Adoptive Parents = Real Parents Teaching This Equation at School
and at Home
by Deborah McCurdy
"They're not your real parents!"
The little girl's words were not meant to hurt. At 8, she was
struggling to understand her own adoption. But our adopted son
was hearing these words for the first time, at the age of 5. And
he was devastated.
For weeks, Mark could not bring himself to share the incident,
nor his pain, with us. What terrible thing might happen if he
did? His behavior showed he was troubled, but even when he came
to our room at night complaining of monsters, he could not speak
of his underlying fears.
One evening, as he lay with his head on my lap, with my hand
stroking his forehead, Mark broke into sobs and burst out with
his terrible discovery: "Becky says you're not my real parents!"
I hugged and reassured him. He had known for a long time that he
was adopted and that this meant his "first parents" could not
take care of him. He knew that we had become his "forever
parents" because we were able to provide food and toys and
clothes, and because we very much wanted a little boy like him.
As a social worker in adoption, I had read all about "telling"
and had thought that our explanations had covered all the bases.
But we had never dealt with the question of "real" parentage. It
simply had not occurred to us that other children would openly
assert that "forever parents" were not real parents. Yet this has
happened to Mark at least three times in the years he has been in
Mark knows what to answer now: "Yes, they are my real parents,"
he will insist, "because they are the ones who are bringing me
up." If the other child persists, he will say, "You're confused
It is not only the children who experience this confusion. Their
parents and other adults tend to define adoption as something
that happens when your "real parents" can't keep you. The problem
is largely with our language, since the term "birth parents" is
not yet in common parlance and it is the first parents who
traditionally have been referred to as "real parents."
Of course, our language reflects the perceptions and values of
past generations, and it has not caught up with our more modem
concepts of adoption. I have often heard pre-adoptive parents
say, 'We have two children of our own and now we' like to adopt."
These parents are caught by the limitations of outdated language,
which does not yet reflect their own progressive thinking and
feeling. Although they may already think of the children to be
adopted as their own, they can find no words besides "own" to
distinguish children born to them from those they plan to adopt.
What can adoptive parents and teachers and other concerned adults
do to help adopted children feel fully a part of their families
Several suggestions come to mind:
1. Work on the problem of language.
In the course of the adoption process, adoptive parents learn to
say, "Sarah and John were born to us, and Maria was adopted,"
when they are asked which children are their own. They are urged
to help their families, and the parents and teachers of their
child's playmates, to avoid the use of "real parents" when
talking about birth parents. I now make a point of asking new
adoptive parents to tell their children before kindergarten that
they are their real parents by adoption and to add that other
people "may be confused about this." This needs to be gone over
more than once. The point to stress to your child is that "real
parents are the people who bring you up, " and that the child is
your own child, by adoption.
2. Keep the birth parents' role in the past.
The first parents must be spoken of sympathetically, as adopted
children need to feel pride in their origins. They need to feel
that their birth parents would certainly have kept them if they
could have. But they should be told they have new parents now. It
is very important for adopted children to know that they are
where they are meant to be - that the first parents made a loving
plan for them to be with their adoptive families forever.
I believe that it is a mistake to make the birth parents too real
by speaking of them frequently, or glowingly, or in great detail,
when children are sm all. Although birth parents have their own
reality, we do not want our children to worry that there are
people out there who have a claim on them and may try to take
them back. There are simple ways to clarify that you are the
child's real parents now. Some adoptive parents refer to the
birth parents by their first names, if known. Others may feel
comfortable with the term "first parents," used in conjunction
with "forever parents." There will be plenty of time later on to
help curious older children get a clearer, more detailed
understanding of their birth parents. (Adoption workers do
recommend that adoptive parents try to obtain as much specific
non-identifying information as possible about the birth parents
and their circumstances, and that they present his information in
a favorable light as the child seems ready for it..)
3. Speak positively about adoption as one good way that children
come to parents.
It is best for adults not to speak of adopted children as
"special" or "chosen," lest the child come to feel over the years
that those adults overemphasized their differences. Every
adoption is a story of pain and loss, as well as a story of
fulfillment and love. Thoughtful parents speak with pride of
their ado adoption and the pleasure the child has brought them.
At the same time, they need n to be open to hearing the child's
concerns about having been given up by the birth parents. These
concerns tend to surface when a child is about eight or ten, no
matter how well the adoption has been handled. "Adaptive
grieving" is a normal process, entailing some uncertainty and
confusion and - for some children - a degree of sadness over the
loss of birth parents It is important for parents to let their
children know that these are normal feelings for adopted children
to have, and that they will get through this time of uncertainty
or sadness. If the feelings are strong and persist a long time,
parents can have their child evaluated as to whether brief
psychotherapy may be helpful.
Parents should realize that their child's feelings do not
indicate that they are doing something wrong. Adoptive parents
generally do a good job if they feel like real parents, with
children who are fully their own whether or not they match them
in race and color. As long as these parents are open about
adoption, speak freely and naturally on the subject, and think of
adoption as a truly positive alternative to childbirth, their
children will learn to view their adoption with pride and should
feel fully a part of their families.
This article was originally published in The Boston Parents'
Paper in February 1986 the title "They're Not Your Real Parents!"
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Ukrainian Adoption 101:
Conversation On International Adoption: Opportunity, Process,
Concerns and Questions
Monday, November 12, 2012 6:00-7:00PM
Location: Califon Book Store: 72 Main Street, Califon, New Jersey
Ukrainian Adoption Information Meeting
Wednesday, November 28, 2012 7:00-8:00PM
Location: Wellness Rocks: 133 Rupell Road, Clinton, New Jersey