Use Positive Adoption Language

Nearly fourteen years ago, my husband, Gary, celebrated his first Father’s Day with the arrival of our eight-month-old, dark-haired, blue-eyed baby girl. Her adoption is a fact of our lives together that we have, from the beginning, all discussed openly and with enthusiasm.

So I held my breath one afternoon when our daughter arrived home from school and declared that a classmate didn’t “get” adoption. Apparently this student asked with an edge, “Why don’t you go back to your old parents?” Sadly, when our girl tried to explain, she didn’t get far. When I asked how that made her feel, she blew it off cheerfully with an exaggerated drawl: “Aw, she’s just thinkin’ outta the wrong side o’ her head!”

I chuckled, grateful for my daughter’s perspective. And I was also thankful for the wisdom of other adoptive parents who had helped us determine how best to communicate with her about her past. They encouraged us to talk openly and use positive language—vocabulary chosen to assign the maximum dignity to the way our family was built. That language has helped us stop perpetuating the myth that being part of an adoption means that one has somehow missed out on a real family experience. Here’s what it looks like in our lives:

 First, we avoid saying “our daughter is adopted.” Phrasing it in the present tense suggests that her adoption is ongoing. When it is appropriate even to refer to the fact of our daughter’s adoption, we say, “She was adopted,” describing the way in which she joined our family.

When people ask if she is our natural child, we affirm that she is—she’s certainly not our unnatural child. As she described it in her younger years, “Mommy’s tummy was broken so I grew in her heart instead.” We refer to her genetic family as her birthparents. Everyone has birthparents, but not everyone lives in the custody of his or her birthparents. She is not our genetic child, but she is naturally ours. And her birthmother and birthfather are not her mother and father. We are.

People often want to know if we have ongoing contact with her birthparents. Indeed, we do have an open adoption. At this point folks often shudder, confusing open adoption with shared parenting. I have never met our daughter’s birthmom, though my husband has. But we know her name and her health history and we exchange letters with her and the birthfather’s family. And we speak respectfully about our daughter’s birthparents as those in a unique group of fewer than one percent of the population who make such a loving choice.

Is our daughter “one of our own”? Certainly. We laugh when she’s funny. We discipline her when she sasses. We drag ourselves out of bed when she’s sick. We help her with her homework. We are her parents, and we love her as much as any parent could love a child. The very institution of marriage demonstrates that one can love as family a person to whom he or she is not genetically related. My sister, who is the biological mother of one daughter and the adoptive mother of another, insists that adoptive ties are no less strong or enduring than genetic ones. 

Today’s birthparents do not surrender, release, relinquish or “give up a child” to adoption, except in rare cases of involuntary termination of rights due to abuse or neglect. Instead birthparents “make an adoption plan.” Theirs is an active not a passive choice. These birthparents recognize they are incapable of giving their biological child all that he or she needs for well being, so they proactively choose a better life for that child, which demonstrates selfless love. When our friends talk about this, we prefer for them to emphasize the love part, the plan part, over wording that can suggests to our girl that she was abandoned.

Some prospective parents opt to adopt a child from another country. Formerly this was called foreign adoption, but “foreign” often has negative connotations as in “I got a foreign object in my eye.” So the preferred label is international adoption—just as we refer to students who come to the United States seeking education as “international students,” not “foreign students.”

We do not refer to our friends’ children who joined their families through adoption as their “adopted children.” They are simply their children. The qualifier “adopted” is unnecessary as an on-going label.  As author, Patricia Johnston, points out, we would never describe little Jimmy as Tom and Meg’s “birth-control-failure child.”

And we didn’t rescue our daughter, and we are not noble heroes. She is not the only one who benefited from the fact that God joined us together.  We all have more love and beauty in our lives as a result.

We prefer that people use this positive adoption language. Yet it doesn’t usually upset us when they don’t. We don’t expect them to know. But we do appreciate it when they listen and learn.

Each year in the United States, more than 120,000 children join their families through adoption, and we are one of those blessed families. When I sing “God bless the broken road that led me straight to you,” I glance in the rearview mirror and smile at the girl who made me a mother and my husband a father.  The one who grew in my heart.

 She is ours, but she is not ours. She is, as are all children, on loan to us from God.

Sandra Glahn, who holds a Master of Theology degree from Dallas Theological Seminary (DTS) and a PhD in The Humanities—Aesthetic Studies from the University of Texas/Dallas, is a professor at DTS. This creator of the Coffee Cup Bible Series (AMG) based on the NET Bible is the author or coauthor of more than twenty books. She's the wife of one husband, mother of one daughter, and owner of two cats. Chocolate and travel make her smile. You can follow her on Twitter @sandraglahn ; on FB /Aspire2 ; and find her at her web site: aspire2.com.


  • Gwynne Johnson

    What a loving heart!
    And what a loving heart she inhabits! Thanks for those wise words that help the rest of us see these things from a fresh perspective! And I love the reminder that all our children are "on loan to us" from God.

    • Sandra Glahn

      Thanks, y’all

      I appreciate your encouragement.

      Sue, you’re right–I’m not looking to be PC or put constraints on people that make them feel awkward.

  • Sue Bohlin

    Way to educate us, Sandi!
    This is great stuff. As usual! Thank you for writing this excellent blog on using lovingly accurate words. Not PC-talk, just true talk. Love it!

  • Laurie Thames

    Sandi, my friend- what a beautiful piece on adoption. I so well remember the wonderful shower when we got to see her – what a precious little thing. How awesome is God! What a beautiful picture of us with God also.

  • Terri Moore

    Thanks for this Sandy! Good

    Thanks for this Sandy! Good stuff! Sometimes I get well-meaning questions about my kids’ backgrounds, birthmothers, etc. that I’m not prepared to answer, but I don’t want to hurt feelings or make people feel awkward. I haven’t quite found a great response. Any suggestions?

    • Sandra Glahn

      Too Much Info?

      Good question. We ran into the same issue until our girl was old enough for us to say, "Feel free to ask her. She’ll probably tell you her story, and we’re leaving it to her to decide how much she wants to share."

  • Kara

    Good article. I was adopted as an infant. I am now in my 40’s. One of the many wonderful things my parents did for me was telling me right away that I was adopted. I knew that before I could even speak. They helped me understand that I was “special” because they had “chosen” me. The idea of being “chosen” is conceptually accurate, if not literally true. It has helped me all my life.

  • Marquis

    Thanks for the insight

    You helped me more than you know. My wife and I have just started praying about enlarging our family by adopting a child. Thanks so much for helping see that I need to remove "the qualifier" and get down off my high horse of nobility and be a parent to all my children.

    Your words spur me on.


  • Art Haule

    It’s No Secret in Our House

    Our daughter is adopted. It's kind of obvious since I am the typical German-American, my wife has red hair and blue eyes, and our daughter is Hispanic. We brought her straight home from the hospital when she was born, so we are the only family she's ever known. She knows she's loved. She's known she's adopted since before she can remember. If it comes up in discussion I preface a statement with, "It's pretty obvious our daughter is adopted, and . . .". And that's the end of it. We are referred to as Adriana's parents. She is referred to as our daughter. The other lady involved is her "Birth Mom" or "Birth Mother," but they've never met outside the hospital. (The Birth Mom is allowed to contact us through the agency, but has only done so once in fifteen years.) Her "Birth Father" is almost never brought up in conversation.

    Every once in a while our 15-year old will get mad at us and refer to her "REAL parents." But that usually doesn't last long.

    The interesting thing that was brought up to me recently by a neighbor was when one of the girls asked Adriana why she was a different color than her parents. Adriana told her that she was adopted. The girl asked what that meant. Adriana said that most kids just kinda happen, but that it was different with her parents. She said that we "wanted" her rather than just accepting what happened naturally.

    Moments like that make the battle of the teenage years worthwhile.

    –Art Haule

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