Ask AF: Disagreeing About Discipline with the Birth Family

A parent in an open adoption asks what do do (and how to explain to her son) when his birth family uses different discipline approaches for his birth sibling.

Q: Our son’s younger biological sister is clearly loved and cared for, but the birth family uses some discipline approaches (spanking, sending her to the corner) that we don’t. When our son sees this on visits, it really upsets him and he has said we should “adopt his sister too.” I feel it’s not my place to question or challenge their parenting, even if I disagree with it. Should I say something to them? What can I say to my son?

A: It sounds like you do not suspect abuse or neglect; if you did think the spankings were abusive, you would need to report the situation.

How open is your relationship with your son’s birth parents? If you think your relationship could bear it, you might say something like, “It upsets our son when you use spankings and timeouts because those are things we don’t do. I assured him you would never really hurt his sister and that she is safe.” You might add, “I heard there is a workshop [such as “Love and Logic” or “How to Talk So Kids Will Listen”] at the library [or wherever, if you’ve heard of one]. If you and your husband want to go, we will be glad to gift it to you and babysit.” Or “I just read this parenting book that I really enjoyed and learned a lot from. Perhaps you’d like to borrow it?” Then, drop the topic.

I would tell your son that different parents use different ways of disciplining, such as ______, but that this is not something you will use; that instead you do such-and-such. Assure him that his sister is safe. Explain that she has parents who care for her, so she can’t be adopted, just as another family can’t come along and adopt him. You might remind him of some of the reasons his birth parents chose adoption, like “Your birth mom was young and didn’t have the ability to take care of you, so she chose adoption. She can take care of your sister because things in her life changed.”

Your son will continue to meet all kinds of families whose lifestyle choices are different from yours, so help him accept that.

I am glad he has a relationship with his birth family.

has been working with adoptive families and children for more than 35 years, and is currently a therapist at Adoption & Attachment Therapy Partners, in Broadview Heights, Ohio. She is a co-author of Parenting the Hurt Child, Adopting the Hurt Child, and the therapeutic workbook A Foster-Adoption Story: Angela and Michael’s Journey, and the author of the therapeutic workbook series The Adoption Club. Kupecky also co-authored The Mystery of the Multiple Mothers, a mystery novel with an adoption theme, with her brother.

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