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The Right Words: Adoptive Families on How to Talk About Adoption

One night my third-grader, Emilio, made a comment about his “real mother.” We had never used this term in our home, so I was curious about its sudden emergence in his vocabulary. When I learned that he had heard the term at school, I knew it was time to present appropriate adoption language in Emilio’s class. His teacher was receptive, and I presented “Adoption Terminology” the following week.

The Presentation

I begin by asking the students to define “adoption.” Then I draw a large triangle on the blackboard and say that there are at least three people involved in an adoption. Chalk in hand, I point to the top of the triangle and ask, “Who gets adopted?” When they answer — without fail — ”a baby,” I expand this to include a toddler or an older child and write at the top of the triangle, “baby or child.”

Pointing to a bottom corner of the triangle, I ask what I should write there. The students quickly reply, “the mother,” and I ask, “which mother?” “The mother who adopts the child,” is the typical answer. I explain that parents come in different combinations: one woman, one man, a woman and a man, two women, or two men; then I write “Adoptive Parent(s)” by that corner.

When it comes time to fill in the remaining corner, responses usually include “the woman who gave birth to the baby,” “the other mother,” or “the birthmother.” I write “Birthmother/Birthparents” by that corner, as I say, “Every child is created by a birthmother and a birthfather, but sometimes only one of them is involved in the adoption process.”

If a student offers “real” or “natural” mother/parent(s) in response to this last question, I write the term near the corresponding side of the triangle, so we can return to it later. Then I turn the students’ attention to the poster I’ve prepared. Entitled “Adoption Terminology,” it lists the following groups of words:

■    natural, real
■    my/your/his/her/our/their own
■    surrender, give up, give away, relinquish, put up, abandon
■    place for adoption, make an adoption plan, choose adoption
■    foreign, domestic, international

I explain that appropriate terminology means using words that are both clear and respectful. We want it to be easy to understand to whom we are referring, while not insulting or being hurtful to anyone. Then I ask: “What is appropriate language to use to talk about adoption?”

Starting with the first group, “real” and “natural,” I say that all parents are real and natural people. Calling one person “real” or “natural” implies that other people are “not real” or “unnatural.” I ask if these words meet our criteria for appropriate terminology, meaning that they’re clear and respectful, and the students reply that they don’t. We end up agreeing that “biological parent(s)” or “birthparent(s)” are the most appropriate terms for the parents who conceive a child, and that “adoptive parent(s),” or simply, “parent(s),” are the most appropriate terms for the people who adopt a child.

Rewarding Feedback

I never single out adoptees in the classrooms, yet they, as well as their classmates who live in non-traditional biological families, will sometimes volunteer personal anecdotes that enliven the presentation. For example, a biracial third-grader once said, “Kids always think I’m adopted because my parents aren’t married.” That led to a discussion about marriage and race in relation to both biological and adoptive families. A fifth-grader who was adopted internationally related that another student had teased him, saying he didn’t have any “real” parents.

I’ve done this presentation many times, and it’s never been the same twice, yet it has always been rich and rewarding. Judging from the positive feedback I’ve received from teachers, students, and parents (who sometimes visit the class during this presentation), it’s clear that discussing appropriate terminology with children helps them engage more thoughtfully and confidently in conversations about adoption.

Beth Roth lives with her husband and their children, Emilio and Claudia, in New Haven, Connecticut. This article was reprinted with permission from Adoptive Families Magazine (adoptivefamilies.com).  For more information, go to theadoptionguide.com

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