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Hands hold paper dolls. Photo illustration courtesy of United Methodist Communications.

Photo illustration courtesy of United Methodist Communications

People of faith seek to encourage and strengthen all families. The language we choose can help or hinder those efforts.

Positive adoption language celebrates families

A UMC.org Feature by the Rev. Angela Flanagan*

The Rev. Angela Flanagan

The Rev. Angela Flanagan is an associate pastor and adoptive parent. Photo courtesy of the Rev. Angela Flanagan.

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but…” most of us have realized that words can hurt too. While we as adults have matured and acquired to a greater or lesser degree an ability to weed out negative or hurtful language, we generally acknowledge that children are particularly susceptible to hurtful words. Language matters. We know that. 

We’ve all heard a child repeat something their parents surely didn’t intend to be repeated (sometimes even in the children’s sermon!). Those situations can range from humorous to awkward, but they sure do emphasize how much children hear, retain, and are influenced by the language around them.  

Overall, we as a society and as people of faith rightly put value on protecting children from language we deem negative, hurtful, or inappropriate. In the Church, we seek to nurture children in worship, expose them to the stories of our faith, and teach them the language of prayer from the start! These words of faith shape who our children become and how they grow to see God’s world. 

We know our words matter, but our culture (and the Church with it) has a blind spot when it comes to adoption language. As a parent who has adopted children, I know that no one intentionally uses harmful language to talk about adoption, but the problem is that few of us have given much thought to the effects of the language we already use.

#UMC pastor and adoptive parent, “few of us have given much thought to ... the language we … use” for #adoption.TWEET THISTWEET THIS

Our language can send confusing and even hurtful messages to God’s children, those who have been adopted, and those who interact with those who have been adopted (so, everybody!). This is an issue we as the church should care about.

It is nearly impossible to improve our adoption language if we don’t know a) what to avoid, b) why this language is harmful, and c) what language would more accurately and positively communicate what we are trying to say.

Adoption language infographic

Click for larger version of image. Infographic by United Methodist Communications.

Sending unintended messages

For example, the common phrase “put up for adoption,” has a disturbing origin. Historically, this phrase comes from a bygone era when children from East Coast cities in the U.S. were put on trains to the Midwest where they were literally “put up” on the train platform to be selected for adoption. If this process sounds a little like the sale of slaves or the way we pick out animals or food, then you can understand why this is not a positive phrase to use. A great alternative is to talk about children being “placed for adoption,” or birthparents “making an adoption plan.”

Complimenting adoptive parents can sometimes send unintended messages as well. Phrases like, “It’s so wonderful that you adopted,” or “She’s so lucky to have you as parents,” are based on unhealthy assumptions. First, we as adoptive parents are the grateful/lucky/blessed ones to get the chance to parent these amazing children.

Adoption also involves a loss. Children grieve the loss of what could have been—the loss of their birth family raising them, the loss of a sense of connectedness, the loss of important medical and social history. It doesn’t matter how difficult the situation of their adoption was—it is still a loss. As adoptive parents we walk through that loss with our children, acknowledging that pain and grieving with them. Focusing on how “lucky” they are denies children the right and space to grieve the real loss they have experienced.

It also glorifies us as adoptive parents when in reality we are no different than any other parents. We wanted to be parents, so we became parents through adoption and we love our children. There is nothing heroic about that. Implying that there is sends the message to our children that it takes special people to love them, that somehow the love their parents have for them is charity.

Instead, saying something like, “I see how very much you love each other,” or “I’m happy for you and your family” will suffice.

This list is by no means exhaustive, but should give you a feel for the kinds of problems our current language can cause, and some suggestions for how to communicate better. I have compiled a list of more phrases to avoid, reasons why, and appropriate alternatives that you can read here. The list also includes how to ask questions and what not to ask.

We’ve made mistakes, but can do better

Yes, you’ve probably said some of these things, and of course you never meant harm by it. You care for the wellbeing of children and would never intentionally say something hurtful to them. That’s the point—to equip us to be more intentional about our adoption language.

I don’t write this to make you feel guilty. My family started our adoption journey over five years ago, and I still catch myself slipping up with some of these every now and then. It happens. Language patterns are hard to break. It takes intentionality, work, practice, and time. We didn’t know better before, but now we do.

Will you commit to changing your language around adoption? Will you help others understand the importance of positive adoption language? 

Will you help others understand the importance of positive #adoption language? #UMCTWEET THISTWEET THIS

Do it not just for my kids, but for the thousands of children who deserve to have their identity, their story, and their family respected, valued, and protected. This is who we are as people of faith. We are people who care deeply about all God’s children. We are also people who respect the power language has to shape our self-esteem, our attitudes, and our very lives.

*The Rev. Angela Flanagan serves as Associate Pastor of Calvary United Methodist Church in Mount Airy, Maryland. News media contact: Joe Iovino, UMC.org Content Manager for United Methodist Communications, 615-312-3733.

This story was first published on May 4, 2015.