If I were to rely solely on the mass media for information about adoption, the only logical conclusion would be that the world of adoption is in complete chaos and on the verge of self-destruction. For example, some of the articles in our local newspaper claimed to expose the “dark side of adoption.” And that’s not all. CNN has shown the two adoptive parents from Florida doing the perp-walk because they starved and abused the children placed with them. Other articles I have read covered a situation wherein baby who had been taken prematurely from a young birth-mother, adoptive parents having to hand their crying toddler back to a birth-father who upheld his rights, and Jerry Springer seems to have an abundance of unhappy teenagers who would like to trade in their stable and structured life with their adoptive parents for something more exciting and with less rules.
I am sure you have been exposed to some of the media’s recent attention to adoption and I want to make it clear in the strongest possible way that these are classic examples of media sensationalism and they have little to do with the adoption experience you will have. About twenty thousand infants are born in the United States and then placed for adoption. In each of those 20,000, or so, adoptions (with the exception of a few) the transition went smoothly, lovingly, and as such was unworthy of attention by the media. In my opinion, the media’s tendency to focus on the one or two “high profile” adoption cases creates a distorted image of a very wonderful method of family building and a successful social arrangement. I want to focus and look at the social arrangement called adoption and specifically, our choice of words and about the adoption process and the people who are involved in it and some of the recommendations of Act of Love Adoptions to present adoption in a positive light.
Developing an open adoption dialog with a child can be a challenge for parents. Sometimes, having the right answer isn’t immediately intuitive and many parents are afraid they will say or do the wrong thing. The most important thing is to start talking about adoption when the child is very young. This helps the child develop a base of information that you can add to later on as their age and ability to understand increases. Also from a young age, take steps to assist your child in developing a vocabulary of feeling words. As you probably know, when young children can’t express themselves verbally they tend to act out what they are feeling. Consequently, having plenty of words to express himself/herself will not only help your child talk about adoption but, in many other situations. In my opinion, the only mistake a parent can make is not being truthful with their child. Adoption preparation classes at Act of Love Adoptions can help prepare adoptive parents for an open dialog with their child.
Prior to talking with their child, parents should take an inventory of their own fears and biases regarding adoption. Do your best in working through any of these fears or biases you may have as they are readily transferred to the child. Many adult adoptees’ reflect back on their developmental years and recall not being able to talk about or ask about their birth-parents because they believed it would make their mom and dad feel bad. This is to be avoided. Make sure your non-verbal messages to your child are congruent with what you say and make sure your child knows from the earliest time that no questions are out of bounds. Parents sometimes worry that by raising the issue of adoption they will cause their child pain. There may be some truth to this fear as talking with your child about adoption may stir up feelings. However, as these feelings exist anyway, who better to bring them out in the open and address them, than the child’s own, loving parents? Adoptive parents who are emotionally attuned to their children’s questions about adoption are creating a responsiveness that will assist their child in talking with them not only about adoption, but all of life’s complex issues. Talking about adoption with your child can provide a connectedness that serves a child well, throughout life. Social workers and counselors at Act of Love Adoptions will help adoptive parents deal with their fears and biases.
Act of Love Adoptions believes that telling the adoption story is probably the best practice for new parents just beginning to talk with their children about adoption. At a very young age, children love to hear how the parents went to the adoption agency, got on an airplane, held them and dressed them for the first time. Telling this story, usually over and over again at the child’s request builds rapport and confidence to handle other more complicated aspects of their child’s adoption that may come up later. Family pictures, scrapbooks, and mementoes, both pre and post-adoption, are helpful especially for young children. Sentimental items such as the first baby outfit or other keepsakes are also sources of pride and again, contribute to productive talk and the child’s understanding of the process. Keep in mind though that although preschool age kids “hear” and seem to understand their adoption story they may not necessarily “get it” that it’s all that different from being born into a family. Many adoptive parents have had good results explaining adoption and creating dialogue with their child using a new pet’s entry into their home. Another family I have worked with assisted their older children in understanding adoption via comic books and movies about Superman and Spiderman who were both adopted.
In talking to young children about adoption, I have found that they are usually very open minded and accepting. Whether you are responding to a question or explaining the adoption story, begin by telling children that there are lots of different ways to make a family and then give examples of a few to help them grasp this concept. When your child is ready, schedule a visit to Act of Love Adoption Agency in Sandy, Utah to meet those involved in their adoption. After talking about the different ways families are made; the next step is to explain how “having a child grow in its mommy’s tummy is one way, adopting a child is another.” It is best to be straightforward and open and to make explanations in simple, age appropriate, concrete terms. I have learned that almost always there are questions I am unprepared for and that it is OK to say, “I don’t know” or, “I’ve never thought about that”, or “I’ll have to think about that and get back to you”.
Most children begin wrestling with identity issues around the age of seven or eight. Developmentally, that’s when children begin the transition from concrete to abstract thinking. For adoptees, that’s when the word “adoption” transitions to an emotionally charged multifaceted concept rather than just a description of a procedure. It is around this age that adoptees begin to internalize a fact they might have been told but, did not fully understand which is; that, in order for their parents to have gotten them; someone had to give them up. This information in conjunction with a rudimentary grasp of reproduction, adds an additional variable to the emotional mix. If you sense that your child is struggling with the question “why didn’t my birth-mother keep me?” I think a good strategy is to assist the child in reforming the question to the more positive “why did she make an adoption plan for me.” With that new perspective, I think it is appropriate to tell the child what you do know about the birth-mothers decision being mindful of the fact that birth-parents typically have many reasons for making a placement plan for their child. Adoptive parents should pay close attention to the cues the child is giving off and take advantages of any opportunity to listen (first) and then talk (second). Too often, I think, parents make the mistake of responding with a Band-Aid of information when they should be listening and asking questions.
Overall, when talking about adoption it is probably best to avoid such terms as real parent, real mother, real father, and real family as you risk implying that adoptive relationships are artificial and tentative. Likewise, avoid terms such as natural parent and natural child, which imply that in not being genetically linked we are less than whole or that our relationships are less important than are relationships by birth. Indeed in adoption, children will always have two absolutely “real” families: one by birth and one by adoption. Those who raise and nurture a child are his parents: his mother, father, mommy, daddy, etc. Those who conceive and give birth to a child are the birthparents: birthmother and birthfather.
In talking about the decision-making process expectant parents go through in considering adoption as an option for an untimely pregnancy, Act of Love Adoptions prefers to use terms (such as “place” or make a placement plan” as opposed to “giving up” or “putting up” the child for adoption”) which acknowledge them to be responsible and in control of their own decisions. In my day-to-day work with birth-parents; I am still working on referring to the old “relinquishment form” as the more positive “consent form.” Similarly, the process by which families prepare themselves to become parents is often referred to as a “home-study.” I believe this term carries with it an outdated view of the process as a weeding out or judgment. Today, more and more agencies are coming to view their role as more facilitative and the preferred term for the process of the agency getting to know the adoptive family and vice versa then, is “a pre-placement report”, or “adoptive parent preparation study”. As both sets of parents consider the ways in which they may plan an adoption, their choices include retaining their privacy in a confidential (not closed) adoption or opting to have varying degrees of ongoing contact between birth-parents and adoptive families in a process known as openness in adoption.
Act of Love Adoptions believes that using positive adoption language is important because our language reflects our thoughts and beliefs. For those of us who believe that adoption is a beautiful and healthy way to form a family and a responsible and respectable alternative to other forms of family planning it only makes sense that it is reflected in the words we chose in talking about the process.
In closing, books are excellent tools for adoptive parents and here is a list of some of the best. A good resource for grownups that discusses a child’s understanding of adoption at different developmental stages is “Being Adopted; The Lifelong Search for Self” by David Brodzinsky, Marshall Schechter, and Robin Henig. Books written for young children include: “Tell Me Again About the Night I was Born” by Jamie Lee Curtis, “Over the Moon; an adoption tale” by Karen Katz, “The Day We Met You” by Phoebe Koehler and “A Mother for Choco” by Keiko Kasza. My favorite is “Little Miss Spider” (of “Miss Spider’s Tea Party” fame) by David Kirk. This story is about a little spider that hatches out of her egg and goes looking for her mother. Betty the beetle offers to help her and ends up suggesting that maybe she could be her mother. The last line is excellent “For finding your mother there’s one certain test, just look for the creature who loves you the best.”
Barry Adams, LCSW