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Positive adoption language examples and resources


A Feature by the Rev. Angela Flanagan*
May 4, 2015

Sometimes we send unintended messages through the language we choose. To help avoid those types of miscommunication, I’ve compiled a list that is by no means exhaustive, but should give you a feel for the kinds of problems with our current language and some suggestions for how we can do better. (Click here for infographic of this information)

Why it is problematic

This sends a clear message to children who have been adopted that they were (are?) unwanted and disposed of like an object. This may lead children to believe this was their fault—that it is because of who they are that their birthparents “didn’t want” them. It also can lead children to believe that their birthparents didn’t care about or love them. It does not reflect the reality that making an adoption plan is a very loving action.

Why it is problematic

The child has birthparents and adoptive parents and all are real, live people who are part of a real family. Calling one set of parents “real” sends the message that there is something not real about the other set of parents. Calling birthparents the “natural” parents sends the message to children that there is something unnatural or even wrong with their family and adoption.

Why it is problematic

Historically, this phrase comes from the era in which children from big East Coast cities were put on trains to the Midwest where they were “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.

Why it is problematic

These phrases indicate that being adopted is the primary identity of the child, that adoption is who they are. Yes, a child was adopted—it is an action that happened in their past, but it is not the primary thing that defines them.

Consider if the adoption is relevant to what is being said. If adoption has nothing to do with it, then child or daughter/son will suffice. We don’t specify other details of children’s births or histories when not relevant (e.g. we don’t say “your c-section daughter” or “your near-sighted son” when those details are not relevant).

Why it is problematic

These may sound like compliments, but they have many unintended consequences and 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 though. 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.   


When asking questions

Other helpful hints when talking about adoption, especially when asking questions:

Adoption language infographic

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

Information about why birthparents chose to make an adoption plan, details about their lives (age of birthmother, drug use, marital status): If you don’t know this information, it is probably not for you to know. This is private information that belongs to the child of whose story it is a part.

Try to avoid making assumptions. Here are corrections to some common misunderstandings about adoptions in the United States.

  • Not every adoption is international. Most today are domestic. 
  • Not every birthmother is a teenager. Birthmothers cover the entire range of childbearing years. 
  • Closed adoptions are not preferred. Research shows it is much healthier for the child to have some contact with their birth family to allow them to understand better who they are, know where they came from, and be able to ask questions. 
  • Secrecy is not preferred. We talk openly about adoption with our children from the day they come home. They need to know their stories. Secrecy instills shame and fear and encourages children to bottle up their emotions.
  • Not every parent places a child for adoption because of hardship.
  • Not every child is placed for adoption with consent

Transracial adoptive families

Children notice race. They are not colorblind. We teach them to observe, name, and categorize—all important skills. There is nothing wrong with noticing differences in skin color. However, it is important to talk to all children about race and the history of racial injustice in this country.

Children repeat words they hear even when they don’t understand them. You cannot guarantee that your child won’t hear racial slurs or racist attitudes. If they do, they may repeat them, not because they are mean or racist, but because they don’t know any better. You CAN give your child a healthy understanding of race and racial prejudice so that they have a way to talk about race instead of relying on what they hear from unknown sources.

Remember that adoptive families, particularly transracial adoptive families, field questions (and endure stares) ALL the time. I get questions from strangers at the grocery store, the post office, and the pharmacy. Just because you can see that a family is formed through adoption does not mean that family is there to field your questions.

Asking appropriate questions with healthy language of friends is very different from asking questions of perfect strangers. Before you ask or comment, consider what it might feel like to have your family questioned everywhere you go by people who you don’t know and what effect that has on the children. 

If you aren’t sure if a question is appropriate or if you are using appropriate language, please refrain, or at the very least, refrain while in front of the children.

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