When our youngest was an infant, and we were newly navigating our life as an adoptive family, it was really jarring to be met face to face with insensitive comments regarding our son’s adoption. Oftentimes, the comments that bothered us most weren’t the ones about us or even adoption related, but those that passively (or sometimes aggressively) attacked the dignity of our son or his first family. Although we developed strategies of dealing with this as a family, it grieved us the most when it happened in the context of our faith family.
As believers, we care about our words and how they affect others. We believe and understand that our words have the power of life and death within them (Prov. 18:21). So, when given the opportunity to learn how our words injure others, we should jump at the chance to repent and learn to speak a true and better word.
Fortunately, this has been our experience with our faith community. We’ve come to realize that many of the comments made are not ill-intentioned. Instead of getting angry, then, we do our best to educate close friends and family. And we too, after listening to adoptees and birth mothers, have had to repent of ways we’ve talked about our own adoption experience. In light of this, I want to share some positive adoption language that we’ve learned over the years, along with some common pitfalls to avoid.
1. “Congratulations! We are so excited for your family’s growth.”
Bringing a child into your home through adoption isn’t the same as giving birth to a child. When couples grow their families biologically, a typical birth is met with congratulations and celebrations because a child is born from love and unity. But it’s important to realize that in adoption, although the adoptive family might be thrilled to be welcoming a child into their home, adoption is birthed from brokenness. When we jump over the brokenness and jump right into congratulations it can be harmful to the child. So, when you want to congratulate adoptive parents, congratulate them on their family’s growth while also acknowledging the pain. A great phrase would be, “Congratulations on your family’s growth! We’re praying for you, your child, and their birth family during these next few months.”
On the opposite side of that coin, it’s not good to say, “That child is so lucky to get to have you as parents.” Although it comes from good intentions, it really undermines the loss that the adoptee has experienced. The child has a first family that has faced incredibly difficult scenarios which led to a traumatic break of relationship in some form or fashion. This is far from lucky; it’s devastating to both the adoptee and the birth family.
2. Ask, “What would be helpful?”
Adoption is hard. It’s messy. It’s complex. And many times, adoptive families need ongoing assistance weeks, months, and years after an adoption is finalized. Bringing meals right away during the early weeks of cocooning (an attachment phase right after a child is brought into a new family) might not be helpful, but it could be a huge blessing a year later. Or if a child has medical needs, they might need other things like childcare for siblings during appointments. Asking what would be helpful before and after an adoption gives adoptive families the freedom to express their unique needs and the freedom to avoid traditional cultural norms that might not be helpful to adoptive families.
3. Use positive adoption language.
There are many lists out there on positive adoption language, however the heart behind these lists isn’t to be politically correct. As Christians, we care about the dignity of all people, and so we do our best to honor every person involved in the adoption triad (adoptee, birth family, and adoptive family).
Sadly, much of the language we use honors the adoptive family while simultaneously assaulting the dignity of the adoptee or the birth family. Here is a fantastic resource on positive adoption language that focuses on the dignity of all persons in the adoption triad. With that said, I also wanted to include a few phrases or concepts that I would encourage you to avoid all together:
- “You’re a really good person. I could never raise someone else’s child.”
- Any phrase involving “real parents” or “real family.” (Use birth family or first family instead).
- Any language that praises the adoptive family as “saving” a child or elevates them as a “better” option than the birth family.
- Anything negative about the birth family or the adoptee’s cultural heritage.
4. Sometimes saying nothing is okay
If you’re out and about and see a family that looks like they’re built through adoption, it’s best to not make any assumptions. The child(ren) could be adopted, they could be fostered, or they could come from a biracial family. Truly the options are endless. Families don’t have to match. Walking away and saying nothing, saying a silent prayer for the family, or simply giving the family a smile is another great option.
If you absolutely feel the need to say something and you’re certain that all the individuals together are a family, “Your family is beautiful,” is a kind and simple encouragement. But you shouldn’t say it as a catalyst to ask more questions. It’s unfair to expect them to share the personal details of their family’s makeup right there on the spot (just like you wouldn’t ask a stranger with a newborn to tell you the details her birth story in the middle of the cereal aisle at the grocery store).
Adoption is a unique and sometimes necessary option to brokenness in our world. Many in the church have answered the call to show up, to listen and learn, and to use words that speak life into these realms. If you’ve never considered being intentional with the way you speak about adoption, this is my invitation for you to consider joining us. It’s not about getting it right every time (I still make mistakes!), but rather it’s about having the humility to learn and put the interests of others above ourselves. And as the Church, if we believe Proverbs 18:21 is true, “death and life are in the power of the tongue, and those who love it will eat its fruits,” then we must be committed to speaking words of life about all members of the adoption triad.