Chicago mom: Mind what you say to adoptive families

My husband and I adopted our three children. They were all born in China. One of the topics that is discussed when couples or single people take pre-adoption classes is the questions that adoptive families encounter in everyday life either in public or sometimes even with extended family.

As much as these classes try to prepare you for these situations, when someone finally asks these types of questions you’re often left surprised and tongue-tied or, at best, prepared to respond with the rote answer you memorized from the classes.

After adopting our first son we had a number of people, mostly strangers, comment or ask questions about our family. It wasn’t so troubling to me when my children were little and too young to understand, but now that they’re older (9, 8 and 4) it is frustrating and hurtful to be encountered by such questions and comments.

The worst encounter my family has experienced was with an elderly woman afflicted with a bit of senility who cornered us in a nursing home while we visited a family member. The woman proceeded to relay every Asian stereotype I had ever heard, including how Asians use chopsticks because if they had knives they would kill each other, asking if my children were in gymnastics because Asians are so good in the circus and then she proceeded to speak Japanese phrases to us.

Fortunately, this was an isolated incident, but I am aware that it could happen again at any moment.

Most people would never say things like that elderly woman said to us, but there are still times when people say things or ask questions that, on the surface, seem harmless, but inflict damage on my children and our family.

Here’s a list of things NOT to say to an adoptive family.

1. Avoid using the word “real.” As in, “Are those your real children? What happened to their real parents? Are your sons real brothers?”

The implications of these kinds of questions are that birth families are more worthy than adoptive families. A better choice of words would be, “Did you adopt your children? Are your children siblings by birth? But, ultimately, if you’re a stranger in Wal-mart, the answers to these questions are not your business. People would never say to a single mother that they’ve never met, “So, what happened to their father?”

2. “So you couldn’t have your own child?”

This is a very offensive question to both the parent and the child. This implies that birth children are better than children that were adopted. If you become close with a person, then this information will eventually come out, otherwise, it’s none of your business.

3. “You are such a good person. They are so lucky; so blessed. I could never do this.”

This may sound good on the surface, but saying this in front of the adopted child implies that the parent is a saint for adopting a less than desirable child. “I could never do this,” can imply that the child must be a terror when compared to birth children. Often people think adoptive parents have done something good by adopting their child, but often, that adoptive parent just wanted to be a parent, it didn’t necessarily mean that they did anything exceptional. The day-to-day life of being an adoptive parent isn’t any different than that of a birth parent.

4. “How much did your child cost?”

This is an awful question, but people have asked me. This implies that I purchased my child, as if I could walk into a grocery store and buy a child like I’d buy a gallon of skim milk. Yes, there are legal fees and processing fees and fees for the care of your child prior to adoption, but the child was not purchased.

5. “Weren’t there any Americans you could have adopted?”

As Americans we can be very Americentric. This question implies that American-born people are better than anyone else in the world. It implies to the child that being American-born is better than being born in other countries.

6. “Do they speak English?”

This question is irritating, particularly when the child is five years old, or even nine. Children typically pick up good English skills within six months of coming home to an English-speaking family. There’s no need to ask a question like this.

7. “You have such a beautiful family.”

Another comment that doesn’t seem so bad on the surface and is, by far, the least offensive, but the problem is that adoptive families hear this a lot, weekly for our family. Hearing this often, adopted children learn that they are different and stand out and it can make them feel uncomfortable. It’s even more obvious when the adopted child, in a family of birth children, is picked out as the cute one all the time.

These are just a few questions that I’ve been asked over the years. We are constantly guarding ourselves, and our children, and preparing them for these types of situations, not only from adults, but also from their peers, and the possible responses they may or may not want to give. I’m currently at the point, where I avoid eye contact with strangers when I’m in stores with my children, in hopes that we can avoid the questions altogether.

So as not to come off as superior, I confess that before we adopted our children I asked or thought many of these same questions and comments. It wasn’t until taking the classes or being on the receiving end of these questions and comments did my own stereotypes and false beliefs smack me in the face.

My hope is that people will consider their words before asking questions of or making comments to an adoptive family and seriously consider saying nothing beyond a smile when the adopted child is present.

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