What not to say to adoptive parents

I feel a little ashamed that I haven’t written about adoption until now. 

I think the unrelenting nature of the whole parenthood thing has made me a bit self-absorbed and tunnel vision-y. 

Curiosity about the world outside my own little pinkeye factory became just another casualty of my stumbling-through-the-dark parenting style. 

That said, I’ve overheard a variety of troubling comments about adoption over the past few years. From tossed-off assurances that, “You can always just adopt!” to couples struggling with fertility to rude, inappropriate questions (“Which one is your real child?”), it’s pretty clear that when it comes to adoption, a lot of folks just don’t have a clue. 

So I checked in with a few adoptive parents to learn about proper adoption terminology, how to support friends who are in the adoption process and what you should never say to an adoptive parent. 

Terminology matters 

Kelly Westhoff of South Minneapolis emphasized the importance of being careful with your words. If you absolutely must bring up a child’s adopted status at all, the proper terminology is to say that the child “was adopted” — not “is adopted.” 

“A legal adoption happened on one exact day and is over and done with,” said Westhoff. 

Think before you e-vite 

An offer to host a shower for a friend in the adoption process might cause her stress, said Westhoff, pointing out that — in the case of domestic adoptions — birth parents have the right to change their minds, despite a previous promise of an adoption. 

“If you want to throw a shower for your friend who is adopting, offer to host it after the child comes home,” suggested Westhoff. “Or host a ‘gift card’ shower where guests bring gift cards instead of toys and clothes.” 

Postpartum depression

The “baby blues” and postpartum depression are real and common experiences for adoptive mothers.  

“If you think about the hormones at play in the body of a pregnant woman and how those can cause havoc for a new mom, consider not being pregnant, and not having any of those hormones (not even the ones that help prepare the woman to be a new mom) — and then, all of a sudden, finding yourself a mom,” said Westhoff. “It’s a totally different experience, but it is a common phenomenon.”

Nobody buys a child 

Adoption is a legal process, with every dollar accounted for. 

Money pays for a variety of services and processes, including the labor of a social worker, background checks, fingerprinting, travel, the legal paperwork (declaring the child legally bound to the parents) and more. 

“If you want to know how much an adoption costs, Google it,” Westhoff said.

 ‘He’s so lucky!’

People like to say that adopted children are “lucky,” but this statement is insensitive, Westhoff said. 

“Even if an adopted child is entering a family of higher economic status or greater stability than he or she came from, the child is starting life with many losses,” she said. “The loss of relationships, the loss of health history and, in the case of many international adoptions, the loss of culture, language and living in a country where he/she is in the majority. 

“Adoptive parents consider themselves the lucky ones. To gush and say ‘Sally is SO lucky!’ is hurtful and does not take in consideration the child’s reality.”

Biology doesn’t make a family 

Every adoptive parent I spoke with described incidents in which they were overlooked in public because they didn’t “look like” their child. 

One child’s swimming teacher, for example, just couldn’t seem to get his mind around the supposed complexities of the child’s racially diverse family, constantly forgetting which parent belonged with which child. 

There are simple things we, as parents, can do to address this kind of ignorance. 

As one of my friends said, “If you can explain to your children that some families aren’t all the same race — but they’re still a family and it’s OK — that will help our children avoid being teased for having a different-looking family.”  

Read more about respectful adoption language at tinyurl.com/talking-adoption.


Shannon Keough lives in Minneapolis with her husband and two children. Send questions or comments to skeough@mnparent.com.