked how he feels ‘about having another girl,’ we could fund our next adoption!
~Refrain from asking anything about the family’s adoption expenses.
~Do not say anything like, “We figured if we couldn’t have kids of our own we’d just adopt.”  There is nothing ‘just’ about adopting, it’s tough.  A statement like this can be hurtful on so many levels to an adoptive family, especially one who struggled through years of infertility or who is struggling to raise the finances for their adoption.
~Do not mention how ‘lucky’ the child is to have been adopted.  Adoption is a blessing for both the adoptive parents and the child, and it makes the child seem very undeserving.

What to NEVER. EVER. EVER. EVER. SAY: (yes, either myself or my adoptive friends have heard each of these)
~Do not ask whether Angelina Jolie or Brad Pitt inspired them to adopt.  They didn’t.
~Do not say, “You’re lucky your kids are adopted. You had kids the easy way!”  It’s not easy.
~Do not ask if the child’s skin will ‘lighten up’ once they come to the US.  It won’t.
~Do not ask, “How much did you pay for her?” It’s rude.
~Do not say, “Now that you’ve adopted her, I’m sure you’ll have your own.” She is their own.

What TO Say:
During the process, you can say:  Congratulations!  Do you know if the child is a boy or girl?  Is there anything I can do to help?
~After the adoption, you can say:  Congratulations!  He/she is beautiful!  How much did they weigh?  How are they eating/sleeping/adjusting?
~Direct your compliments toward the entire family so as not to single anyone out or exclude a child.  You can’t ever go wrong with, ‘What a beautiful family,’ What well-mannered children you have,’ or ‘What a happy bunch!’

The most important thing to remember when you encounter adoptive parents is that is that adoption, just like 9 months of morning sickness, 36 hours of labor, a grueling delivery, and 6 weeks of postpartum recovery, is hard.  Most adoptive parents do NOT adopt because it’s fun, or because it’s cool, or popular, or easy. Many adopt because they desire to have children and are unable to conceive.  Others adopt in order to rescue children from the unspeakable conditions they live in.  Personally speaking, my husband and I adopt because God told us to.  We lay our hearts on the line and allow our home to become a battle field, at times, with wounded children acting out the loss and pain they have experienced, because He told us to.  We love because He first loved us.

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16 Responses to “What NOT to Say”

  1. Carlee says:

    Leave a comment with your own “adoption doosey” if you’d like. 🙂

  2. Kenneth Brooks says:

    I’ve heard a few dumb comments toward those who want to adopt, mostly things about the finances or the race of the babies. Pretty aggravating. Glad you posted this!

  3. kayasmom says:

    oh mercy……this just speaks to my heart!!!! These are sooo true. Two things that have hurt the most in concerns to our first adoption. “I understand you love your baby, but it just can’t compare to what a mother feels after giving birth to her child. It’s the type of bond you just can’t imagine unless you’ve been through it.” Like I just couldn’t possibly love my adopted child as much as this woman did the child she gave birth to. Second “Wow, she really looks like she could be yours!” Um, she IS mine. I may not have given birth to my daughter, but let me tell you, I would have much rather just carried her 9 months and then given birth than to have to go through the 3.5 years of hell we went through to fight for her. Would I do it again? yes, and I am, but don’t EVER think adoption is easy. Adoption is beyond hard, which is what makes adopted children all the more precious. Adoptive mothers go BEYOND “mama bear” mode. It’s as if we are thinking ” you have NO IDEA what I went through to get this child, I’ll be darned if you’re gonna hurt them!”

  4. Angie Pendley says:

    “Ohh, so you adopted first, and THEN you had 2 miracle pregnancies. Well, you know that was God thanking you for taking in the unwanted” Yes, I have actually heard this more than once.
    “Well, you know you got pregnant because you were adopting and could finally relax about the whole “having kids” thing” Yes, because adoption is so STRESS FREE!!!!!
    “I dont think I could raise someone elses child” umm, good, cuz you sure as heck shouldnt be.
    “Whats it like raising a black kid?” Well, its totally different than white kids you know.
    “You need to find a “strong black man” for your son to look up to”..yes, because obviously my husband, his dad, isnt enough.
    From complete strangers in the store, referring to my AA sons hair “You really need to moisturize it more, and maybe put braids in it, and blah blah blah” umm, thank you, I’ve only raised him since he was 7 weeks old and he’s 5, so maybe I’ve figured it out by now.

  5. Leah S. says:

    I have an acquaintance that asks me almost on a weekly basis, “So, any word yet? You know, I have a friend who tried for years to adopt. They finally got a baby and, do you know, after three months they have to give the baby back? Can you believe it? They didn’t have any more money to adopt again after that. I just felt so bad for them because they waited and waited and waited and then they had to give the baby back. Can you imagine? I hope that doesn’t happen to you.”


  6. Carlee says:

    Leah, I meant to put something in there about not telling adopiton horror stories to adoptive families. Those stories are similar to “pregnancy horror stories” which everyone hears the minute the stick turns pink. Why can’t people just share good news!

  7. Carlee says:

    I forgot one of my favorites. Elizabeth was about 6 months old and we were at a hardware store. The older ladies and men working were oohing and ahhing over her and asking all sorts of intrustive questions. 🙂 But the thing they kept saying over and over agian was, “It’s like she really knows you.” I had explained that I had her since birth, but they were still in awe that she actually acted as though I was her mama. One older lady even walked me over to another older lady and said, “Look, she’s adopted, but look at how she knows this is her mom.” They just couldn’t believe it! 🙂

  8. Deserre says:

    We get the shock and awe every time we are asked “so where did you get her” and we say Kansas. They can’t imagine we got an AA child anywhere here in the USA! They assume she is AA so she must be from Haiti, or some other place. We have had it suggested to us to lighten her skin so she will “match us better” and then they went on to say “you know like Micheal Jackson did”. Yeah that is what I want! NOT! Then we have been asked “so what do her feet look like, would you care if I see?” as we were shopping one day. Not too sure what they thought they would look like…hummm…feet? LOL. I have been asked “oh so they didn’t have any white babies or you just wanted a black one?”. Ohhh and lets not forget the whole “I bet her mom was a drug addict wasn’t she?”. Why would you say that??? One day while walking down the mall a little girl went to pat our little AA baby and her mother gasped, grabbed her arm, pulled her back and said in a harsh voice “Do NOT touch IT!” and walked away. yeah… I also just love it when they ask me about her “mom” because to me “I” AM her mom! Then we get ALL the time how lucky our adopted children are and they go on and on telling them how lucky they are we took them in (speaking of our older adopted children from foster care). They make it sound like no one wanted them and they better be glad we were willing to take them in. It is US who are the lucky ones! Makes me SO angry when they say things like this to my kids! Ohhh I could go on and on! I think it is pretty much several times a week people open up their mouth and insert foot!

    • andie says:

      These take the cake, Deserre, where do you live??! Maybe I have gotten weird comments and blocked them out, but I think you have gotten more doozies than most.

  9. Darcie Wertz says:

    At the hospital where my daughter was born it was a FANTASTIC set of nurses…but after a long delivery for my daughters birthmom the nurses who we had been working with were off of their shift…when it came time to take her home, the new nurse on duty told me that I should have someone run to WalMart for me THAT DAY to get a copy of “What to Expect the First Year” because I wouldn’t have “motherly instinct” because she was adopted. Hmmm…I have also had many people tell me that we had children it the “easy way”….GRRRRR…Thank you for this Carlee!

  10. andie says:

    Carlee, what are the things you teach your kids to say to avoid answering questions they don’t want to answer? Probably the first weird adoption comment I ever got was that one where someone commented on M knowing me. She said, ” He’s so comfortable with you!” It was certainly well-meaning, but doesn’t make sense when I have adopted an infant and when I have had that infant with me since he was 1 day old. Yep- I think he’s figured out who I am now 🙂

  11. Leanne says:

    I can just pretty much reiterate that I’ve heard them all, too! My favorite question is “where did Matthew come from?” assuming he was foreign born….I usually stun them when I say “Lafayette,IN”… I think the hardest statements and questions always involve the “character” of the birth mother…. every one seems to have a judgement on this woman, who just like me, made some bad choices….this does not equate that she was a bad person OR UNFIT TO RAISE her child…If anything, she is obviously the most selfless person I know….AND I WILL DEFEND HER CHARACTER UNTIL THE END… so, don’t question it to me☺☺
    My child’s grandmother actually had one of her neighbors tell her “well, adopting is just not the same” as having her “own” child…. the grandmother stopped speaking to her neighbor….and I had one relative ask “are they REALLY yours?”….. that was not well received question, either!

  12. Carlee says:

    Andie, whenever my kids are asked where they got their (hair/skin/curls/etc) from, we like to say, “From God.” Either the person thinks its an adorable answer, or understands that we’re done talking about that topic. Either way, it gives us the opportunity to walk away nicely. C has never minded talking about being adopted, but I suspect that E won’t be as willing…so I will need to protect her a bit more.

    People are constantly saying things (right in front of our girls) about us needing a boy. Catherine is learning to say the same things Femi and I say in response, “Who needs boys when you have 3 princesses.”

    I also know families who have a “code word.” When the kids feel uncomfortable, they speak a code work (usually about having to pick someone up or needed to do something) and then the parents know to end the conversation and move on. I know it would essentially be lying, but if a conversation is at the expense of your kids, maybe it’d be worth it. 🙂

    Deserre, I think I’ll start responding to the “where is she from” question in the same way. “From God, thank you very much.”

  13. kayasmom says:

    hey! Let’s just start saying the kids came from Antarctica! hahahaha can you imagine the looks?! oh mercy….I’m totally doing that.

    • Angie Pendley says:

      yes, all of our children come from some unknown village in Antarctica!!!! hahahahaha Or make up some foreign country and see if they go along with it. “Oh, he’s from Mesochovakia, its a small country that sits beside Checalotamia”

  14. Krista says:

    We had a new family at our church one Sunday. One sweet lady was trying to tell me about this new family and took me over to the mom, since I have 6 children and this new family has 6 children, some of whom are adopted. This woman introduced me to the mom and then asked her about the children. She had heard that there was one born into the family and the others adopted. She actually asked her, “So which one is yours?” I piped right up for the mom quick and said, “THEY ARE ALL HERS!!” I know it wasn’t intentionally to disregard the adopted children, but it seemed she wanted to be able to pick out similarities of the birth child to the parents. I am glad I spoke right up, and that this new mom didn’t have to defend herself without a “friend in the village”.

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