The Literal Child

In their "black and white" world, how do children handle the grays of adoption?

A child who wants to talk about adoption

When my daughter, Kira, was a toddler, all curiosity and motion, I used to fantasize about how our relationship would change when she was older. I pictured us walking hand in hand when she was six or seven, having quiet, reasoned conversations. We had our walks, but some of her questions at this age were about choices that had no middle ground.

“What do you want, Mom?” she asked one day. “Do you want me to have this ice cream, or do you want me to be dead?” Oh my, I wondered, is this normal? Or is it my punishment for negotiating with her too much?

As adoptive parents, we tend to be anxious—always waiting for something to go wrong. As older or only parents, we have read too many books and heard too many stories. Are wild questions a sign of trouble ahead?

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Listening to my daughter’s friends, I realized that this is the way many children speak. Their words come from the land of black and white: best buddies or dire enemies, life’s perfect or the world is about to end. Everything is life and death (but mostly death). They speak of love one minute and hate the next.

When our kids talk about adoption, their comments often fall in the category of black and white. Frequently we hear the word “real,” as in “You are not my real mother or father.” Between six and eight, it’s normal to fantasize about birth parents. But even if we’ve rehearsed our responses, we find the comments unsettling.

When Kira told me I wasn’t her “real” mother, I remembered the advice of an adoption psychologist who said we should be firm when we hear this. “I am your real mother,” should be the uncomplicated reply.

I was about to use these words, when I looked at my daughter. Her face was matter-of-fact and innocent. There was no malice there. She was only trying out a new concept in black and white, real versus…what? If Mom isn’t real, what is she? Fake? Invisible?

[“Three Real Families”]

Putting my hurt feelings aside, I took it as an opportunity to talk about adoption. I held out my arms and asked her to hug me as tightly as she could, and she happily agreed that I felt totally real to her. With a sigh of relief, I took my place in her world of black and white.


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