Adoption: What Not to Say?


Over the last several years, you may have seen various online articles from adoptive parents on “what not to say to adoptive parents.”  Some come from wounded places in mommies’ hearts that desperately want adoptive families to be treated with kindness.  Some try to be helpful in navigating well intended conversations with grace. A non-adoptive parent may read their words with conviction or sadness or shock.

At the heart of all of it, though, is a desire from families and children that were once openly mocked in our culture to be interacted with and accepted with normalcy.  Several friends have said they would love to broach the topic of adoption with the “experts,” the adoptive parents, but such articles have left them frozen in a desire to not offend on any level.

There are two truths here in regards to this topic.  One is that some people will be offended always.  They may be having a rough day or trouble connecting with their new child or just don’t want to talk about adoption again.  You may get shot down in your inquiries. Second, and more prevalent, is that most adoptive parents love adoption and are more than willing to talk about adoption but are in protection mode of their children.

These articles aren’t off base.  There needs to be awareness.  There are some shocking questions that people pose at times that leave a wake of wounds and questions in the hearts of little listening children.  It is amazing the timing and the awkwardness of them sometimes.  I have learned to teach my kids through those moments or abruptly end a conversation that will do more damage to my kids than good.  I might end a conversation by saying, “we don’t share that information publicly” or “did you mean to say. . . ” to protect my kids and remove them from what a appears to be a toxic situation.  If that happens, you’ll know your question was too personal or inappropriate.  If you are bold enough, you could ask them how you could better phrase a question in the future.

That doesn’t happen all the time, though.  I know a lot of great moms who would love to talk about adoption without offending another mom.  So where does that leave someone like you? Someone that wants to be kind and is curious about a beautiful family.

I would use this one filter and think to myself:  “This family is normal.  They may have come together differently than my family, but different isn’t abnormal.  How would I want my family approached or my child talked about if this was me?”

I think that immediately stops a lot of questions that are inappropriate or helps you rephrase them in your mind before saying them.

Asking about a child’s personal life history, birth family or the cost of adoption isn’t appropriate in the hearing of a child.

For example, on a daily basis, people do not ask you if your children are yours.  They assume that if you are in Target with little kids, they are yours.  Assume the same of an adoptive family.  In all of these situations, we are talking about the conspicuous multi-ethnic families.  My caucasian girlfriend who adopted from Russia never gets these questions, because people don’t think her kids are adopted.  If you wouldn’t want someone always questioning your parentage, you’ll stop short of asking adoptive families if the children are theirs, their real children, adopted, etc.  If for some reason this is a friend or sitter, they won’t feel awkward that you assumed the kids are theirs anyway.  It is an easy way to show acceptance to a family.

Still feel frozen?  Need great things to say or ways to start a conversation?  Here are a few I’ve had posed to me that opened the door to great conversations with strangers.

“What a beautiful family you have.  Did they come home biologically or through adoption?”

“I would love to adopt one day.  Is there a part of your story you share publicly?”

“You are a blessed mom.  What neat kids you seem to have!” (i.e. they are not lucky kids)

“I have some questions about adoption, could I email you privately?”

Most adoptive parents are passionate about adoption and are desiring opportunities to share about it.  But not all kids want to feel singled out or different all the time.  Just a little forethought will protect them and hopefully lead to an edifying and intriguing conversation for both of you.

Adoption is an amazing way to provide a family for a precious child. Over the summer, I’ll be sharing more about the adoption process and being an adoptive family. If you have a specific question that I didn’t touch on here, feel free to email me at cate at scottsdalemomsblog dot com. I am simply a mom that has been through the process, but I can share my experience or point you in the direction of the right answer.


  1. I love this Cate! I just love seeing families built through adoption and I have always had adoption in the back of my mind as a possibility for our family in the future. I have so many questions on the topic that although I always try to be totally respectful, I worry that sometimes, in my enthusiasm, I might cross a line in asking too many questions. I appreciate the guidance in this post and your willingness to share the story of your beautiful family!

  2. Good pointers Cate! I love to talk adoption but wish people would ask questions privately just as you stated. I am very open on the topic but can’t believe the things people have said within the hearing of my children. I once had a lady in grocery store ask if all four children were mine. When I replied “Yes”, she looked at my son and said “Oh I thought that one was a rent a kid with his red hair.” The interesting thing to me about that was that my daughter is Hispanic but my red head tends to get more adoption related comments than my daughter with a different ethnic background.

  3. Beautifully written, Cate! You’re right — many of us LOVE to talk about adoption. A little guidance can go a long way in helping the conversation go well. But if it doesn’t, I encourage people to try again with someone else. Most adoptive parents are happy to share general information and encourage others along the journey, if they’re considering it or their loved one is. But sometimes a family is struggling, or has had too many painful conversations lately, and isn’t in a place to feel that right now. That can happen with anyone whose family stands out — whether it be a family whose children has obvious special needs, a multiethnic family, families with big age gaps between kids, a family in full time ministry, etc. — that is not a struggle unique to just adoptive or foster families. So if you did your best to be polite, don’t take it personally if they don’t want to talk. 🙂

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