What Not to Say to Adoptive Parents

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?

Lois and Girls by old car at zoo

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.

Author Liz Curtis Higgs added her wise perspective at (in)courage a while back with this insightful piece: What Not to Say (When You Gotta Say Something).

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.

Lois Flowers

P.S. I’m linking up this week with Grace & Truth, Kelly Balarie at Purposeful Faith, Jennifer Dukes Lee at #TellHisStory and Holley Gerth at Coffee for Your Heart.

20 Responses to What Not to Say to Adoptive Parents

  1. Jen says:

    Hi, Lois 🙂 This is very helpful information! I have a handful of adopted nieces and nephews, so while I can’t identify as a parent, I can as an Auntie. 🙂 Even so, I’m sure I’ve uttered some of these phrases before, so it’s a good caution to those of us who are on the outside looking in! Thanks for sharing with us at Grace and Truth last week.
    Jen @ Being Confident of This

  2. As my parents are currently in the process of adopting, I am beginning to understand the emotions from this side a little better. But I have used almost all of these phrases in the past without even thinking about it! Thank you for your gentle explanations of these phrases and the better ways to inquire.

    Stopping by from Grace and Truth : )

  3. Thank you for this, Lois! My sister and my BIL are adoptive parents, so this is so helpful for me as we strive to say the right things and not say the wrong things–all while we celebrate with them and our precious new niece! Stopping by from Grace & Truth!

    • Lois Flowers says:

      I hope you all have fun celebrating, Elizabeth! I’m guessing your sister is cherishing every moment … some of the happiest moments of my life have been when I finally got to introduce my newly adopted daughters to friends and family members. 🙂

  4. Ok Lois, this makes a whole lot of sense. I like this perspective because you have the experience!
    Thanks for sharing. I will watch out for these dont’s you have shared.
    Blessings to you Lois.

  5. June says:

    Thank you for sharing a photo of you and your girls, Lois! They are precious! I think it’s great that you shared these words of guidance! I have a friend who is Caucasian w/ red hair (so you can imagine how pale her complexion is) married to an Indian man who is very dark. Their biological daughter is also very dark. When my friend is out and about without her husband she gets all kinds of assumed comments and questions about her daughter, as you might imagine! Looking at your picture (sans husband) made me think of her situation. We need to be more sensitive in general when speaking to people about their children/families. Have a blessed week!

    • Lois Flowers says:

      June, I can imagine what your friend has to put up with! You bring up an excellent point … we should never assume ANYTHING when it comes to family situations, and always think before we ask questions! Thank you for your kind words today!

  6. Lois, as the adoptive mother of two not-biological boys, I add my hearty AMEN! I’ve learned to overlook most of the questions people ask simply because they don’t know what they don’t know. But sometimes, these questions you bring up, still cut a little deep. I appreciate your post today.

    Stopping by from Kelly Balarie’s site. 🙂

    • Lois Flowers says:

      Jeanne, I’m not a snarky person by nature, but if anything pushes me close to that edge, it’s this! Grace is so much more helpful than sarcasm here, but oh my goodness … the latter sure is tempting when the “real mom” thing comes up! I’m so glad you offered your perspective to this little conversation. 🙂

  7. Trudy says:

    My heart says “Amen!” to all of this, Lois. I know by experience how much these phrases hurt, especially 1 and 3. You are a “real mom” to “your own” daughters, given to you as special gifts from God. By the way, they are really cute. 🙂 I love that adoption poem that says “You weren’t born under my heart but in it.” Blessings and hugs to your God-given family!

    • Lois Flowers says:

      Trudy, I love that poem too! My mother-in-law (who also is an adoptive mom) gave us an embroidered picture of it while we were waiting to adopt Lilly, and it still hangs in her room today. Thank you so much for your kind words today!

  8. Meg Gemelli says:

    Aawww, yes. As a woman who grew up with no biological siblings and a stepmom, there were often awkward questions being asked about my “real mom”. People always mean well, it just takes a seasoned and kind person willing to educate. Thanks for doing that today!

    • Lois Flowers says:

      I can imagine those awkward questions, Meg. My daughter Molly has a little friend who used to ask me if my girls were “real sisters” practically every time she saw me. It was interesting to try to help her understand the situation, and also to see how pragmatic Molly was about the whole thing! I’m so glad you visited today!

  9. Joy says:

    Hi Lois! I saw your article on the #RaRaLinkup. I’m glad I did. You offer helpful insight to those who desire to support and be sensitive to adoptive families.

  10. Linda Stoll says:

    Good, wise words, Lois. As the mom of two daughters who’ve both adopted children, all I can say is amen.

    And sometimes? It’s just better to keep quiet than to put our foot in our mouths yet one more time.

    Sigh …

    • Lois Flowers says:

      Linda, I knew your precious Tyler was adopted but I didn’t know you had another daughter who is an adoptive mom. What a blessing! Thanks for offering your “grandma perspective” here. 🙂

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *