Some few months ago, Babble presented my list of “Ten Things Not to Say to Adoptive Parents-Especially in Front of Their Kids.” But as an adoptive parent myself, I realize that there are plenty of things that we adoptive parents shouldn’t say — especially when our kids are around. Here are the ten biggies:
1. “This is how Susie became available for adoption.” It seems harmless enough and parents may worry that they’ll offend well-meaning friends and family who ask about the details of your child’s story. But these basic facts about your child’s origins ultimately belong to her. Deb Shrier, Social Worker and Post-Adoption Counselor at Massachusetts-based adoption agency Wide Horizons for Children, cautions against blurting out your child’s information. “You don’t need to explain your child or your family to anybody,” she says. Shrier adds that, depending on the age of your child, you can talk with her about what she wants you to tell others. Parents wondering how to respond to inquiries can fall back on a variety of responses, ranging from stating, “We’re keeping that information private so that she can decide for herself what she wants to share when she is older,” to politely asking the questioner, “Why do you want to know?”
2. “Don’t tell my kids, but [insert facts about your child's origins here].” This seems like it should be obvious, but this was actually said to me and a group of other parents at a party! Beth Hall, Director of Pact, An Adoption Alliance and co-author of Inside Transracial Adoption, says that parents need to “protect their children’s privacy and make sure that the child is the first person hearing [his story], not the person down the street.” If you need to talk to someone about these details, find someone else – perhaps a social worker or other adoption professional.
3. “Race doesn’t matter. When we look at Kyle, we just see our son; we don’t see White/Black/Hispanic/Asian.” Of course you look at Kyle and see your son and all of the wonderful, frustrating, and unique qualities that make him the individual that he is. But you have to consider the fact that the rest of the world will see his race and that it will affect him in profound ways that someone of another race probably can’t anticipate. Shrier also reminds adoptive parents that bringing a child of another race into one’s family changes the whole family. “You’re a multicultural, multiracial family. That’s how you look at the world, and that’s how the world looks at you.”
4. “We’re Americans. Jenna may have been born in China, but she’s American now, and that’s good enough for us. We don’t really worry about all of that cultural stuff.” Shrier says: “This may not be of interest to you, but it’s going to be of interest to your child. It may be a big interest, it may be a passing interest, but it’s part of who your child is.” Your child needs to know that all parts of who she is are valuable to you and that she is welcome to explore her birth culture as much as any other facet of her identity. And one of the best ways you can show her that you value her birth culture is by finding ways to welcome it into your family and into your home.
5. “We used to celebrate our Irish background before the kids came along, but now we feel like we really have to focus on Ethiopia.” On the other hand, don’t delve so deep into your child’s culture that you lose sight of the things that were important to you before. If you’re Irish and you adopt an Ethiopian child, dine on Ethiopian cuisine, but keep the corned beef and cabbage, too. If it’s the reverse, do the reverse. As Shrier recommends, “Focus on the whole family and what everyone brings to it. [Either way], you’re an Irish and Ethiopian family now.”
6. Negative comments about your child’s birth family. You may view these aspersions as being completely separate from your child, but your child’s birth family is part of who he or she is, and children are likely to interpret these comments as being about them. Hall says, “Children are concrete thinkers … If you say something about their birthparents, you may as well have inserted their name.”
7. Invented facts about your child’s birth family. Sometimes our kids’ stories include difficult facts, and sometimes, regardless of the facts, we just don’t know how to respond to people who insist on extracting private information. In either case, refer back to point number one and know that your child’s story is no one else’s business. Remember, too, that any information you put out there may well get back to your child one day, and you don’t want to find yourself in the position of needing to rebuild her trust when she discovers that the stories you’ve been telling are fiction.
8. “Asians are good at music, so we weren’t surprised when Jin’s violin teacher told us he could be a real prodigy.” Positive stereotyping is still stereotyping, and it can place an enormous burden on children. Kids don’t need this additional pressure, says Shrier, and this, too, is a form of racism. “It’s not really looking at who they are. It’s looking at the person’s race, and that’s it.”
9. Disparaging comments about your child’s race or any other race. This should be a no-brainer, but it happens more than you might think. If you’re White and your child is Hispanic, Asian, Black, Native American or of mixed heritage, remember that you are the parent of a child of color. Shrier asks parents who forget this fact to consider how they would feel if that same comment “was directed at your family.”
10. “This is my adopted daughter, Grace.” As Shrier points out, would you ever say, “This is my daughter through a c-section”?
This list may seem like a lot to worry about, but it’s all part of the package of adoptive parenting. We adoptive parents can avoid most of these scenarios by keeping our children’s perspectives in mind and remembering one simple fact: one way or another, whatever we say (and to whomever) is likely to make it back to our children.
Both Shrier and Hall stress the need for parents to model behavior for their children. An adoptive parent herself, Hall advises that when we speak to others, “We’re building a toolkit for our child.” Our children will face questions and assumptions throughout their lives, and as their parents, it’s our job to make sure they are equipped to handle those situations on their own.
Come to think of it, that’s the very definition of parenting.