Top Ten Things NOT to Say to an Adoptive Parent

Top Ten Things NOT to Say to an Adoptive Parent

Many people are kindhearted yet uneducated about the semantics of adoption.   Other people have good intentions but take a thoughtless approach to satisfying their curiosity.

And then there are some people who are simply insensitive.

Here’s a little advice about what NOT to say to an adoptive parent (sense of humor recommended!):

1. What happened to her real parents?

Didn’t know I was a fake parent.  I assume you meant her biological parents.  And this is a highly personal question.

2. Is she American? (code for, is she white?)

Her dad and I are citizens of the U.S., and so is she.  

 3. How much did she cost?

You have to be kidding me.  Do I ask you how much you spent on lingerie, wine, dinner and whatnot on the night you conceived? Again, a highly personal and inappropriate question.

 4. Can you have kids of your own?

She is my own.  As to whether or not I can have biological children, I’ll answer if the conversation is in the context of a potentially meaningful relationship.  If we happen to be standing in line together in the grocery store and you asked me why my daughter doesn’t look like me, and she says to you, “I’m adopted”, this does not entitle you to ask me about the inner workings of my body.  Quite frankly, if I were to answer with the whole agonizing story, it would be an inappropriate level of personal disclosure with someone I don’t know.  I like healthy boundaries (except on my blog, of course).

 5. Have you told her she’s (look both ways furtively and drop your voice to a whisper) adopted?

Yes.  It’s not like telling her she is a criminal.

 6. Does she have any problems?

Are you smoking crack?  A) everyone has problems, and B) another highly inappropriate and personal question.

7. Does she ask about her real mom?

I am real.  I am her mom.  She asks how I am every morning.  And she does also talk about her birthmother.

 8. Do your other kids treat her like their sister?

Well, yeah. She is their sister.  Did you really just ask me that?   

 9. Did you hear about so and so’s adoption horror story?

Gee, when you announced you were having a baby, did you want people to launch into the most horrifying outcomes they could think of?  Try saying, Congratulations, and I am so happy for you.

 10. Wow, you got lucky.  She’s normal. 

Normal is just a setting on the dryer around here, babe.  And, yes, we are incredibly lucky to have her.

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  • This is relevant for me. My across the street neighbors have an adorable Asian adopted daughter. She plays with my daughter and is sweet and smart. I want to talk to her parents to learn more about her story. Of course, I want to be sensitive to the topic. Maybe you can offer some advice. Thanks.

  • In reply to Yoga Mom:

    So awesome that you asked and that you are interested in a sensitive discussion! I am always instantly more open to talking to people who pay attention to semantics (so, in conversations, refer to the little girl's birth family as "birth" family or "biological" family, not as her "real" family). Unless you are looking to adopt and need guidelines to make an adoption budget, avoid asking how much they spent during the adoption process. If you are interested in their story, just tell them how impressed you are by their daughter and ask if they would be open to sharing her story with you. Then let their response guide you. If her parents are comfortable and willing to talk, great. If they seem reticent, it means they are keeping the details private, and it is best to simply respect that by not prying. When the child's background is particularly traumatizing or unpleasant, adoptive parents may be reluctant to share information with others until the child is old enough to make her own decision to tell her story.

  • In reply to Carrie Goldman:

    Thanks Carrie for the helpful advice. Of course, I would never ask about her "real" family as my neighbors are her loving family. People who don't understand that seem very insensitve to me.

  • Here's one I got from my (highly educated child development specialist!) neighbor when she saw me: First, she assumed a highly concerned expression, then she said, "So, how IS Lenny doing? Is everything going OK? Can he talk OK?"

    What I wanted to say was: "Well, since you asked, his diction at 3 far surpasses that of your 7 year old daughter." Instead I simply answered, "Well S, I don't know - he was explaining gravity to me the other day (he really was!) so I suppose he is doing just fine verbally expressing himself."

    At other times, she has made sure to point out to me that he is guaranteed to be messed up when he becomes a teenager and "his genetics kick in." I guess they are lying dormant right now.

    Another fun question that my mother got asked: "So, what does Lenny call your daughter and son-in-law?" I guess adoptive parents are not "Mom" and "Dad?"

  • In reply to jiyer:

    At a certain point, we have to just laugh . . .
    Hugs to Lenny and Nina!

  • In reply to jiyer:

    OMG my comment to someone like "the expert" is all children (adopted and otherwise) will not come out unscathed by any type of parenting. I would further say her advanced studies did not give her any manners and tact that most people are born with, and that should point out her parents skills were lacking and thus hers will, if one believes in the trickle down theory.... Much love and blessings to you and yours, you are the lucky one!

  • I always find it interesting to hear peoples ideas about what is acceptable and such. We have a beautiful daughter who was born in Guatemala, she knows she is adopted, she has never known her birth mother, but we have pictures of her that our daughter recognizes. I always like to tell the people who comment that she looks nothing like me "Oh, you've never met my husband, she looks exactly like him" NOT! But they don't know that and if they didn't get it when they were told that we had adopted her, not my fault. Our daughter is OUR daughter and she will be the first to say, I may not have been in your tummy, but I was born in your heart!

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    Thanks for this. I know that my husband gets these a lot, since he is technically stepdad, and my daughter's biological father is Black and Puerto Rican, and my husband and I are both white. I find it highly inappropriate when people ask him if she's his, or other very personal and intrusive questions. Really, it's none of their business, and it makes him feel like crap.

    Lastly, you might want to add, when someone has a child biologically, it's not a good idea to turn to an adoptive parent and tell them "You'll never know how good it feels to know you made something like that." My husband got that one from one of his best friends, who thought that he wasn't saying anything wrong, but really, that was terrible.

  • In reply to Summer Smith:

    My goodness, Summer, I can't believe your husband's best friend's comment: shocking!!

    Funny how complete strangers think it's OK to ask where your child came from if he/she doesn't look like you. One day when my husband who is white was at the beach with our half-white, half-black foster daughter, a woman came up to him and said, "her mother is black, right?" My husband replied, "No, she is white." The woman left with a totally puzzled expression on her face, leaving my husband amused.

    My husband had told her the truth, of course - our foster daughter's mother is white and her father (who is not my husband) is black. He got a kick out of confusing the inquisitive and presumptuous stranger just by keeping it simple and telling the truth. Really, if the child is not connected to you in any way, you have no right to the details!

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    Years ago when I was adopted I remember these questions both to me and my family. Why on earth was I treated like damaged goods and my amazing parents like poor fill in's for the "real" thing?

    Now I get many of these questions about my biological daughter who people assume is NOT mine.

    Thank you for passing some knowledge on.

  • I got my daughter from foster care and adopted her six months later. There are still people who ask, "Are you going to tell her she's adopted?" Well, duh. She was seven years old. She was at the adoption hearing. I think the cat's out of the bag, folks.

    Ironically, my daughter looks EXACTLY like me. Weird, because I agreed to take her without even meeting her or seeing a photo of her. Looks played no part in it. But yes, she looks identical to me at that age, except she has brown eyes and mine are green. So I've actually had people try to tell me that there's no way she's adopted, because she looks way too much like me to be adopted. Huh?

  • Oh, and the other day, somebody asked me a question about my daughter's early childhood, and I didn't know the answer, because I didn't have her then. Like, I don't know what her first word was. I wasn't there. So when I said I didn't know, the woman acted like I was some horrible person for not knowing, so I said, "I wasn't lucky enough to know her then. She was seven when I adopted her." The woman replied, "Oh, I didn't realize she wasn't YOURS." I felt the look I gave her (it's a miracle the woman didn't just burst into flames), and said, "She IS mine." Stupid woman got the message. Why can't people think before they speak?

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    Here is a good one that I will never forget that a very close friend of mine (at the time) said to me:

    "You took the easy way out and adopted rather than giving birth."

    I was too dumbstruct to respond.

  • For any of you considering adopting, please don't let the above dissuade you!! It is a beautiful, enriching life experience, just as giving birth is, and you will find that the vast majority of people are supportive and loving. As for the people who fall into the group of those who say thoughtless things, well . . . . it happens. I try to answer politely out loud, although I may have a snarky thought in my head (see above), and then I move on. We all make mistakes!

  • Sorry that y'all are having problems with tactless people, I have never asked questions such as those to adopted parents or blended families, and I think people should know this child is not a part of me but a part of my heart and soul and if they keep up the questions, smile sweetly and say I wonder if your Mama raised any children with manners... My husband and I cannot have children and since he travels extensively it wouldn't be the right family life for a child, foster child or adopted, and yes I get tactless questions about why I do not have children like I am lacking in something, and I smile and say we were not blessed with children, if they say you could adopt comment, I smile then say, I could do alot of things like tell them they could mind their own business and learn some manners. So to sum it up both sides of the fence people do not use tact or manners when it comes to asking questions.

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    I don't get why people assume a child is adopted based on looks. I mean, really. Recessive genes people? Just because mom and dad have black hair doesn't mean baby girl can't have blonde. And what if mom is black and dad is white? If a black mother is with a white child, why CAN'T the child be hers? It makes no sense, first of all. And why do people get so hung up on blood anyway? Some of the best family I have are not blood related! I don't think people are trying to be rude. I think they just don't realize that sometimes it's a sensitive area. Sometimes its not. I wouldn't personally care but I know it does bother others.

  • I can't even wrap my mind around the rude and insensitive things people say! I can be pretty tactless sometimes, but even I wouldn't ask these questions.

  • I love your responses. You are right, some people are morons. Many a friend I have with adopted children and I would never think to be so prying. You are right again about learning more about things: if they want to share, they will.

  • Missy, excellent post - and absolutely, in the end we should mostly "blow off" these questions, treat them as funny, etc. and not let it detract from the rewards that adoption provides on personal and societal levels

  • P.S. I must add that in California also, mom living with a convicted child molester is grounds for taking the child away if she insists on continuing to live with him. Mom living with a violent felon is not, unless there is proof of danger or imminent danger to the child. I suspect that budgetary constraints are limiting the number of children who are taken in as wards of the state

  • This is so great. I am adopted, and I grew up knowing that I was adopted--my parents were very open about it with me, but I also grew up hearing these questions posed to my parents-- and to me.
    When I was in third grade, we had a unit on families, and my teacher stood up in front of the class and told us that "adopted kids aren't as special as regular kids, because their REAL parents didn't want them."
    My mother was furious, understandably.
    I have grown up being asked things like "so who are your REAL parents?", and I always respond...the ones who raised me.
    I had the good fortune to meet my birth parents-- and meeting my biological mother was a wonderful experience, and meeting my biological father was awful.
    Thank you for this great article!

  • Carrie, this article is great. I myself am an adopted child. I will have the opportunity to meet my biological mother next month. Today is my 25th birthday, and I am going to talk with my mother about my opportunity. I'm nervous about it but really feel like your article will help me hit the nail on the head that my Mom is my Mom. Just because I have the opportunity to meet her does NOT change anything. Do you have any advice?

  • Carrie, your article is so thoughtful and so valuable. I'm in a family where my nephews have been adopting children from a rainbow of origins. I joke with them that they must getting them from some modeling agency as they are all so gorgeous. I was born in 1940 so I come from a world most people today don't even know but I can tell you way back then people by and large were very sensitive about adoption and said just the right things, and taught their children the same sensitivity. In our high school we had a girl who excelled in classical music and we often discussed how proud her parents must be of her as indeed they were. The adoptive angle only came up if someone said, "Did you know Donna was adopted?" We mostly didn't because Donna looked like her mother and father, as often happens.
    I have many friends who were adopted and in most cases I never even knew until we were both in our '50s or so. Families are families, I guess, no matter how they happened to become families.
    Wayne Brasler

  • Wow! You hit the nail on the head here. I am an adoptive mother as well. My girls look like me I miss some of the comments insensitive people make. I did have a man on an airplane ask me why my daughter had a vaccination on her arm b/c we don't do those anymore in the US (she was born in another country). WHAT?

    I try to remember that most of these people don't mean their statements in a hateful manner.. but come on people.

    Thank your for your honestly.

    Kelly Ozley

  • I just had lunch with a friend who told me my kids owe me and my husband so much for adopting them and they'd better be telling us that. My sons are 19-yo twins and we have a 12yo. They were late adoptions (the twins were 7, our other son 2). My kids don't OWE ME anything. I owe them for the opportunity to be a mother...

    Great post!

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