What not to say to an adopted child: my list

Finally a good picture of all of us. This is Dave and I with Judy and Kelly (our international student "daughters"--their real mom and dad live in Hong Kong and love them very, very much), Emily, the twins Jake and Maddie, and PJ. Honestly, it's usually the boys who mess up family shots. (Stand still for a picture if I'm not posing as a professional soccer player or bodybuilder? What's up with that?)

Finally a good picture of all of us. This is Dave and I with Judy and Kelly (our international student “daughters”–their real mom and dad live in Hong Kong and love them very, very much), Emily, the twins Jake and Maddie, and PJ (Patrick).

Not long ago, one of our elementary school principals sent a letter to every adoptive family in the school. “We want to meet your child’s and family’s needs,” he wrote. “Can you let us know any ways we are not doing that as well as ways we can do that better?”

I appreciated the question, though nothing came to mind right away. The school is filled with caring teachers and administrators who celebrate adoption and try to integrate multi-cultural literature and projects. They’re not committing any of the obvious insensitivities. But then I thought of a couple of less obvious things, and as I wrote them down, my heart began to pound. These are more important to me than I realized, I thought.

I know every adoptive family and every adopted child have their own particular struggles, so what I wrote to our principal will not apply to all adoptive situations, but I’m sharing because many of you know or will know a family who adopts or fosters, and this may give you an inside look at some of their less obvious struggles.

  1. We’re really open to talking about PJ’s background with him. It’s clear he’s adopted, so we don’t avoid that topic when he brings it up (sometimes we even initiate it). When he asks about his birth parents and brothers, we speak openly and positively about them, and we allow him to talk about them, even when he’s going through a stage (which has happened a couple times) of kind of wishing that he were with his birth dad (who has AIDS; PJ’s mom died of AIDS when he was just an infant). We don’t say anything like, “Hey, we’re your parents. We’re the ones raising you. We’re your REAL mom and dad.” We don’t want teachers and others to say that either. It’s both okay and normal for PJ to wrestle with that, and even though I think most people’s natural instinct is to say, “But look at the family you have now, the mom and dad you have now–they’re your real family,” I don’t think that helps the kid to process the fact that he’s not with the family he was born into, that for one reason or another, his family life (and his entire culture) is different. If someone is not really, really, really close with an adoptive child and his/her family, then I think there is no place for saying something like, “You need to be grateful for the family you have.” Even if that’s a mostly true statement, chances are that the adoptive child is wrestling with a lot more than simply an ungrateful spirit.
  2. We don’t think of what we did—adopting—as anything special or heroic. For us, it was a really clear call from God and it would have been disobedience for us NOT to do it. Patrick is an incredible gift to US, not the other way around. I’ve had people say to me, “What a wonderful thing you did for him,” and, honestly, it makes me angry because I can’t imagine how that would feel if my son ever heard someone say that to me, like I loved him because he was a charity case. The truth is that God showed us PJ was meant to be ours. He planted him in our hearts as our child, and we adopted him simply to make that official. He’s ours; therefore, we love him. I don’t want Patrick to be presented with the idea that he is privileged to be our son. The truth is, we are privileged to be his parents, just as we are privileged to be the parents of all our kids.
  3. I KNOW adoption is a beautiful picture of God bringing us into full “son-ship,” with the same status as a biological child—and that’s absolutely incredible—but the analogy on an individual level can, like in my second note, send the message to the adopted child that he/she was being done a favor. It also emphasizes the differences between biological children in a family and adopted children in a family. I think an adopted child needs to be a certain age or of a certain understanding to be able to see this on a spiritual level without correlating it to his/her own situation.
  4. Anything that emphasizes that difference between the adopted child and biological children should be avoided. Examples would be talking with an adopted child (or talking with someone in the family in front of the adopted child) about how much their siblings look like each other or how one of their siblings looks like mom or dad. (Several years ago when Em was 8, the twins 5, and Patrick 4, we were all together, and I mentioned that someone at church had commented on how much Em and Jake (one of the twins) look alike while the twins look nothing like each other. Oddly enough, if was the other twin, Maddie, who was bothered by this. “Well,” she said, “I look like somebody, too. Patrick and I look just alike. Don’t we, Patrick?” He was really small then and just nodded, but I realized that if Maddie minded being told she didn’t look much like her siblings, then that could really be an issue for PJ.)

*If you are reading this as an adoptive parent or adopted child, and you have an idea to share, I would really love to read your response. Please, please leave a comment below. It will not be posted on the blog; I’ll receive it as an email.

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