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The Right Words

When questions about adoption start circulating at my son's school, I step in with a tried-and-true Beth Roth

One night my third-grader, Emilio, made a comment about his "real mother." We had never used this term in our home, so I was curious about its sudden emergence in his vocabulary. I asked, "When you say ‘real mother,' do you mean me or your birthmother?" "My birthmother," he answered. When I learned that he had heard the term at school, I knew it was time to present appropriate adoption language in Emilio's class.

His teacher was receptive, and I presented "Adoption Terminology" the following week. Since then, I have given this 30-minute talk several times in grades three through six. Here's how it goes.

The Presentation
I begin by asking the students to define "adoption." Then I draw a large triangle on the blackboard and say that there are at least three people, referred to as the "Adoption Triad," involved in an adoption. Chalk in hand, I point to the top of the triangle and ask, "Who gets adopted?" When they answer—without fail—"A baby," I expand this to include a toddler or an older child and write at the top of the triangle, "Baby or Child."

Pointing to a bottom corner of the triangle, I ask what I should write there. The students quickly reply, "The mother," and I ask, to clarify, "Which mother?" "The mother who adopts the child," is the typical answer. I explain that parents come in different combinations: one woman, one man, a woman and a man, two women, or two men, and then write "Adoptive Parent(s)" by that corner.

When it comes time to fill in the remaining corner, responses usually include "The woman who gave birth to the baby," "The other mother," or "The birthmother." I write "Birthmother/ Birthparents" by that corner, as I say, "Every child is created by a birthmother and a birthfather, but sometimes only one of them is involved in the adoption process."

If a student offers "real" or "natural" mother/parent(s) in response to this last question, I write the term near the corresponding side of the triangle, so we can return to it later. I also explain that social workers, lawyers, and judges are involved in the adoption process, but they are not considered members of the triad.

Then, I turn the students' attention to the poster I've prepared. Entitled "Adoption Terminology," it lists the following groups of words:

1. natural, real
2. my/your/his/her/our/their own
3. surrender, give up, give away, relinquish, put up, abandon
4. place for adoption, make an adoption plan, choose adoption
5. foreign, domestic, international

I explain that appropriate terminology means using words that are both clear and respectful. We want it to be easy to understand to whom we are referring, while not insulting or being hurtful to anyone. Then I ask: "What is appropriate language to use to talk about adoption?"

Starting with the first group, "real" and "natural," I say that all parents are real and natural people. Calling one person "real" or "natural" implies that other people are "not real" or "unnatural." I ask if these words meet our criteria for appropriate terminology, meaning, again, that they're clear and respectful, and the students reply that they don't.

To illustrate this point, I tell the students about something that happened when my son was 5. A woman sat down next to me and Emilio on an airplane, looked at us, and asked me, "What happened to his real mother?" Most of the students are shocked by her rudeness, and I channel their reactions into a lively debate: What do you think this woman wanted to know? Was it any of her business? Can you think of a more appropriate way to ask? How should I have answered her? We end up agreeing that "biological parent(s)" or "birthparent(s)" are the most appropriate terms for the parents who conceive a child, and that "adoptive parent(s)," or simply, "parent(s)," are the most appropriate terms for the people who adopt a child. If "real" or "natural" were offered earlier, when we discussed the adoption triad, I go back and cross them out before moving on.

Next, we discuss the students' own curiosity about adoption. I explain that, based on the nature of the questions, adoptive families must often decide whether they want to educate others about adoption. Some questions reflect sincere curiosity about adoption, while others offer value judgments, negative opinions, or stereotypes. For example, the question "Do you miss your real mom?" may call for correction or rebuff, depending on the tone.

Finally, I tell the group how I responded to the stranger on the plane. Calmly, I said, "His real mother? You're looking at her! Do you want to know what happened to my son's birthmother? Well, we know very little about her, and the information we do have is private."

I take the students through the rest of the terms on my poster in a similar manner, asking them questions and relaying anecdotes to clarify appropriate terminology.

Rewarding Feedback
I never single out adoptees in the classrooms, yet they, as well as their classmates who live in non-traditional biological families, will sometimes volunteer personal anecdotes that enliven the presentation. For example, a biracial third-grader once said, "Kids always think I'm adopted because my parents aren't married." That led to a discussion about marriage and race in relation to both biological and adoptive families. A fifth-grader who was adopted internationally related that another student had teased him, saying he didn't have any "real" parents. His classmates identified the inappropriate terminology, talked about what was meant by the insult, and came up with several ways the student could have responded.

I've done this presentation many times, and it's never been the same twice, yet it has always been rich and rewarding. Judging from the positive feedback I've received from teachers, students, and parents (who sometimes visit the class during this presentation), it's clear that discussing appropriate terminology with children helps them engage more thoughtfully and confidently in conversations about adoption.

Beth Roth lives with her husband and their children, Emilio and Claudia, in New Haven, Connecticut.

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