What Not to Say: Adoption

The power of words to hurt and offend seems limitless, as Sandra Glahn and I have learned both in life and in the comments from our blogs about “what not to say.” [See Infertility: People Say the Dumbest Things and What Not to Say When Someone is Grieving.]

I came across a new list of What Not to Say About Adoption from a single dad blogger. With some editing, here is his contribution:

Single Dad Laughing’s Guide to Adoption Etiquette.

1. Never, ever, ever, ask how much a child costs. This includes the phrase, “How much did you pay for him?” First of all, it’s none of your business. Second of all, if you’re interested in adoption, research it through the appropriate channels. Speak with an adoption agency. Adoptive parents don’t purchase children. They simply pay legal fees and agency fees. Just like biological parents pay hospital and doctor bills. Don’t turn the child into nothing more than a commodity.

2. Never ask if a celebrity inspired the adoption. Believe it or not, Tom Cruise, Connie Chung, and Angelina Jolie did not convince me one way or the other in the biggest decision of my life. Are you serious?

3. Never ask “Where is his real dad?” Forget the fact that it will hurt my feelings. How do you think it will affect my son’s feelings to feel like I’m not a real dad to him? Adoptive parents are real parents. The term you’re looking for is “birth mother” or “birth father.”

4. Don’t say things like, “As soon as you adopt you’re going to get pregnant” when you find out somebody is adopting. First of all, there are usually many, many years of pain and financial burden strapped to infertility, treatments, and heartache. Do you really think that what you’re saying will help them? Secondly, while it is funny when it happens, it’s rare.

5. Never say, “Why did she give him away?” Do I really need to explain why this one would hurt a child? The proper term is “placed.” A birth mother and birth father place their child for adoption. And again, it’s personal and none of your business, so don’t ask if you aren’t my BFF.

6. Don’t say, “It’s like he’s your real son.” This is similar to number three, but worthy of mentioning. He is my real son.

7. Don’t say, “Do you love him as if he was your own?” Ummm… probably more than you love your little terror, that’s for sure. And again… he is my own.

8. Never say things like, “You’re so wonderful to adopt a child.” I am a parent. Just like anybody else with kids.

9. Don’t start spewing your horrible adoption stories. “This one time, my friend’s sister’s aunt’s dog’s previous owner’s niece adopted a baby and the real dad came back and they took the baby away after they had him for two years.” First of all, it probably isn’t true. Second of all, how would you feel if I told you about all the ways you could lose your child? Adoption is permanent. And in the extremely rare circumstances that something like that happens, it’s not something you should spread because the hurt that exists for all the parties involved must be immeasurable.

10. Don’t say things like, “Is it hard for him to be adopted?” Well, it wasn’t, until you asked me that right in front of him, you thoughtless soul.

11. I don’t want to hear about your second cousin who was on a waiting list for twelve years and never got a baby. Granted, this one was much more annoying when we were going through the adoption process. Nobody wants to know that some people never get chosen. Show some kindness. Even to ugly people.

Some of our dearest friends have grown their families through adoption, and they have their own contributions to make, such as, “How can you ever love your adopted child as much as your biological children?” (Because the heart just grows bigger that way. Because the same God who adopted us into His family loves us just as much as the natural kids. Because love grows from the heart, not from the uterus.)

I am grateful for the input from people who have been on the receiving end of thoughtless comments and questions to help the rest of us be more loving in the way we interact with others.

Do you have anything to add to this list?

Sue Bohlin is a speaker/writer and webmistress for Probe Ministries, a Christian organization that helps people to think biblically. She loves teaching women and laughing, and if those two can be combined, all the better. She also loves speaking for MOPS (Mothers of Pre-Schoolers) and Stonecroft Ministries (Christian Women's Clubs) on the topic How to Handle the Things You Hate But Can't Change, based on her lifelong experience as a polio survivor. She has a freelance calligraphy business in her home studio; hand lettering was her "Proverbs 31 job" while her children were young. Sue also serves on the board of Living Hope Ministries, a Christ-centered organization that helps people struggling with unwanted homosexuality and the family members of those with same-sex attractions. Sue never met a cruise ship she didn't like, especially now that God has provided a travel scooter for getting around any ship! She is happily married to Dr. Ray Bohlin, writer and speaker on faith and science with Probe Ministries, and they have two grown sons. You can follow Sue on Twitter @suebohlin.


  • Nanci

    What not to say: Adoption

    Very cool… thanks for this – so much awesome information here… getting the word out is so very important! 

    I've adopted a child who is my husband's grandson… yes I love him as my own, because he IS my own… when I married my husband, with me came my 2 children and with him came his son.  My husband became my children's father, as I am his son's mother … my disappointment in the choices my son has made are great, but it doesn't change the fact that I love him and he is and always will be my son – no I didn't adopt him, but that doesn't make him any less my son.  I rejoiced in his accomplishments, and am heartbroken at his failures.

    Someone asked me once when my kids were 12, 10, and 9 (in front of them) "so, which ones are yours?"  and I answered "they all are mine".  That was a clue by four folks!  But no…. "well, yea – I get that, but which ones are your biological kids?"  Not only was my step-son hurt by being singled out as the outcast, I was floored that the subject was pushed… so I answered "Apparently you aren't able to tell the difference … all of them are mine, why do you ask?"  She replied "I'm just curious is all" to which I responded "and rude", gathered my children and walked away. 

    It's difficult enough to blend families without outside comments being thrown in – children are learning who they are as they grow up, hearing hurtful words from clueless adults, damages their egos.  Add to that, psychological issues – makes parents jobs harder.  Thanks for that!

    Here's a rule of thumb I heard somewhere that I think is awesome…

    If your comment can be taken as hurtful or negative, even if you don't mean it that way, that's how it will be taken and it needs to be re-worded or omitted. Chances are higher that you will insult or damage the person you're talking to.  In other words – think before speaking!

    • Sue Bohlin

      A “clue by four”??!

      Thank you for your delightful comment, Nanci. I can tell by what you say and how you write that your heart is absolutely HUGE! What an amazing, loving woman you are!


      I also know this because I've known you since Mom brought you home from the hospital, and I'm so so so privileged to be your sister and cheerleader and friend!! Love you!heart

  • Kathryn

    Adoption what not to say

    To the parents of a child who obviously looks different than they…"what nationality is he?" Answer "He was born in Oklahoma and the last time I checked that was in the US" or to a parent of a child who seemingly was from another country but a tiny baby  "Where is she from?"  Answer "Korea" Puzzled look then "How are you going to talk to her since she will be speaking Korean?"  (There actually is no reply to that level of stupidity)

    Then if there is any misbehavior at any time "I guess you don't know if he is a crack baby, right?" comment from child's Sunday School teacher who promptly told the rest of the Sunday School teachers to be "careful of the crack kid" which he wasn't but that is almost beside the point—it is the assumption that of course an adoptive child's birth mother must have been a drug user.

    And all the lovely people who told us that adoptive children are always trouble makers. 

    And now when said adoptive son is a wonderful adult, many of those same people go on and on about what a miracle it is that he is a wonderful man with real wonder in their voice as if to say "how can that be?" 

    And the list could go on and on…but I will refrain.

  • Sue Bohlin

    Ouch ouch ouch!!

    Wow, Kathryn! My heart hurts to read what you write. Your post is clearly one of the "been there, done that, got the t-shirt" kind. Thank you so much for your painfully poignant contribution.

  • Terri Moore

    Thanks for this Sue!

    I'm sorry that I am just now seeing this. What a great list of things not to say! My pet peeve lately is how people respond when someone announces they are adopting. Questions like this are ones I've heard:  "Are you really sure you want to do this?" "Have you thought about (insert all of the issues surrounding adoption)?" "Why aren't you going to adopt an American baby?" "Don't you want to have a baby of your own?" "Are you ever going to have a baby of your own?" You really should have a baby of your own, there's just nothing like it." Some of these have come to me when I'm in the middle of the adoption process and have even met my child! As if I should leave them in the orphanage because bringing them home might pose an inconvenience!

    I always remind people that when someone comes to you and announces they are adopting a baby, that decision is a very personal one that is only made after much research, care, and contemplation. To imply that they need to rethink things is comparable to asking a pregnant couple if they've thought about all the complications and risks of childbirth and don't they want to think about having an abortion? When someone announces an adoption or an adoption-in-progress  your response should mirror what it would be to the announcement of a birth or pregnancy!

    • Sue Bohlin

      Wow, Terri, and OW!!

      Thank you SO much for adding to the list. The implications of some comments and questions tend to reveal something quite unflattering about people's hearts and minds, don't they?

      You've pointed out that adopting is about people's lives and feelings, not a "situation."

      Thanks again!

  • AdoptedWoman

    Adoption what not to say

    I simply love all the comments when people (rarely now that I am an adult) find out I am adopted.  Here are a few of my favorites, some from when I was still a child.

    Asked in elementary school:

    Was the orphanage lady as mean as on Annie?

    A: Yes she fed us toads in our bottles, chopped em up in the blender (had this answer memorized by the time I was ten.)

    Are the people who adopted you rich?

    Of course! Thats why I wear wallmart clothes, I just like them.

    where are your real parents?

    At home.

    Oh they live with the people who adopted you?

    yup. they gave me up and decided to move in. *eyeroll*


    Asked as an adult

    Have you ever met your real parents?

    C'mon… seriously? I lived with my 'real' parents. I'm so tired of the 'real' parents, adopted parents questions.

    Was it hard never knowing your birth parents?

    Nope. it was easy. I never wondered what might have made them give me up, I never had a problem with it, EVER. Seriously? Yes it was hard. But I know my mom and dad now love me, they've done everything they can for me.

    Why didn't your birth parents have an open adoption?

    … not even bothering to answer. How could I answer that I was a baby…



    • Sue Bohlin

      Thanks, AdoptedWoman!

      I loved your comments. It has to be so hard to be the adoptee, just as it's hard to be the adopting parent! Thanks for taking the time to share your comebacks.

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