When Parents are the Educators

Thinking about talking about adoption at your child's school? Make sure she's okay with it first.

Adoption expert Lois Melina on talking with adopted children about unknown birth family information

The day our four-year-old son became a naturalized citizen, his entire preschool class attended the ceremony. Earlier that day, I had spoken to the class about national boundaries and citizenship — in terms appropriate for the preschool crowd, of course. Then I passed out American flag cake decorations, and we all made the one-block trek to the federal courthouse.

This was one of the opportunities I took to talk to my children’s classmates over the years. I also supplied the teachers’ library with resources on adoption, and, occasionally, made a call to the school when I thought a classmate’s taunt or a teacher’s thoughtless remark warranted it.

Like many parents, I took my responsibility seriously to make classrooms places where my children would not be reduced to stereotypes — whether based on gender, race, family structure, or other characteristics.

We all have a responsibility to call attention to both overt and subtle forms of bias — the messages that tell children, “This is what’s normal, and if you’re not this way, you don’t quite measure up.” At the same time, I recognize now that I was probably overly concerned that even one insensitive remark might have disastrous effects.

If you decide to talk about adoption with your child’s classmates or teachers, you have a number of options. Before selecting one, make sure you know what you want to accomplish — and why.

Visiting the classroom

Before you introduce your child’s teacher and classmates to the world of adoption, make sure your child wants you to talk about a subject that affects him so personally.

Children in the early years of grade school are often eager to have their parents in the classroom and enjoy being the center of attention. At some point, however, children become more self-conscious. And by junior high, some students are embarrassed by the presence of their parents on the same planet, much less at school.

If your child seems reluctant to have you talk about adoption at school, find out if he’s worried about something in particular. Perhaps he’s afraid you’ll reveal something private or embarrassing. Once reassured that you will not, for example, talk about the time he was upset because his birth mother postponed her visit, he may sanction the talk. If he is still reluctant, respect his wishes, even if you don’t completely understand his reasons.

Planning the presentation

Once you have your child’s blessing, involve him in planning the presentation. Not only will this help you target the interests of your child’s age group and ensure that your child is comfortable with the plans, it will give you an opportunity to discuss adoption and birth family with him.

If you detect any discomfort or confusion apart from the presentation you’re planning, you may want to delay your classroom visit until you’ve had more chances to talk about adoption at home.

As you plan the presentation, remember to:

  • Be brief and don’t try to cover everything. Don’t get caught up in the idea that this may be the only opportunity for these children to learn about Russia or open adoption.
  • Keep your explanations concrete and involve the class through hands-on activities and discussion. This is especially important in the primary grades. For example, rather than trying to explain open adoption in procedural or abstract terms, say that Sam was born to Joanna, and talks to her on the phone every month, but that he lives with his Mommy and Daddy. Then, ask the students in the class to draw a picture of the people in their families.
  • Call attention to differences while at the same time normalizing them. It’s easy to reinforce stereotypes by presenting information about your child’s birth culture as “exotic” when your goal is simply to show how other people live their lives. If you bring in a traditional costume from your child’s country of birth, explain that this is what people wear on special occasions. Then, show photos that depict how people dress in daily life.
  • Be prepared for questions — and surprises. Kids probably won’t use “positive adoption language,” and they may unwittingly ask tough questions. Answer as simply as possible, gently reframing language without making the child “wrong.”

For example, if a classmate asks why your child’s “real” mother “didn’t want him,” you can say “Andy’s birth mother decided that she wasn’t ready to raise any child at the time.”

Educating school personnel

On the other hand, you may wish to raise awareness of adoption among teachers, school counselors, or other support staff, instead. Given a receptive staff, this can have great impact. Or perhaps you’ve encountered institutional prejudices, such as the belief that all adopted children will have learning difficulties or that all Asian children will be gifted in math.

Some parents simply call the school to offer resources or teacher training. However, it’s important to remember that teachers must be knowledgeable about an array of student needs — various learning types, physical conditions, different languages and ethnicities, as well as different family structures. Thus, they may see adoption as impacting only a small percentage of their students.

You may have more luck placing the information in a broader context. Rather than ask the school to let you talk to teachers about adoption, you might suggest a session on nontraditional families, addressing adoption within a range of family structures. Ask the school to add Families Are Different, by Nina Pellegrini, and The Family Book, by Todd Parr, to the library, or to screen the GroundSpark video, That’s A Family.

However you approach the teacher, make it clear that your desire to inform is not motivated by a deficiency that you perceive in her knowledge or classroom approach, but by your awareness of how much she is expected to know about the needs of each individual student.

Educating in response

Because most schools believe that they are sensitive to issues of diversity, some may be responsive to overtures from parents only after actual instances of teasing or insensitivity. Such after-the-fact encounters can be emotional, with parents angry that a child has been hurt or singled out, and school personnel on the defensive. Nonetheless, if this is the situation at your child’s school, make the most of the opportunity, when the school’s tuned in and willing to listen.

If you’d like to contact the school in response to an incident, first discuss your response with your child. As much as we want to protect our children, or even to fight their battles, we don’t want to send the message that they are victims in need of protectors.

If you do call, remain clear about your purpose. Offer the same talks or resources that the school turned down, postponed, or didn’t use effectively before the incident. Or, simply tell the teacher or principal, “I know you can’t control everything that happens on the playground. I just want you to know what happened.” While this won’t erase the incident, it may increase the personnel’s understanding and ease your own frustration.

Unpleasant incidents can also be opportunities for you to talk with your child. Discuss the options we all have when confronted with misunderstanding, bias, or outright bullying. And remember that, in many cases, a parent’s job is not to take care of a situation for our child, but to help him understand his choices and support whichever one he thinks is appropriate.

Naturally, however, if you think a situation is chronic or is having a serious impact on your child, you need to do what you think is best, regardless of what your child wants.

Finally, keep in mind that there’s a limit to what even the most conscientious parent can do to affect school environments. What we can control is whether our child feels comfortable and supported at home. Even as we hope for and try to create a perfect world, we have to deal with the reality that it is not perfect yet. We must balance our efforts to educate the public with monitoring our children’s ways of coping with the existing culture.


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