Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The Power of Language

The words we use are so powerful. And sometimes we don't realize at all what we are saying or how it comes across.  I know a lot of people in the adoption community get very offended by certain terms. I don't blame them, although I am not as easily offended.  I figure I'd rather give the other person some grace and realize that they probably don't realize what they are saying.

For the past two years, I've been doing all kinds of training; reading books on interracial adoption, reading about adoption in general, doing web-inars, etc. I'd consider myself fairly well-educated on the matter. Plus, I'm a social worker. In grad school, the power of the labels/language we use was drilled into my head. I try to always be very aware of what my words are saying.

But I have to realize that many people are not. They didn't spend two years learning about adoption and probably didn't have any grad school classes on language.  I can choose to get upset over what they say or I can educate them. I think, in most cases, people just don't have the working vocabulary they need to talk appropriately about adoption.

And I figure most of y'all who read this blog are my family or close friends or you know someone in the adoption community. So I thought I'd provide a tiny lesson on adoption language, free of charge! :)  Here are some rules of thumb for talking with adoptive families:

Please don't ask me about Amani's "real parents." Rob and I are his real parents. I know who you are talking about when you say that, but to be honest, it hurts my feelings a tiny bit. And, MUCH more importantly, someday Amani will hear and understand your words. He will wonder why you think his Mom and Dad are not his real parents.  Feel free to say "birth parents" but don't expect us to tell you anything.

Please don't ask me about my "own" kids. All three of them are my own.  I've had people say, "oh, I didn't realize you couldn't have any more of your own." Or say things like "what do YOUR kids think."  I know you mean my biological children, but every child of mine is my own. I don't want Amani to ever hear this and think he is not mine.  I don't want Riley and Allyn to hear this and think he's not ours, too!  (And in case you were wondering, we chose to adopt. We had no reason to believe we couldn't have more biological children. We believe adopting is just as good of an option for growing a family).

Don't ask "where did you get him?"  That's the kind of question you ask someone with a new puppy.  "Where is he from?" is much more appropriate. I know those don't seem like important differences, but if you want to connect with the mom you're asking these questions of, I promise it's an important distinction.

Please don't ask "Was he expensive?" or "How much did he cost?"  I did not purchase my child. I NEVER want him to get that impression. EVER.  It's probably never appropriate to ask someone about the cost of their adoption in the presence of their children, but if the kids aren't around, it's fine by me if you ask if adoption is expensive. But then I just might ask you how much you paid your OB or midwife for your labor & delivery! :)

And don't try to use him to get a certain message across. He is not a poster-child for adoption. He's not a poster-child for Ethiopia.  I am happy to speak about adoption or about Ethiopia but I am not bringing my child with me as a prop.  If you were giving a talk on birth and labor, you probably wouldn't bring your baby along when there was a much more age-appropriate activity for your child to participate in.  The same goes for us. Amani is a child, not a message.

That's a lot of "don'ts".  Want to know what you CAN do if you see someone with a child and you think it's maybe an international adoption?

Compliment their child.  Every mother loves to hear great things about their children. I was out with Amani tonight and was told twice that I have a pretty baby. It made my heart sing.  And if they had chosen to follow that statement up with nicely-worded questions about adoption, you know I would have been happy to talk to them about it!

Talk about regular mom stuff. Get a conversation going the way you would with any other mom. Say "how old is he?" or make some kind of comment about something your child did at that age. You know, those weird things we mamas say to each other when we're sitting on the benches inside the Chick-Fil-A play area. To that mom, their child is not "my adopted child." He is simply "my child." Act accordingly.

Ask.  If you aren't sure if it's okay to talk about a child's adoption, wait until the child is not around and ask if it's okay. Some parents are super-open about talking about their children's adoptions. Some are not. It's okay to ask.  But be prepared to allow them to say they don't want to talk about it. Just because it is obvious that a child is adopted doesn't mean the parents are open to discussing it.  For us, I'm more than happy to talk about it as long as it's also appropriate for Amani to hear what we are saying. If it's not, be prepared for me to change the subject, hoping you'll take the hint that now is not the time.

And don't freak out. We all make mistakes in our wording. We do it all the time. Our culture condones a lot of it. I'm certain I've said things that I didn't mean to say or I didn't think before I spoke.  And I'm not writing this post in response to anything in particular, so if you are my friend, please don't wonder if I'm talking about you! I promise, I am not!!! You don't need to walk (or talk) on eggshells around me. But realize that, just like every mom, I want what is best for my children, and that includes what they hear about how they came into our family.

So now you know. And knowing is half the battle! ;)


  1. Very well said! Looking forward to meeting all three of your children on Saturday...I'll make sure to look for you all on the Quad!

  2. Excellent words, Kirstin! I might copy this in a few months!

  3. I'm giving you a virtual high five!

    I'm the same way - I don't feel offended often. I feel like most of the time, people are curious...but sometimes I do feel like saying "he is not my possession - he's my child. Ask questions accordingly." People often ask me "don't you want children of your own?" to which I say "I have a child of my own. Eli is as much my child as any other child could ever be - no matter how they come to our family."

    Again. High five. :)

  4. LOL - I LOVE YOU!!!! And....although it's not something that I'm happy to admit, I question that I may have worded some conversations inappropriately - that's one of the blessings of your honestly in your blog - I can learn!!! And, I actually did laugh out loud at the simplicity of common sense that is so easy to overlook. Thank you for your grace and love in your delivery. This is a wonderful lesson and one I will try to remind myself of often!

  5. Wow -I want to say AMEN! If possible - could I borrow this? Repost it? i don't know - but very well said. I don't have to worry just yet - but I know in a few months this will be more useful on our blog. but still - anytime is a good time to help educate people.


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