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What not to say to an adoptive parent

February 12, 2015

I have the good fortune of knowing many families with children who have been adopted, and over the years I’ve been appalled at some of the conversations these friends have endured at the hand of strangers (and even non-strangers). Most adoptive parents will tell you that they know these offenses are not intentional, and they give a lot of grace as they try to educate the public on adoption one awkward conversation at a time. Many would probably tell you, though, that they wish they didn’t have to be blindsided by these uncomfortable and sometimes hurtful exchanges. So, if you know families with adopted children or if you happen to meet a mom at the park that appears to be an adoptive mother, here are some things NOT to say:

Do you still want to have your own kids?

Let’s be clear. Adopted children are “your own” kids. Adoptive parents, whether they have other biological children or not, consider their adopted children their own and they expect you to respect the relationship they have with their adopted child just the same as you would their relationship with a biological child. Whether a family has struggled with infertility prior to adoption or not, it doesn’t mean that adoption is a second choice. Adoptive families do not see adoption as a less desirable option than a biological family, and you shouldn’t either.

Where did they come from?

If a child has a skin color different from their parents, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they have come from a foreign place. This is a conversation that may be completely appropriate between friends, but can feel like an invasion when thrust upon you by a stranger.

Do you know how to do their hair?

This question comes up when the child and parent (usually mom) are of different ethnicities. Sometimes a person of similar ethnicity to the child will ask this question with the underlying assumption that the mother doesn’t know how to tend to the child’s needs. While the question may be well-meaning or even jovial, it can be very hurtful to a mother to feel judged about the way she is taking care of her child. It can feel as if the underlying message is that the child would be better off if he were cared for by someone of the same ethnicity.

How much did they cost?

In the proper context, a discussion regarding the costs of adoption may be a completely legitimate topic of conversation. However, it can be awkward and uncomfortable coming from strangers and mere acquaintances. After all, do you walk up to someone and five minutes into conversation ask them how much they paid for their house? Consider how much more of an invasion of privacy it is when you’re speaking of your child.

I can’t believe a mother would ever give this child away.

While this may be intended as a compliment recognizing how precious the child is, many adoptive parents don’t receive it that way. You aren’t developing a bond with them by bad-mouthing the child’s birth mother. Whatever the circumstances of the child’s birth, adoptive parents often feel intense gratitude for the woman who brought their child into the world. In other situations, their feelings may be complicated and not easily explained to someone who doesn’t know their full story.

Some words of wisdom to keep in mind

Don’t talk about it in front of the children

Many parents are happy to answer your questions and share their adoption journey with you, but they often don’t want to discuss it in front of their children. Each child is unique in their understanding and acceptance of their story. You may divulge information that a parent has not yet explained to them or your topic of conversation may touch on a very sensitive subject for that child. Even seemingly benign topics like baby pictures or a family medical history can bring about a conversation that a parent would rather have in private.

Consider your relationship to the person.

The root of the problem with these questions often is not the question itself. The problem arises when they are asked outside the context of a personal relationship. When we meet someone for the first time or we make a casual acquaintance, most of us aren’t forced to divulge our personal histories; we can tell as much or as little as we want. However, when someone has a child who looks different than they do, suddenly their personal history is obvious to everyone they meet. But remember that just because you assume something about someone because of the color of their skin or what their family looks like doesn’t mean you have an invitation into their personal life.

When it comes to talking about adoption, the key is sensitivity. Know that you don’t know what it’s like to walk in someone else’s shoes and let adoptive parents take the lead on what they are comfortable sharing and what they are not. Instead of pointed and invasive questions, show them you’re interested by saying things like, “I’d love to hear your adoption story one day,” or “ Sometime I’d like to learn more about adoption if you’re up for it.”

You’ll find most adoptive parents eager to share their story and the unique way their family has been weaved together.