When Do You Tell a Child He Was Adopted?

When Do You Tell a Child He Was Adopted?

It’s one of the most common questions I hear. Most often, I like to answer with a true story. A friend of mine who is a social worker was placing an infant into the arms of her adoptive parents. The new mother leaned over to the social worker and whispered,

“When do we tell her she’s adopted?” My friend leaned over and whispered back: “On the way home.”

It was the right answer; I think we should be honest from the start. Young children obviously won’t understand what the words mean, but they’ll always know their parents were comfortable with them and proud of how they came into their families. The details can be filled in over time, in an age-appropriate way. But I like to tell the story about my social worker friend for another reason: Why was the adoptive mom whispering? We keep secrets about things we are embarrassed about or ashamed of. ... and family formation should not be one of those things. We should be proud of who we are and truthful with our kids about their past and who they are. People who get whispered about can feel shame or think something is wrong with them. Our children deserve better.

Sometimes the truth can be hard, of course, especially for us (too often insecure) adoptive parents. Sometimes we don’t want to face the truth or perhaps we don’t know it. Maybe we are concerned that it will be complicated, or that our children won’t understand tough material at certain ages. Can telling the truth be complicated? Sure. But not telling the truth can cause even bigger complications, especially when suppressed truths are later discovered–as they usually are. The reality of our family structure ‘is’ natural and normal for our kids. It is the reality they are living. Children figure out where they fit in situations of divorce, step families, single parent families, families with same sex parents, families in which grandparents are raising them. Why do we think they can’t they figure out adop- tion? Of course they can, and they should always know that we’re there to help them do it.

We often carry our own insecurities and worries about our children, then transfer them to the kids and assume they feel the same way. As parents, we are the guardians and the filters for the information we know about our children. We decide what we think is appropriate to know, and when. But we have to remember that our children are capable of assimilating more than we might think, and even harsh explanations can become good opportunities to tell the truth–in age-appropriate ways and with discretion, to be sure, but a lack of information rarely yields the best outcomes.

Adoption has come a long way from the closed practice of taking children home and revealing their history to them at teen-hood, or perhaps never. In the past forty years we have moved far from the ‘just raise them as if you gave birth to them’ model. A secretive past can be hard to overcome, and it’s hard to learn much about secrets–so it’s no wonder we’ve got a ways to go. But the good news is that we’ve moved out of the darkness and into the light; it’s a far brighter, better place to be–and a much easier place for everyone involved to get educated and, consequently, to make even more progress.

Unfortunately, even the words we use relating to adoption still aren’t either precise or well-accepted–which is no surprise, since it’s hard to develop a good vocabulary about secrets. So we don’t even have a ready way to describe people and make them understand their relationships are fine and normal. One example: My son and daughter are siblings, right? Well, they each also have biological siblings who are growing up in their respective birth mothers’ families. Are my daughter’s brother’s sibs related to her? Are they related to my wife and me? We feel they are, but there are no words like ‘in-law’ to describe those relationships, so we don’t have a way yet–as a culture and as individuals–of conveying the message that this extended family is fine and normal. I’m confident we’ll get there, but adoption’s covert past has made the job harder than it might otherwise have been. The way I see it, we’ve gotten to the point where we can discuss subjects like divorce, breast cancer, and Viagra in honest ways that have led to better outcomes; we can and will certainly do the same for adoption -- a topic that affects tens of millions of people in the most intimate, personal and important ways.

As an adoptive parent and an adoption educator, I want my children to fit into society without apologies or explanations. I want them to play and go to school without the stigmatizing, uninformed questions from strangers or acquaintances (“Why did your real mother give you away?”). I want them to grow up in a world in which ‘you’re adopted’ is no longer used or perceived as an insult, in which the people who created them are not denigrated or relegated to secrecy, and in which neither money nor coercion are ever factors in how a family is formed.

I know how sappy and idealistic this may sound, but I want my kids–and all the people like them -– to be able to live their lives without the burden of wondering if their families are natural or real or authentic. I want to level the playing field so that every child, regardless of how he or she came to their family, knows that ‘different’ isn’t better or worse–it’s just different.

Adam Pertman is President of the National Center on Adoption and Permanency and the author of Adoption Nation: How the Adoption Revolution is Transforming America. He is most importantly the adoptive dad of two great kids.

This article is reprinted with permission from Adoption Parenting: Creating a Toolbox, Building Connections. 


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