Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Questions Not to Ask Adoptive Parents

My friend John Erickson recently pointed me to a great article in the Minneapolis Star Tribune that deals with the questions adoptive parents often receive. Here are sopme of the questions that should be rethought:

“How much did he cost?”

“What happened to her real mom?”

“Why did you adopt overseas when there are so many children here?”

“Why was he put up for adoption?”

“Do you get to go to an orphanage and pick one out?”

“Isn’t she lucky, being raised by loving parents in the U.S.?”

The whole article is quite helpful, in both content and tone. Before I read the article, I compiled a similiar list of things not to say:

  • Don’t say that the adoptive child looks so much like the adoptive parents that he could be “yours.” The (unintentional) implication is that he’s not theirs.
  • Don’t say refer to biological as opposed to adopted kids as “your own.” The (unintentional) implication is that adopted children aren’t really rightfully yours.
  • Don’t refer to the birthparents as “the parents.” The (unintentional) implication is that the adoptive parents aren’t the parents. Use terms like “birthmother” instead of “mother” and “birthfather” instead of “father.”
  • It’s generally best not to ask about the birthparents or why the child was placed for adoption, even if you’re curious. The situation can be messy and potentially embarrassing to the child. For example, perhaps the birthparent abandoned the child. Perhaps nothing is known at all about the birthparents. Perhaps the child was conceived by rape. If the adoptive parents want to tell you about the background, they will.
  • Don’t ask about medical conditions of adopting parents. Not everyone adopts due to infertility issues. And even if they do, it’s not usually a wise question to ask!

In the past couple of years, I’ve heard most of these questions. It’s easy for adoptive parents to get bent out of shape by them, and we must all guard against an unattractive hypersensitivity. But let me suggest three reasons why we should seek to use wise, sensitive, and loving language with regard to adoption:

(1) Adoptive parents can sometimes feel inferior or self-conscious about their children. Saying something innocent like “So what were his parents like?” can reinforce the mistaken notion that the adoptive parents aren’t truly the rightful parents of the child.

(2) Adopted kids are listening, and the language can be confusing. A well-meaning stranger might say something like: “So what does her mom look like?” referring to the birthmother. Perhaps the child doesn’t fully get it yet. Her response will likely be: “But Mom, I thought you were my mommy?”

(3) I think there are theological implications for how we speak about adoption. A friend of mine who has two adopted sons from Russia often gets the question, “Are they brothers?” His answer is: “Well they are now.” And the response often is: “Yes, but are they really brothers?” The implication—again unintentional—is that biological brotherhood is what really counts. But there are spiritual ramifications for this kind of thinking, especially with the New Testament theme of adoption. We have been adopted by God. Therefore, we are his sons. Really his sons. Fellow believers are our brothers and sisters in Christ. Really our brothers. Really our sisters. We have been adopted by God, and He is our Father. We have been united to Christ, who is now our co-heir. By downplaying the reality and legality of adoption with our language, we might unintentionally undermine the presuppositions of the New Testament regarding the new family of God.

For a good sermon that addresses some of these issues, listen to my friend Russ Moore's sermon, "But Are They Brothers? The Spirit of Adoption and the Unity of the Church."