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son speaks adoption language

My Son Speaks Adoption Language at School

“Your mom doesn’t look like you at ALL,” said the second-grader to my son.

From my perch on a chair much too small for my bottom, I looked at the girl’s desk to find out her name, written in teacher-tidy print. Joy.

“That’s ’cause she aDOPTED me,” Reed told his classmate across the table.

And that’s how Take-Your-Parent-to-School day began.

son speaks adoption language

Now I knew in the abstract, that school presents new challenges for adoptees to navigate. I just didn’t know, really know, that such challenges would be presented to my children.

It was over before I even saw it coming. I was secretly pleased at my son’s choice of words. Did you notice he didn’t say, “That’s ’cause I’m adopted”? He said, “That’s ’cause she adopted me.”

It’s a subtle difference. I have always hoped that my children would see adoption as a word to describe what their parents DID rather than who they WERE. Verb versus adjective. Not self-definition.

But is that a distinction that we adoptive parents cling to, shoe-horning space between the two phrases just to make us feel like we’re doing something right by using sensitive and sensible language?

Or, as some adoptees say, does it matter not a whit? Tomayto/tomahto, is adopted/was adopted?


“Why do you think Joy said that?” I whispered to Reed later as the class walked single-file to Library.

“I dunno,” he shrugged. “Maybe because your hair is darker than mine.”

“What do you think of that?” I probed.

“I think people have different hair.”

We arrived at the library and that was that.

Lori Holden, mom of a young adult daughter and a young adult son, writes from Denver. She was honored as an Angel in Adoption® by the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute.

Find Lori’s books on her Amazon Author page, and catch episodes of Adoption: The Long View wherever you get your podcasts.

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59 Responses

  1. Another great post!! First of all, how annoying of that Joy 🙂

    I’m so proud of how he handled himself. And even though I can’t see his face in the pic, it still looks adorable!!

    I am not someone who typically spends too much time thinking about adoption language, and yet I’m coming across it often in blog posts so it’s making me think more. And I do see the distinction in what you write here. One describes an action that occurred in the past, the other describes him. Big difference indeed.

  2. I think that’s a distinction that only the adoptee can make, though. Do they find the active form (my parents adopted me) more comfortable than the passive form (I was adopted)? I would guess that many parents, like you, would be more comfortable with the active form because it implies something different to you.

    It does sound like your boy is at ease with the concept, though. That can only be due to your (and your husband’s) influence. Also, as Kristin said, he sounds like a smart boy.

    1. You’re right. It really only matters to the adoptee, not so much to us.

      And we have not hammered in any one way of talking about adoption. We’ve simply been consistent in saying that we adopted them. And that turned out to be Reed’s default verbiage.

      It begs the question: does language beget though or does thought beget language? Or are the two inseparable?

  3. As an adult adoptee I can say, that while I would likely prefer this language should we ever be blessed to adopt a child, I used “I was adopted” or “I’m adopted” to describe myself or my origins to others. It wasn’t a conscious decision so much as how it came out. I’ve always known I was adopted and I’ve always viewed it as part of my story (since I have zero connection to my birth store, per se (and that is something else to consider, the lack of a birth story, in the lives of many adoptees especially in closed or semi-open adoptions where the adoptive parents were not present at the birth)). And, as part of my story, it has always felt inextricably woven into my view of who I am. I am many things, Italian, Taurus, Adopted. No sweat 🙂

  4. first, even with his face not visable..the LOVE and JOY in that picture made me “SIGH” out loud!

    and I love how he answered, see what your love and openness about adoption has given you….the gift of those words from Reed…I am just overcome with emotion about that.

    what a great story, what a great little boy Lori

  5. What a great post!

    I’m always a little surprised (and very proud) when my daughter treats adoption so very matter of factly — although she has reached the point where she is sometimes frustrated that people don’t understand adoption (specifically that not everyone knows what a birth mom or birth dad is.)

  6. As an adoptee, until recently, I thought I always treated that I was adopted as matter of fact too. Perhaps because my brother so close in age was also adopted at birth. We leaned a lot on each other as young children, but never talked about being adopted. I do remember asking over and over again the same simple questions for example, “How much did I weigh, etc.,? But looking back, I see now that using the word “adoption” in a conversation was forbidden in our home. I love hearing different adoptive parents’ perspectives that believe discussing adoption openly and freely is a healthy part of raising adoptive children.

    1. Before we adopted our children, we talked to a number of people we knew who were adopted – to hear about their experiences & maybe glean from them ideas about what would be the best way to approach it with our children. Hands down the most common thing we heard was that (1) adoption was just a part of who they were, like having blue eyes or freckles or being left-handed and (2) even though their adoption wasn’t secret, they always felt like it was something they shouldn’t talk about.

      I worry sometimes that we talk about it too much. When our children were babies we talked about it all the time just to get comfortable with it ourselves – they had no idea what we were talking about but we were getting comfortable with the language and figuring out how to say things and making it something we’d just “always” talked about. Now they ask lots of questions and we answer what we can and try to find out for them what we don’t know.

      In the last few weeks a couple of different people have told me that my daughter has told them all about her adoption. I am glad to see that she is so comfortable talking about it; at the very least I figure we’ve gotten that part right, because clearly she feels it’s something she can talk about whenever and with whomever she wants.

  7. what a sweet, smart boy. love him!

    and yes, your subtle influence has seeped through in the most positive way.

    that photo is awesome, even without seeing his face. xo

  8. What a great kid you have!

    As an adoptee and an adoptive mom, I find myself using 2 different sets of words! For myself, I use “I am adopted” like it’s something that is still going on, but for Liam tend to use more “he was adopted” or “we adopted him”.

    It’s kinda of odd…..

    1. That’s so interesting! Do those two views feel different to you? Or are they just two different ways to say the same thing?

      I’d be interested in a post about this — it’s a fascinating observation.

  9. Lori, you never cease to amaze me. You are simply one of the best moms I have the pleasure of knowing. Your kids are truly blessed.

  10. Years ago I had a friend that was adopted. He always told me that being adopted made him feel special. When I asked exactly why that was, he told me it was because he was “chosen.” I think that is a good way to make your kids feel.

    1. Another adult adoptee told me the same thing just this week.

      But some of the adoption guidebooks say that the notion of being “chosen” can be a burden to bear, and makes a person feel “different” rather than “special.”

      It kind of goes against the normalizing notion I’m aiming for, but I know that “being chosen” has been beneficial for many adoptees.

      This is another idea I’d like to explore further.

  11. Smart kid – must have one fabulously smart momma! My hubby said that for him it just was what it always was…. that’s how we’ve always had with our kids too when they ask about when daddy was a baby or anything related to birth we always talk about adoption. Just is what it is and is a beautiful thing!

  12. Love this post. And your smart boy.

    “I think people have different hair.”

    For obvious reasons, I love this. I so hope that as Sunshine gets older, she is as at ease with her origins and how we became a family as Reed is. You are one of my “go to” moms, Lori. I’m so glad I got to meet Reed and Tessa.

    Ummmm, can you email me that photo unblocked, so I can see that dazzling smile? I’ll trade you for some nakey bath video of Sunshine.

  13. Subtle: “Adopted vs. Was adopted”

    (Sometimes it’s those subtle differences that make ALL the difference in the world.)

    Brilliant: “I think people have different hair.”

    Way to go, Reed!

  14. I love it. When it’s just part of life it’s not such a consuming part of life it seems.
    I have to say that I don’t recall anyone ever telling me I looked nothing like my parents. So either it never happened or it was so insignificant I don’t remember it. But then I always thought of myself as that I was adopted, not that I am adopted. Perspective is so much.

  15. Most adoptees DETEST the term “chosen child”. We were not chosen. Our adoptive parents chose to adopt us, but they did NOT choose us. if we had not been available for adoption, they would have adopted a different child. If they had not chosen to adopt, I would have gone to another set of ap’s.

    Please, do NOT tell your child he was “chosen”. That ranks right up there with adoptees being called “gifts”. Just be honest- that is the best thing any parent can do.

    1. I had heard that, Linda. Though I hadn’t thought of it in the way you say, but that makes sense.

      I wrote once about how my daughter was beginning to realize that had things been different, she might have been raised by either of her birth parents.

      At the same time, my son was realizing that, had things been different, he might have been raised by just about anyone.

      Both of those ideas must be very big to process.

      Point well taken about honesty.

  16. Oh my gosh his response made me laugh out loud! What a clever kid. I always find the debate over is/was adopted interesting. We’ve always used is. Just out of habit. Interestingly I’ve noticed our kids using was… which makes me think I need to switch over to was. Tomayto/tomahto though really 😉

  17. Love. I love the simplicity of children. We are still waiting for this moment. We have dealt with a lot of “what’s wrong wrong with his hand” because he has a disability but the adopted card hasn’t been played yet. I’m so glad you joined the #AdoptionTalk linkup!!!

  18. I hope I can be forgiven for quoting myself, but here goes:

    Adoption is the reason I have the name I have, the accent I have, and the family I have. It’s why I grew up where I did, attended the schools I did, and had the friends I did. It defined and continues to define everything anyone will ever know of me. I *am* adopted. Without my adoption, there wouldn’t be a me; there would be someone else, probably somewhat similar to me, living in my body.

    Being adopted is my identity, just as much as being female and white and straight is. What hurt me growing up was being told that being adopted is the same as not being adopted, which is simply not true. Is being adopted a worse way to be? Not if it’s done right. It is simply different, and I think that difference should be acknowledged rather than denied.

    I will never not be adopted, and if there’s nothing wrong with that, what’s wrong with accepting it as an identity?

    1. Very helpful to hear your perspective on “is adopted,” Laurel. And that it’s possible to acknowledge that parenting via adoption actually IS different, without making that a bad thing.

      Your last line has been an aha. Thank you.

  19. Wow! He’s quick.

    Until reading this, I’d never even considered the difference between “She adopted me,” and “I’m adopted.”

    One of my children is pretty quick too, but I can’t even remember what wording he uses. I’m just thrilled he’s confident enough to be open.

    Now I’ll be listening to the specific words he uses- not that it will make a huge difference to me. I’m just curious.

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