By Robin Hilborn, Family Helper editor


Teaching the language of adoption

As a teacher, you need to get comfortable with the language of adoption. You have to be ready for children (and adults) who use inappropriate language ... the ones who ask questions like “Why did her mother give her away?” or “Who is her real mother?”

The joyful side of adoption is tempered by the fact that adoption involves loss. Adoptees live with the painful fact that their birthparents could not (or would not) care for them. It is hard to speak of these things to very young children. Yet, as significant adults in a child’s life, teachers must at times enter the child’s world to help her cope with difficult feelings and to feel positive about who she is.

The language we use is important, since the way we speak of sensitive topics models confidence and courage on the one hand, or shame and fear on the other ...

It’s not a disability

You can join a family by way of birth or by adoption. The fact of adoption says nothing about an adopted child herself ... adoption is a way of arriving in a family, not a medical condition or a disability. It’s a one-time event, so you would say “Maria was adopted”, not “Maria is adopted.”

Birth or adoption: either way of joining a family is perfectly acceptable. Adoption builds healthy, happy families—parent and child are linked by law and by love.

Sometimes it’s not relevant

In the world at large it’s usually not relevant to refer to a child as an “adopted child”. A news report, for example, should use “adopted” (”Sean’s adopted child ... “) only to distinguish from a child by birth, if that is relevant to the story. Mentioning the fact of a child’s adoption when it is irrelevant implies there is something wrong with the lack of a blood connection.

In the school setting—talking about family, for example—the topic of adoption naturally arises, and fits right into classroom discussion.

It’s no secret

Terms with a negative connotation often stem from the secrecy that used to surround adoption, but no longer does. When people use the emotion-laden and negative words of the past (”give away” a child, “unwed mother”) they create conflict and diminish self-esteem in adopted children.

Avoid terms like “real” or “natural” mother, which imply the existence of an “unreal” or “unnatural” mother. Similarly, prefer “birth father”, not “natural father”. However, usage does vary; some advocates promote the terms “natural mother” (Canadian Council of Natural Mothers) and “first mother”.

Here are some terms people will unthinkingly use, and the preferred term.

Watch your language

Avoid this Prefer this Why
Real parent Birthparent, biological parent (birthfather, birthmother, birthdad, birthmum) Are there “imaginary” parents? Adoptive parents are just as real as biological parents.
Natural parent Birthparent; biological mother; woman who gave birth Lack of a blood link does not make an adoptive parent less of a parent.
Natural child Birth child, biological child Ditto. And are there “artificial” children?
Your own child (vs. an adopted child) Birth child, biological child All your children are your own, adopted or not. Genetic relationships are not stronger than adoptive ones.
Illegitimate Born to unmarried parents Circumstances of birth should not stigmatize a child.
Unwed mother Birthmother, birthmum “Unwed” or “unmarried” is a moral judgment.
Give up, give away, surrender, relinquish, adopt out, put up for adoption Place for adoption, or (better) choose adoption, make an adoption plan Birthmothers love their children but can’t raise them. They choose what is best for their child and stay in touch with them after the adoption (”open adoption”).
Keep the baby Parent the baby “She decided to parent the baby rather than choose adoption.”
Foreign adoption International, intercountry adoption Some say “foreign” has negative connotations.
Hard-to-place child Special needs child Less damaging to the child’s self-esteem.
Adopt-a-road, adopt-a-park, etc. Sponsor-a-park, befriend-a-park “Adopt-a-” programs misuse “adopt” as a marketing ploy to raise money. They deform the meaning of adoption and diminish its worth.
With input from Speaking Positively: An Information Sheet about Adoption Language and Adopt-a-Confusion, by Pat Johnston, Perspectives Press, Box 90318, Indianapolis IN 46290-0318, 317-872-3055, www.perspectivespress.com.
You may reproduce this item with the credit:
"From Family Helper,


ONE—Many ways to make a family
TWO—Many ways to create a child
THREE—Biased class assignments ... and how to fix them
FOUR—Teaching the language of adoption
FIVE—How to introduce adoption in elementary school
SIX—Answers for the pregnant student
SEVEN—A suggested classroom presentation
EIGHT—Research points the way
NINE—Adoption resources for teachers and students
TEN—Glossary: the ABCs of adoption
"Teacher's Guide to Adoption" by Robin Hilborn was published in print in Family Helper 45, "Adoption Goes to School", 2004, and online since Jan. 5, 2005.