How to Explain Adoption to Family and Friends

Correct misperceptions and set a positive tone when talking about the way your family was formed, as family and friends will take cues from you when they explain adoption to their children.

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

When I was growing up, one of my playmates was a girl who lived alone with her mother. Single parent families were not common then – at least not in our subdivision – but I was given an explanation for their situation even before I formed the question. “Julie was adopted,” my mother told me. The statement may have been whispered; I don’t recall. And I wonder if I would have been told at all (or if my mother would even have known) if Julie had had two parents.

Apparently I thought that no further explanation of the adoption process was necessary, and I don’t believe I ever talked to Julie or her mother about it. What I was really interested in were Julie’s apricot-colored toy poodle and white bedroom set with a canopied bed. If I ever connected these luxuries with the idea prevalent at the time that single, adopted children often were spoiled, I don’t recall.

Look at what my mother’s statement about a friend’s adoption might have brought to mind. Was adoption something secret? Or was it something to be desired (because it comes with a poodle)?

Was a barrier thrown up by the comments, as there might be if someone tells a child that her playmate is of a different faith?

What information, if any, was conveyed about the reasons people adopt and how children become available for adoption? If I’d asked why Julie didn’t have a father, would my mother have known what policies were toward single parent adoption in the 1960’s?

Most important, if Julie’s mother had known I would be told about Julie’s adoption, how would she have wanted that information conveyed?

As parents, we want to teach our children about the world. Often, we start with the center of our world – our own family – and move outward. As our children encounter new people and situations in the world around us, we help them make sense of the unfamiliar. We hope to create understanding, empathy, and a wider sphere of comfort.

We explain why chemotherapy caused Aunt Rachel’s hair to fall out; why a neighbor who fought in the Gulf War is too sick to work; why the woman in the grocery store covers her face with a veil. In most cases, we draw on our own experiences and general knowledge for these explanations. We don’t do a search of medical journals before explaining chemotherapy. We rely on what we have retained from explanations we’ve heard, news accounts and memoirs we’ve read, specials we’ve watched on the Discovery channel.

Because those sources have satisfied us, we believe they will be adequate for our children. And, in most cases, they will be. The broad picture is understood. It is only the fine points that may not be understood as precisely as they should be.

Family members, friends, and the parents of our children’s classmates will use our adoptive family experiences and stories to broaden their children’s sphere of understanding. Adoption can say a lot about how the world works in ways other than we think or expect. Birth control can fail. People of different races can be sisters. Two men can be fathers to the same child. Collectively, our adoptive families are a rich source of social, economic, and ethical commentary.

However, individually we tend to have more immediate and mundane concerns: Is my own family accurately described? Is my own family better understood?

We can help others explain adoption to their children by helping them understand the subject better themselves. Because they will rely on accumulated information when they talk to their children, whatever we can do to make sure it is accurate information will help.

That means that, from the start, we correct any misinformation they may have – without being so defensive or sensitive that we become boors on the subject. We might be tempted to ignore a statement like, “I just don’t understand how anyone could give away a beautiful baby like that.” However, if we give the speaker a brief but empathetic picture of birth mothers and relinquishment, we may ensure that a few years later this parent won’t pass on that shallow judgment when talking to his child about our son or daughter.

At the same time, we want to protect our child’s privacy. It is her story (or his story), after all. She has the right to decide who knows the details of her life, including the circumstances of her birth parents, how she became available for adoption, and her own physical, mental, and social condition at that time. If the ethical reasons to maintain a child’s privacy were not compelling enough, there are practical considerations as well. We do not want our child’s friends and classmates to know her story before she learns it from us herself.

Some parents take a formal approach, writing a letter to friends and family members outlining preferred adoption terminology, information about the adoption process, and insight into any cultural issues that might be relevant, such as how independent adoption works in the U.S. or the “one-child” policy of China.

Whether parents convey information in this way, or simply become alert for opportunities to share information casually, they will probably want to communicate the following ideas to parents of non-adopted children:

  • Children can’t understand adoption until they are old enough to understand reproduction – usually around the age of five or six. Preschool children probably will not think anything about adoption requires explanation. Children don’t understand genetics until about age nine. Until then they will not expect children in a family to be racially alike or otherwise resemble their parents.
  • When children are old enough to understand adoption, they may wonder if they were also adopted, even if they don’t ask the question. Parents may want to include in their discussion of another child’s adoption the facts about how their own child joined their family.
  • Children will find it difficult to understand why birth parents relinquish children for adoption because they don’t have enough life experience to understand the social and economic factors that contribute to such decisions. It is sufficient for parents to explain that, for whatever reason, the birth parents were unable to care for a child born to them at that time in their lives. It was not a problem with the child that necessitated the adoption.
  • Parents who have neither relinquished a child for adoption, been adopted, nor experienced infertility or adoption may look at our decision to adopt and think, “If that were me, I would not have the [biologic] children I have. How sad. How could I live without my children – how could any other child be acceptable to me?” They may inadvertently convey this attitude, or they may overcompensate, making adoption sound perfect because the child has been “chosen” or because the birth parents had the “perfect love” necessary to make such a sacrifice. Tell them that it is not only all right, it is desirable to talk about adoption as an experience of both joy and sorrow.
  • Parents should not forget to mention that children who were adopted not only have a birth mother, but a birth father. Otherwise, children outside the family may conclude that the adoptive father is the biological father. Parents also should know that birth parents can be active participants in a child’s life, sometimes even after international adoption.

There are many myths about adoption and much misinformation about adoption practices and members of the adoption triad. Let your family and friends know that they do not have to be experts on the subject when talking to their children. You stand ready to be a resource to them.


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