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adoption as a joke

Adoption as a Punchline

I had to decide in an instant what to do about an exchange I witnessed on a lunch break at school.

adoption as a joke

A parent at my school was performing volunteer duties. I watched as her son, one of my high school students,  passed by her near the main office.

“You’re adopted,” he said to her affectionately.

“No, YOU’re adopted.” she volleyed back. Obviously this was not the first time they have said these connection-building words to each other.

It felt the opposite of connection-building to me.

Do Nothing or Say Something (What??)

The student went on his way and I was left in the vicinity of the mom while I got my lunch together. I had to think fast before the moment passed.

What should I do?

Staying silent was the safest route. After all, these aren’t random people in line at Target. These are people with whom I’ll have an ongoing relationship.

No confrontation means no chance of hard feelings with the mom, with the student, maybe even with the principal, if things went badly. In the blink of an eye my mind churned out a half-dozen scenarios that all went badly.

Saying something was risky. What would I say? How could I not give a pass and also not cause the mom to become defensive?

I pretended someone was asking my advice how to handle this. I’d tell them, Reflect back to the person what they’ve said without judgment. Let them see for themselves. Share your own experience without judgment.

Adoption as a Joke

I reminded myself that I really like this student, and his mom seems like a nice person. Neither, I told myself, would deliberately say something hurtful. It’s just that they’ve never thought of the implications of treating adoption as a joke.

So without further analysis and without having a fully formed plan, I opened a conversation, not knowing exactly where I would take it, where she would take it. I took a deep breath and dove in.

“Did I hear you and your son talking about adoption?” I put my lunch in the microwave.

“Yeah, it’s jut a little thing we do to bug each other.” She smiled broadly. She adores her son and she loves that he gave her attention in front of his peers.

“Oh, yeah, I understand. We take teen affection where we can get it, right?”

I continued: “It caught my ear because my family is an adoptive family. If my kids heard something like that, they might take it as meaning they are less than.”

I let my words sink in. She was quiet a moment.

“Oh, I never thought of that.” She closed the supply cabinet, I gathered my lunch, we offered each other closing pleasantries and went our separate ways.

Now She Knows

I have no idea if the conversation made an impact on her. But I’m proud that I didn’t let the issue slide and I’m pleased  that the conversation it didn’t get out of control.

So maybe I can put this little exchange in the win column.

Have you ever heard adoption used  as a punchline? Please share your conversations, real or imagined.

Postscript: One reader alerted me to this scene from Marvel’s The Avengers. What a hysterical punchline.


This post is part of #MicroblogMondays? Whazzat? A post that’s not too long. Head to Stirrup Queens to join the fun.


Lori Holden's book coverLori Holden, mom of a teen son and a teen daughter, blogs from Denver. Her book, The Open-Hearted Way to Open Adoption: Helping Your Child Grow Up Whole, is available through your favorite online bookseller and makes a thoughtful anytime gift for the adoptive families in your life.

17 Responses

  1. Thank you for creating some awareness around this point. I have witnessed it before and, yes, it hurts. When families have bio children, but one doesn’t look the same physically or behaves differently, they joke among themselves, or with others, that the child “was adopted”. I’m very sensitive to it, and the thought of my son overhearing a joke like that makes me cringe.

  2. This situation came up this weekend. The joke was in a movie made by a Christian production company about high school teens. On the way home, I asked all three of my children who came to us through adoption if it mattered to them. One missed it entirely, one said no (but he is the one who is biologically my husband’s nephew) and the 17 year old was offended and had quite a bit to say about it. Awareness is the key. Compassionately teaching those who joke this way about adoption is the only way to foster change. I think most folks would appreciate knowing and potentially change their behavior in the future. We have to be brave in those tough situations.

  3. Well done. So many hurtful things that people do are completely unintentional. Instead of condemning, we should be educating.

  4. Yay, you! That was nicely done. I hope she thinks about it, and talks about it with her son.

    I have never heard adoption used as a punchline. The older generation make dismissive comments – I hate how my FIL always makes the distinction that some of his nieces/nephews are adopted, as if it matters when they’ve been in his family for 40+ years! But he’s almost 90, and I can ignore him.

  5. Statistically, anywhere from 5-9 million people in this country are adopted, but no one knows because no one has properly counted all adoptees in a systematic way. We have good guesses. So that means probably up to 15 million or more, give or take, are either adopted or could have a relation with an adoptee through adoptive/bio families. Now count friends and acquaintances. So you get the idea how pervasive it is. Maybe simple point out a fact to someone like that and let them use their brains to understand it’s a massive system and experience in this country. As for addressing any wrong you see in public, your conscience will always have to be your guide, and no one but you can figure that out. I say, always do the right thing. Cheers.

  6. All the time, especially on Facebook. Things about the Trump son being adopted because he did something stupid. Do a search in Google images for “you’re adopted joke” and see all the stuff posted all over Facebook. I hear people in conversations make jokes about how their sibling who did something embarrassing or stupid “oh he/she is adopted”

    Maybe as an adoptee I’m sensitive and notice this all over.

  7. I can’t imagine myself joking like that, but honestly, my sisters and I used to when we were growing up. As a mother now, if another mother said to me what you did because of something I ignorantly said, it would make an impact. It would make me NEVER say it again and I would talk to my child about it too.

    You did good! ❤️

  8. Gently done, my friend. I wish I could manage silence as gracefully as you do. I always feel a need to fill it. Based on her response, I’d say this goes in the “win” category.

    confession: I’ve used the “don’t worry. I’m adopted.” Because I am, but also as a punchline. Particularly when my mom realizes she’s done or said something silly or mildly inappropriate.

  9. Such a great, thoughtful response. She probably has second thoughts now about treating adoption like a joke. I haven’t seen it as punchline in that way in person, but I have heard people say things like, “well, we know she’s not adopted, look at that resemblance!” Or other such ilk. When we were in the process I really enjoyed when grown adults would tell me I could adopt them, like that was something witty and helpful to say. HA ha HA ha. I think you handled this beautifully. The spreading of an empathy mindset is always a good thing.

  10. Yes, I’ve heard people joke about being adopted ( themselves & others). I might have even done it myself when I was younger. I certainly wouldn’t now , of course, but that’s because I’ve gained so much awareness from you & other adoptive parents. Good for you for gently challenging that mom on her words!

  11. Yay for a compassionate response. I’ll admit I’ve been more likely to go for a more passive aggressive, playing dumb approach: “Oh, you’re adopted too! Isn’t it the best? I can’t imagine it any other way,” etc. Perhaps that’s because I’ve spent so much of my working life with teenagers. I’ve always treasured my friend’s daughter’s response when yet another kid asked, “How come you’re brown and your parents are white?” She said “They can’t help it. They were born that way.”

    One time I was pretty much speechless was when my daughter’s first grade teacher announced in the hallway that she had figured out that I adopted my kids because I didn’t like sex. Pretty sure that was a joke…. She was a very good teacher but kind of a loose cannon.

  12. I admire your ability to handle these kinds of interactions with such grace. I would not be as eloquent (although I’m much better than I used to be).

  13. Very well handled. You didn’t come from a “you-are-so-wrong” stance but rather from a You-would-benefit-from more-information-stance that will hopefully open her mind and change her behavior.

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