Private Isn't Secret

Your young nieces and nephews won't always understand adoption. Here's how you can introduce it to them in a positive way.

Lesley was casually piling potato salad on her picnic plate at a family reunion when one of her nieces looked at her and knowingly said, “You’re not Austin’s real mother, are you?”

Caught off guard, Lesley answered, “No, we adopted Austin when he was a baby. His real mother was very young and didn’t have a husband, so she asked us to be Austin’s parents.” She then spent the rest of the time at the family gathering mentally rehashing the conversation, imagining how she could have handled the situation better.

She’d certainly encountered adults who had asked questions like, “What do you know about Austin’s real parents?” She’d been ready with a response that subtly communicated both preferred language and her desire for privacy: “You mean his birth parents? We have quite a bit of information actually.”

But somehow a question coming from a child seemed to require more information and a greater tolerance for using language that wasn’t “politically correct.” After all, Lesley felt more responsibility to educate her young niece than her acquaintances about adoption. With Lesley’s input, perhaps this niece would grow up with a more understanding attitude toward adoption than was common among the general public.

Later, though, Lesley imagined next year’s family reunion, when this niece might come up to her son and say, knowingly: “I know your real mother gave you away because she wasn’t married.”

Lesley’s situation was not unique. Just as parents use a friend’s or family member’s pregnancy to teach their children about reproduction, parents who adopt often find that their experience becomes the example by which their friends and family members teach children about adoption.

Consequently, many adoptive parents find themselves facing Lesley’s dilemma: How can they help children who weren’t adopted develop a positive understanding of adoption without violating their child’s privacy?

Privacy Issues

Children who have been adopted have the right to privacy. Privacy is not the same as secrecy. A secret is something that is kept from someone to whom the information pertains. Privacy involves sharing personal information only with people who have a relevant need to know.

For example, if a child has a birth mother who was an alcoholic, that fact is important information for the child to have at an appropriate time. In addition to being a significant detail about his life, he needs to know that there may be a family tendency to addiction.

It is also important information to give the child’s physician or even a school counselor, so that they can be aware of signs of fetal alcohol syndrome or fetal alcohol effect, while maintaining professional confidence. It isn’t information that needs to be shared with other people, however, including close family members.

The adoptee might choose to share that information, but it is his choice — not the choice of his adoptive parents. Once information is given away, it’s out — no one can control how it spreads.

Children do not always know what the boundaries are regarding personal information. They sometimes ask questions that adults would be reluctant to ask. So it’s important that adoptive parents be prepared to draw the line.

When the neighbor’s child asks, “Why did Cassie’s real mom and dad give her away?” parents can say, “That’s something you’ll have to ask Cassie when she’s older.” Without getting into a philosophical discussion or conveying any sense of shame, such a response tells the child that the information belongs to Cassie.

Taking the Opportunity

Parents can turn an intrusive question into an opportunity for learning simply by sidestepping the personal aspect of the inquiry and providing general information. After letting the inquiring child know that they aren’t going to provide specific details about the reason their child was placed for adoption, parents can add, “But I can tell you some of the reasons some birth parents might make that decision.”

In providing details to children outside the family, parents should remember to tailor their discussion to the child’s age and developmental stage.

Children can’t understand adoption until they can understand reproduction — somewhere around the age of four, five, or six. Children younger than that probably will not understand the connection between pregnancy and birth. They will probably not question why Uncle Peter is going to Texas to adopt a child, while their mommy went to the hospital when their little brother joined the family.

Like children who were adopted, children in the middle childhood years — ages seven to eleven — will have more curiosity about why the child was placed for adoption, and will evaluate whether having been adopted is a difference that matters, or one that doesn’t. They also will be curious about the “mysterious” people who gave birth to the child and then placed her for adoption.

As children reach the teen years, their questions are likely to reflect their own newfound ability to put themselves in another person’s shoes and imagine what it might be like to have been adopted — or to relinquish a child for adoption.

Talking Points

Marsha and Trent tackled this issue even before their child arrived. As soon as they knew they would be traveling to Guatemala to adopt their daughter, they wrote a letter to their family members and good friends. They explained why they intended to keep personal details of their child’s story confidential.

They also gave a brief explanation of the questions children were likely to ask at different developmental stages, and requested that they use terms like “birth mother” instead of “real mother.”

They also addressed some common errors made when talking about adoption. Among their suggestions:

  • Explain that adoption is one of many ways of forming families. Families also are formed through the birth of a child, marriage to a person with children, or with medical assistance such as donor insemination or in vitro fertilization. None of these ways of forming families is better than another. Children who were adopted are not to be pitied, but neither are they to be described as ‘special.’
  • Children may wonder if they were adopted, although they may not verbalize this question. Parents may want to address this question directly or ask the child to tell them which of these ways he joined his family.
  • Adoption should not be compared to the acquisition of a pet. Although pets are often loved and included in family portraits, they are not permanent members of the family in the truest sense, and the comparison trivializes the adoption of children.
  • It is difficult for children to comprehend the complex problems that face birth parents who make an adoption plan. In explaining the decision, parents should emphasize that it was the birth parents’ problem — not a result of the child’s behavior or temperament. Parents can say the birth parents would have been unable to care for any child born to them at that time in their lives.
  • Children shouldn’t be told that birth parents make an adoption plan because they love their child so much. While adults understand that relinquishing a child means the birth parents made a huge sacrifice and put their child’s needs above their own emotions, children can’t make that connection. They are such concrete thinkers that they may conclude that parents who love their children give them away. That can cause them to wonder whether they will be given away, too. They can be told that the birth parents probably think about their children a lot and care about them forever.
  • Children can be told that sometimes children who are adopted know their birth parents and sometimes they don’t. If the family has an open adoption, children should be clued in to the identities of the child’s birth relatives when other members of the family are told about them.

Parents can remember that even though information can never be taken back, it’s always possible to go back and correct or add to it. Lesley might give her niece a call and say, “You know, I forgot to mention we like to call Austin’s real mother and father his birth mother and birth father. We don’t want him to be confused because to him, we’re pretty real.”


Lois Melina's Adopted ChildLois Melina is an internationally recognized authority on adoptive parenting. Her highly acclaimed books include Raising Adopted Children, Making Sense of Adoption, and, with Sharon Kaplan Roszia, The Open Adoption Experience, and she has worked as a Research Fellow and Director of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute. Her most recent book is the essay collection The Grammar of Untold Stories. Lois’s Adopted Child, originally a subscription newsletter, later a column in Adoptive Families, has been a trusted resource for adoptive parents for years.

Copyright © 1999-2024 Adoptive Families Magazine®. All rights reserved. For personal use only. Reproduction in whole or in part without permission is prohibited.

More articles like this