What All Families Need to Know about Adoptive Families

Every so often, the members of Renee Lubowich’s family – parents and children – pinch each other and say, "Yes, we’re all real, everybody’s real in this family."

What may sound like an odd custom to a non-adoptive family makes perfect sense to Lubowich, the adoptive parent of a daughter from China. Her family takes the pinch test in response to the kinds of questions many kids and their adoptive families field from classmates, neighbors and even complete strangers in the supermarket: "Is that your real mother?" "Is she your real sister?"

Lubowich and other adoptive parents say they’re often asked questions that they believe people would never dream of asking non-adoptive parents. What non-adoptive families may not realize is that these questions – however intended – may be intrusive or insensitive.

Susan Jordan, the mother of two children from Honduras, says that when her children were small, total strangers would stop her at the playground or at a store checkout counter and ask if she was the real parent or make such comments as, "Oh, his father must be Italian."

Leslie Swartz, the mother of a 9-year-old daughter from China, tells a similar story. "My daughter was 8 months when I brought her home. No one minded saying, ‘Is she yours? How much did she cost?’" Still another parent recalls being asked at the playground, "Why did her real parents give her up?

"Educating Non-Adoptive Families
It is important for non-adoptive families to learn more about adoption – and the appropriate etiquette for discussing it, says Kathryn Creedy, executive director of Celebrate Adoption Inc., a coalition working to advance a positive image of adoption. That’s because adoption is so common and because discussing adoption opens the door to understanding many kinds of families, she says.

"One-third of the nation is touched by adoption within their immediate families," Creedy says. "So the likelihood that a person will know someone adopted or that their child will be going to school with someone who was adopted is very high."

Adoption is only one way a family may be formed, Creedy points out. "By understanding adoption, we lay the groundwork for understanding all families," she says. "We need to help support children and help them be comfortable no matter what form their family takes, whether they are being raised by grandparents, by single parents or because they’re a child of divorce or in foster care."

Adoption professionals say non-adoptive families can learn more about adoption through books, Web sites and by talking with adoptive families in a respectful way. And adoptive families can help.

Patricia Irwin Johnston, author of Adoption Is a Family Affair! What Relatives and Friends Must Know, notes that when people decide to adopt, they usually go through a lengthy period of educating themselves about adoption.

"It’s a long process of thinking, reading and talking about it before coming to the decision that this is right for them," Johnston says. "Usually they do it in private. No one says at Thanksgiving, ‘Guess what! We’re infertile and we’re thinking about adoption.’"

But once they do spread the news, pre-adoptive parents who’ve already educated themselves about adoption may forget that they too didn’t know much about it at first, she explains. "Then relatives come out with nutty, crazy reactions and hurt their feelings. What’s really going on is that everyone else is several steps behind and the adopting family needs to (help) families, friends and co-workers catch up."

Johnston advises families who are going to adopt to let their friends and relatives in on what is happening. "Don’t wait until the child is about to arrive. Bring family and friends into this process early, not when you’re saying, ‘We’re going to China in two weeks.’"

She also suggests cutting out articles from adoption magazines and passing them along to friends and family to promote better understanding of the issue.

But Johnston has advice for non-adoptive friends and family, too: "If you’re offered reading materials, please take someone up on it. Read about it so you know what questions to ask and your misconceptions are corrected before you blurt them out."

Friends and family need to be as supportive as they can, by treating adoptive parents as they would any expectant parents, Johnston says. Throw a shower, help get a nursery ready and plan to offer practical support – help with meals, cleaning, etc. – after the baby or child arrives.

What Not to Say

One of the key pieces of advice that Johnston offers – and one that most adoptive families agree with – is that it’s not OK to ask personal questions:

"When you ask somebody, ‘What do you know about the real parents? What did it cost?’ it’s really like asking them about their conception process. You would not feel OK if someone came up to you and said, ‘That little redhead is so cute, what did you do to get red hair?’ or, ‘What position of intercourse did you use?’ It would be a breech of privacy boundaries – the same is true of adoption."

When the questions are driven by someone else’s possible interest in pursuing adoption, however, many adoptive parents will reveal some of the intimate details without feeling violated, Johnston says.

Patricia Irwin Johnston, author o

Lubowich, an adoption educator and specialist, suggests that non-adoptive families phrase statements and questions by starting with "I," such as "I’m interested because …"

If you do not know the family, instead of identifying the adopted child and saying "Excuse me, is your child adopted?" try starting the conversation by talking about yourself, Lubowich suggests.

"You might say, ‘Excuse me, I’m thinking about adoption and if you’re an adoptive family …’" That way, you’re not targeting the child and you’re starting with an explanation.

"Or someone could say, ‘I have some questions about adoption. Is it OK to ask?’ rather than jumping in and asking, ‘Why did you adopt from this place?’ or ‘How much did the adoption cost?’"

Adoptive parent Susan Caughman, the publisher of Adoptive Families magazine, wishes parents would educate their children about adoption "just as they do about poverty and sex and race or gender bias and everything else that’s important to their moral education. Don’t wait for your kids to ask. I think it’s the parents’ responsibility."

Caughman suggests that parents explain that "all children are born in the same way; everybody is born to someone. You might say, ‘Johnny has two families: one he was born to and one that is raising him.’ I think that’s a good solution because it’s accurate," she says. "The No. 1 thing non-adoptive parents need to know is that there’s nothing shameful about adoption. It’s normal. It’s one of the many ways families are formed. They are made by love and not by biology. Once kids understand that, it’s really pretty straightforward."

Creedy suggests that parents talk about adoption with their children in general terms. Don’t say, "Your classmate was adopted and here’s his story." Instead, say something like, "Your classmate was adopted and this is why children are adopted: Sometimes parents can’t take care of their child properly. They work to find a family who can take care of that child. They do what’s called making an adoption plan."

"With that kind of language," Creedy says, "you send a message that this is a considered plan the birth parents are making, rather than someone just giving up or abandoning a child. These birth parents have deep feelings for these children and want what is best for their child."

Learn More:

  • What to Say, What Not to Say: Tips for Non-Adoptive Parents

  • Resources: Web sites and Books for Kids and Parents

  • Personal Questions and Thoughtless Comments: Tips for Adoptive Parents
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