When I see someone walking through a dark valley or trudging through a long wilderness, I want to reach out, but I’m often at a loss for what to do.
That’s why I find articles featuring what I like to call “from-the-trenches” guidance to be so helpful. What better way to learn—to truly understand—than from someone who’s been there and knows first hand what it’s like?
Tricia Lott Williford, a widow with two young sons, recently wrote a column of this type titled “4 Ways to Offer Help to Someone in Crisis,” in which she listed questions and statements that do not help, each paired with words that do.
Both of these articles deal primarily with how to encourage people in the midst of loss and grief. But there are other, less urgent, situations when a bit of understanding also would be helpful. Such as when speaking to the parents of adopted children—about those children, in front of those children.
First off, as the adoptive mom of two, let me say this. People are curious, yes, but most also are genuinely interested. I get that, and I love it. Randy and I wouldn’t have adopted children from China if we weren’t open to comments and questions about the process and our family.
I enjoy talking to people who’ve either adopted from Asia themselves or who have friends or relatives with children from China (or anywhere else). It’s an instant common bond. Granted, I don’t automatically speak to every Caucasian woman with an Asian-looking child like I might have done before we got Lilly and Molly. But if a conversation happens, it’s fine with me.
That said, there are a few comments and phrases people sometimes use when discussing adoption and adoptive parents that make me cringe just a bit. I don’t take personal offense to them because they are normally uttered sincerely, with no idea of the agitation or even hurt they might incur.
But in the interest of education, realizing that insensitive comments often are solely due to a lack of personal experience, here is my own version of what not to say to an adoptive parent (when you want to say something).
1. Avoid the terms “real mom” and “real dad.“
If a person is a parent, he or she is a real parent, no matter if that title was achieved through nine months of pregnancy or a huge pile of paperwork and years of waiting.
I have a feeling step- and foster parents also would appreciate it if the word “real” was never used as an adjective to describe a parent. The word “biological” works much better.
2. Don’t ask, “Are they sisters?”
If I saw a blond lady at the grocery store with several little blond girls in and around her shopping cart, I wouldn’t dream of saying, “Ma’am, your girls are so cute! Are they sisters?” And yet, more than a few times people have asked me that very question, in full earshot of my two daughters.
What they are wondering, of course, is whether or not my daughters are biological siblings. I know that. The girls know that. But it’s still a question that gets my hackles up, every time.
My daughters came from different parts of China, three years apart. So no, they are not biologically related. But, for now and eternity, they are as much sisters as the little blond kids in the shopping cart.
I understand that people wonder about this. And unlike Randy, who simply answers “yes” and goes about his business, I don’t mind delving into the details a little more. But, if you are inclined to ask an adoptive parent about this issue, a more appropriate question is, “Are your children biological siblings?”
3. Eiminate the phrase, “children of her own” or “children of their own.”
I’ll be honest. With this one, we start to veer dangerously close to sensitive territory. And what makes it even worse is that I have actually caught myself using this phrase, which just shows how ingrained it is.
For me, this is simple. My daughters are my children, my family. In that sense, they are “my own,” even though I didn’t give birth to them. But I don’t own them, nor do I wish to. Each is her own person, entrusted to me and Randy to rear for awhile as best we know how, and to love forever as best we know how.
This phrase might be used more frequently when a family includes both biological and adopted children, to designate which is which. But wherever it’s said, this hurts my heart.
There are not levels of parenthood, nor are there levels of son or daughtership. Again, terms like “biological” and “adopted” are much more accurate (and loving) than anything that includes the words “my own.”
There you have it—three little phrases to avoid when talking to adoptive parents. If you’ve used these terms in the past, don’t feel bad about it. Just try not to use them in the future. And if one slips out, simply apologize and move on.
When someone acknowledges that she may have said the wrong thing, it tells me she’s aware of what she’s saying and how it might affect me. And, as a person who doesn’t always say the right thing either, I appreciate that.