Being an adoptive parent can, at times, bring on sucker punch moments more quickly and efficiently than a pro boxer. The moments I feel flat-footed, slow, or sick to my stomach over an awkward interaction or lack of stumped looking for the right answers can be staggering. One such example that I can still easily call to mind almost 8 years later is this: the very first time my then-foster son brought home an “all about my family” assignment. We were very new to his life and we knew next to nothing about his history or family tree. It would have been lying at best to have him put our information, as we didn’t know if he would be staying with us. 

I found myself angry at the teacher and the school for insisting upon such assignments. I knew for a fact my child wasn’t the only one who came from a fractured home situation. How many other second-grade kids were crying because they don’t know who their family is besides whatever custodial parent figure had them? My guess is a lot of the kids in his classroom alone were in that type of situation. At the very least, enough frustrated parents emailed the school about the situation causing the assignment to be canceled.  

That didn’t erase the feeling of loss for my son. It didn’t leave us any more satisfied knowing how to answer questions that we had no answer for. Several years later my other son, in middle school now, had a family tree-type project. It was the same cohort of kids he had been with since first grade. Very few of their family situations have changed much since then. So, once again, angry parents emailed the school. This time the parents were overruled. The school insisted it was important they learn how to track these things. Fine. 

I found myself searching the internet for answers; lo and behold, there is a standardized way to document adopted family members on a traditional family tree. Furthermore, there is a way to document the unknowns. As a person with a “grafted-in” family, I was delighted to find this. Here it is “Rules to Build Genograms

Family Tree

Family Tree

Down under the adopted child, there are branches that go to biological, foster, step, half, or adoptive parents. Those parents, if the information is known, can have multiple branches from their place. 

This doesn’t answer the question of how to do this with a child who is still learning about the complexities of their family tree. However, the fact there is a standardized way to do this lets us know it’s not an altogether unusual practice. By including both the known biological parent and the adoptive or foster parent, the child can see visually how everyone is related and included. 

I’ve also found that a few emails to a caseworker or lawyer involved in the adoption process can smooth the way for your adopted child to know more about biological family than you could imagine. I found out a few of my kids have, no lie, more than 10 half, step, or biological siblings outside of the ones I have in my home. Which is good for my kids to know, but also highlights how many unknowns enter into the equation of adoption. 

In elementary school, if your child doesn’t want to disclose or talk about their adoption or foster status, there is a simple solution. Allow them to include whatever family they want to identify as part of. If they only want to include their biological family, don’t take this as an insult. Sometimes kids need to feel the same as everyone else. If they only want to include the family they live with, that is fine too.

My kids, though unique in their own right, blend in with us. Other families, for better or worse, look like a tapestry of ethnicity and culture. They have no choice but to acknowledge they are different externally. They embrace the children’s culture and make it a part of theirs. 

Family trees, birth records, and adoption decrees are your best way to find pertinent information. If your child is older, ask them if they remember any biological family they’d like to include. Make it all about who they would like to acknowledge and how. 

Families are eclectic mixtures of people. I am both the practical clone of my siblings and a rogue maverick out here living my life in weird ways. My siblings all stayed within a gravitational radius of the home I grew up in while I chose to live across the country. Whether adoptive or biological, families are full of complicated branches and roots.

Similarly, it is normal and okay that your child is or isn’t interested in knowing about their heritage. But it’s also okay, normal, and appropriate if your child wants to include all the biological families they can think of in their family tree. 

My son never completed his project in middle school. This was more out of total disinterest than any level of comfort he did or did not have. However, we did enough research to be able to answer those questions honestly and easily when the time comes to help our younger three. 

The main thing I want to impart is to not get all up in your feelings if your child doesn’t want to acknowledge you in a family tree project. To some people, biology matters more than anything else. I’ve heard families in court refuse to surrender a child they have openly declared they don’t want and don’t care about. On the basis of biology alone, some families will refuse to allow a child to be adopted by a foster family that has had the baby since birth because “they’re my blood.” Which is fine. Biological ties have different meanings to different people.

I can think of twenty people off the top of my head that I can, would, and do call or text when I need them that aren’t related to me biologically at all. Those people are dearer to me than any blood-related cousin I’ve never met or any estranged relative I learned about. But it would be okay if they were someone I wanted to know more about. Everyone gets the right to decide who they do and do not want to acknowledge as part of their family. Mine includes a few dozen people scattered across the world that are no more closely related to me than a duck is to a rabbit–but I love them so much it makes my chest ache. 

My point is, my whole family is made up by grafting in a mismatch of all sorts of branches from so many trees. Chances are yours and your children’s are too.