Whether you like it or not, there is an orphan crisis going on around the world. Millions of displaced or orphaned children await help from governments, families, NGOs, and the like. If you are anything like me, you feel crippled by the daunting reality.
However, if you want to help be part of the solution, just a minor part of making a change, maybe you should consider your vocabulary. Using positive language around adoption can help dispel some of the negative stigmas and dark overtones that cast a pall over adoption.
Maybe, changing your language can even help adoptees around you. Using language that reflects positive experiences and positive self-images might help adopted children and adults accept their stories more readily. Maybe your language can help mothers who have placed or are considering placement feel more comfortable with the whole process.
Sorting through positive language for adoption.
The words we use and what we say are incredibly valuable. Our words have meaning, and our words create emotion. With a degree in linguistics, my husband likes to say that I have a degree in words. I firmly believe in the power and importance of language and what we say.
With a word we can crush a child’s spirit, and with a word, we can raise them up. Integrating language that reflects positively on adoption is so important.
Maybe you didn’t even know that the words and phrases you were using were negative. To be honest, neither did I. However, as I worked more and more with adoption, adoptees, and adoption agencies, I began to learn that my vocabulary fell short in the adoption arena.
If you are like me, take a few moments to consider this positive adoption language and negative alternatives.
Adoption Competence and Positive Adoption Language
You may not even realize that you are not using adoption competent language. But, now that you know that there is such a thing, let me give you a primer in positive adoption vocabulary!
NEGATIVE = Give Up vs. POSITIVE =Place
When a mother or father decides that another home is more suitable for a child, we might hear the term that a parent has “given up” the child. But, in reality, we know that adoption is a brave and selfless decision.
The positive vocabulary would be to say that a parent has chosen to place the child. A parent chooses to place by making an adoption plan. Placement connotes a positive choice where the birth parent is still in control.
Further, using “place” honors a birth parent’s difficult decision. The child then knows that his or her parent made that choice out of love rather than deprivation. For a birth parent, that decision to place is often followed by a lengthy and complex adoption plan. An adoption plan details timing, legal matters, and even visitation plans.
Additionally, if you are referring to the lucky family that accepts the placed child, we use the term “matched.” When a birthmother chooses a particular profile or an agency/board chooses to place an available child, that family has been “matched!”
I CAN’T WAIT FOR THE DAY WHEN I CAN SAY: “WE ARE MATCHED!!!!”
NEGATIVE = Real Mom VS. POSITIVE = Biological Mom/Natural Mother/Birth Mother
I certainly do not want to accuse anyone of wanting to use negative language. The truth of the matter is that often times we just do not have the words to say what we mean.
I hear the phrase “real mom,” and I wonder whether that refers to a relationship, a biology, or an adoption. To be clearer, use the terms “biological mom”, “natural mother”, or “birth mother.” Using the words “biological mother” instead of “real mom” emphasises the physical and biological connection instead of undermining the relationship that a child has with an adoptive mother.
NEGATIVE = Adoptive Mom VS. POSITIVE = Mom
That brings me to the term “adoptive mom.” In practical and legal terms there is no difference between an “adoptive mom” and a “mom.” I would bet that any mother who adopted a child would agree. Being a mother to a child who was placed or a child who is biological is a thankless, beautiful, and wonderful blessing regardless of the method!
Once a woman has decided to invest her heart, soul, time, money, love, and more into a child, there’s no turning back. She is forever a mother. The timing of the legal documents or the length of the relationship does NOT matter. Please don’t qualify mothers!
NEGATIVE = Adopted son/brother, Adopted daughter/sister VS. POSITIVE = Son/Brother, Daughter/sister
My kids have never cared what their siblings look like, what their friends look like, or even whether they have the same color hair. My kids certainly don’t care whether a judge or an agency somewhere decided that one of their brothers or sisters can live in our home and neither do I.
In other words, my children don’t understand the adoption. Instead they use language about their brother or sister without any qualification. In the same way, my husband and I refer to our child as our son or daughter rather than as our adopted child.
There is no need to point out the adjusted civil status of the child. When we use those qualifications, we subject our children to some sort of less-than or Cinderella status. We send the message that they are lucky to be in our home as second-class citizens.
Instead, merely use the terms brother/sister/son/daughter to refer to the child of a parent regardless of whether an adoption was involved.
NEGATIVE = Keep VS. POSITIVE = Parent
On the contrary, we might also want to refer to someone who might have decided not to go through an adoption. This person did not “keep” a child like an item that is beyond its return time limit. Instead, a more positive phrase is that a biological mother or father chose to “parent.”
Making the choice to parent is an important step in any person’s life. That choice requires that we, as the village, step up and support him or her through real and tangible ways.
Other Confusing Adoption Vocabulary:
A variety of other terms and ideas permeate the adoption culture. You might have a firm grasp on the positive language above, but maybe you have heard a few terms that you didn’t quite know how to interpret. I am not talking about complicated legal terms but terms that refer to specific children or specific countries.
An open adoption refers to a completed adoption where the birth family still has contact with the child and parents. This could range from simply sharing correspondence from time to time, all the way to arranging regular visitation. Despite many concerns about open adoption, experts agree that it is positive. Over time, we have found that an open adoption can lead to more informed social/medical histories and better adjustment throughout life.
The term special needs or special needs adoption refers to children in need of adoption who do not fit the ordinary category of adoption. Most people think of young, healthy infants when they think of an adoption. Alternatively, special needs refers to a broad gamut of differences. Those differences range from correctable minor needs all the way to severe needs requiring specialized care.
However, special needs could also refer to children who are older in age or can even refer to a sibling group. In short, the term special needs has no narrow definition.
International or intercountry adoptions open an entirely different vocabulary. Due to different translations or values, each country may use different words to describe the very same vocabulary.
Our family is learning this the hard way!
REGARDLESS OF THE LANGUAGE, THE CHILD IS ALWAYS THE FOCUS
Although the term orphan refers to a child who is left without a mother and a father, it truly dredges up more emotional imagery. Instead of the simple idea of parentless, it seems to refer to a child who has lost any advantage in life. Because of that, I sometimes hear people talk as though a child should be grateful that he or she was adopted.
Adoption is beautiful and graceful and an integral part of my faith. But, I am not doing my child a favor. In truth, to be adopted by me, my child will go through more traumatic experiences than any child should ever experience.
In my case, my child will have not only lost his or her parents. My child loses his home, culture, language, food, place, caretakers– the list goes on.
Let’s be clear: adoption is something that should not exist. No child should ever have to be separated from his or her family.
Among other reasons, children are placed for adoption after terrible abuses, natural disasters, medical calamities, mental illness, and desperate poverty. Sadly, brokenness leads to adoption. Although I want to be part of the healing, I will never ask for my child’s gratefulness in the process and neither should you. Instead, my language, my choices, and my community will always focus on my child.
USING POSITIVE ADOPTION LANGUAGE
Finally, adoption positive language and better understanding of how to understand the adoption process is a huge step. Congratulations on being willing to normalize, encourage, and welcome adoption in your life.
Using adoption competent, positive vocabulary sends a very different message about adoption than many of our antiquated phrases. Adoption is incredibly powerful and important.
Adjusting your language and mindset just a little could help you and those around you reflect that positive and beautiful image.