Awkward/insensitive adoption questions give you an opportunity to
promote your child's adoption possitively!
A great article by Deborah McCurdy, MSW
When we adopt a child who looks different from us, we generally
feel we can handle the stares and loss of privacy that go with
the territory. We may find, however, that the frequent questions
and comments of strangers and relatives sometimes annoy and worry
us. At the heart of our anger and anxiety is the fear that our
adopted child will be hurt by thoughtless questions, or that
their older siblings, who look less exotic, will feel neglected,
but this need not happen.
It is reassuring to realize that even seemingly insensitive
questions are nearly always well intentioned, and that they
actually provide an excellent opportunity to express our delight
and pride in our adopted children (as well as in their siblings
who were born to us). The attention that our children receive is
generally very positive, even when the inquirer's choice of words
is not ideal.
Our answers to questions about a foreign-born child should also
include any bio-kids who are present:
Q: Where did you get this dear little one? Where is she from?A:
She was born in Ukraine, and her brother here was born in Albany.
(Most people will pick up on your inclusion of the older child
and start including him, too, if you furnish answers about both
to each question asked about the adopted child.)
Start early to practice answers that will affirm the children,
preparing for the day when they will be old enough to understand:
Q: Isn't she a lucky little girl? What wonderful people you
are!A: We're the lucky ones, to have such a wonderful child!
Q: And do you also have children of your own?A: Just these two.
(This affirms adopted kids as our own.)
Q: Are they real brother and sister?A: They are now! (This
clarifies that adoption makes us a real family.)
Q: Where did he get that beautiful tan?A: God gave it to him.
Q: How could the mother have given up such a lovely child?A: It
was very hard for the birth mother, but she just couldn't take
care of any baby. (This reassures the child that there was
nothing wrong with him or her.)
Q: What do you know about the real parents?A: Well, we're his
real parents, actually, since we're bringing him up.
Q: Oh, of course - I meant the natural parents.A: We don't know
very much about the birth parents. How have you been? How was
In nearly all cases, the questions reflect pleasure and delight
in our families, and they can generally be answered very briefly
and cheerfully, with a smile. If you are out shopping it is
fairly easy to avoid prolonging the discussion by saying, "Bye,
now!" and moving from the peaches to the potatoes. If we are
trapped into a longer conversation in a supermarket line or in a
social situation (and the children are old enough to understand
what is said), we have several options:
1. Give a constructive response, and then change the subject.2.
Answer with, "I'm glad you're interested in adoption. Let me give
you my phone number and we can talk later. Can you call me
tonight?"3. Give an oblique answer, rather than a direct one, if
it seems a direct answer to a particular question would be
awkward for us, the questioner, or the children:
Q: How much does an adoption cost these days?A: It's about the
same as giving birth in a hospital, if you don't have maternity
coverage and allow for complications.
Q: Do you have any pictures of his parents?A: Oh yes, we've got
albums of our whole family.
Responses such as the above can gently educate others, especially
if said with a smile. But we are answering primarily for our
children's ears. In the few seconds that we have to prepare our
response, we need to make a quick decision as to what words will
best support our child's self-esteem, protect the child's privacy
about his origins, and/or clarify that adoption builds "real"
families with their "own" children. (The right answers come more
quickly with practice.) Until more people learn the modern
vocabulary of "birth parents" and "children by birth" we're bound
to be asked occasional seemingly insensitive questions about the
child's "real parents" and our "own" children. I believe that the
fault is really in our outdated language more than in the person
asking an awkward question. True, some people are not as
sensitive as they might be, but usually they have a genuine
interest and we would rather not embarrass them (and risk making
things worse). We can generally find a gracious answer which will
affirm the child without sounding critical of the person asking
The key to a successful response is one that we can say in a
friendly, matter-of-fact voice, without showing impatience or
anger. It is easier to avoid annoyance with questions and remarks
if we remember that (1) we have chosen to build a family in a way
that inevitably attracts attention but may help other children to
be adopted, and (2) the children needn't be hurt by others'
questions and remarks if we respond appropriately. An angry or
rude retort on our part (even when it seems justified) is much
more likely to cause our child distress and anxiety than anything
a stranger, friend, or relative might say. It could signal to the
child that there is something upsetting to us about him or his
adoption. In a pinch, humor can save the day:
Q: Are you babysitting?A: No time for that, now that I have these
two of my own!
Q: Whose little darlings are these?A: Ours! We adopted the big
boys from Korea, and the two-year-old is homemade. (Some of us
may find it helpful to volunteer all this information to
forestall a subsequent question about whether the child who
matches us is "our own.")
There are times when we may need to let a particular comment pass
and help our child to understand it later. Recently my husband
and I were entertaining one of his important clients, and our
Colombian-born son was present. The client remarked that she had
friends who had adopted two Korean children and later had had two
children "of their own." It seemed best not to risk offending the
woman by correcting her choice of words. The next day I asked our
son if he had been bothered by the remark, explaining it as a
problem in our language. He replied that he hadn't minded it at
all. I felt reassured that whatever damage might be done by
others is within my power to assess, and to repair if necessary.
This incident was also a reminder to me that our kids are often
more resilient than we imagine when it comes to weathering an
occasional unfortunate remark. In our early discussions with our
children about birth-parents, we can explain that "real parents"
are actually people who are bringing up children who are their
own by birth or adoption, and that many people are confused about
this. This point should ideally be made before kindergarten,
where other children may question our children about their "real
parents" when we're not there to explain that that's who we are!
If we are upset by the frequency of well-intentioned friendly
remarks, we can ask ourselves why this is so. Are we naturally
rather private people who feel we weren't sufficiently warned by
our agency or friends that a loss of anonymity is almost
inevitable when our child is of a different race? Are we simply
tired of explaining to new people, feeling that somehow they
should know the answers that we've given to so many others? Is it
painful to be reminded so often of our infertility by questions
that focus on the fact our child is different?
Although we may not always feel comfortable about having our
family the center of so much attention, the situation certainly
does have it benefits. For one thing, the subject of adoption
comes up naturally on many occasions, so we develop comfort in
discussing adoption in our children's presence even before they
understand the concept. Also, the encounters give us frequent
opportunities to say positive, supportive about our children (and
about adoption) with their hearing. Some people have observed
that adopted children their families often tend to feel more
positive about their adoption than those who match the adoptive
parents. This is presumably because the fact of adoption is so
obvious that the subject has necessarily been an open one from
the time of the child's arrival. It is something the child has
always known, rather than a subject to be breached someday with
trepidation as a potentially shocking fact of life.
Deborah McCurdy, MSW is also the adoptive mother of a
Colombian-born son. (Slight changes made for Ukrainian adoption
We at Adoption Services International would love to help you or
someone you love welcome a child into your family from Ukraine.
Please contact us for information and with questions: