Adoption Language: How to Respond to Snarky Remarks

It is quite amazing how many childhood lessons are applicable to adult conversations. “Think before you speak.” It seems like a simple lesson we are taught as children, and it also seems to have evaded most people about adoption. Now, we know that there will always be purposely offensive people in the world, but what about the people that genuinely do not understand that their language could be hurtful. An interesting finding from Psychology Today suggests that we are hardwired to feel emotional pain the same as physical pain; this debunks the old phrase, “sticks and stone may break my bones but words will never hurt me.” Words can hurt. The topic of adoption can cause people to be naturally inquisitive, and it is a beautiful journey that should be shared. However, how do you respond when people unknowing cross the line from curious to offensive? 

Unfortunately, there is no definitive answer to this. There is no specific guideline as to what you can or can not say when talking about adoption. The outcome of these conservations appears to be situational. There have been significant changes in adoption conversations. Growing up, it was a pretty secretive thing. People did not talk about it often and if they did it was it was usually in private. Open adoptions were not really a common occurrence yet either. So, when people would approach me with questions or remarks that, not only, caught me off guard but were also rude, I would snap. Even though I felt I was protecting my son, my naturally sarcastic personality would get the best of me. As I educated myself, my responses were able to evolve and I was able to educate others. The amount of awareness and exposure that adoption receives now in entertainment and social media has provided more resources for adoption education. 

Positive Adoption Language

It would be beneficial to educate yourself on positive adoption language. Including simple changes in your vocabulary can make a big difference. Positive adoption language is choosing words that show respect for birth parents, adoptive parents, and adoptees and is something that is still a new concept to some. In general, the language of society is changing. We are more aware of verbal offenses and we are becoming more considerate of people’s feelings. Positive adoption language falls right into that category. I must admit that I was unfamiliar with the term even as a mom of an adoptee. I knew that certain words, phrases, or jokes did not sit well with me. Even as a young child, I understood that the adoption jokes were cruel and unwarranted. It was not until a few years ago did I read about positive adoption language and realized that I was already advocating for it on a personal level. There are many online resources to help understand what is positive adoption and how to make slight changes in your vocabulary to contribute. 

One of the most disliked phrases among the adoption community is “real parent.” It is highly likely that the response to this reference will be “I am the real parent.” Sadly, I have experienced this use of terminology more than I expected. It was the first glimpse into my new reality; however, now I have somewhat of a callus towards it. While it still annoys me, it does not affect me the way it used to. My quick-witted personality has always allowed me to experiment with new antics to respond to this reference, such as my favorite fake magic trick where I spin around and unmagically appear and say “Here she is!” It serves as an ice-breaker and shows that I am willing to approach this with some jest, but also address the seriousness of the matter. 

What I Have Learned

I can only speak from my personal experience, learning how to take a snarky remark and use it as an opportunity to educate was one of my biggest battles. By nature, I am not a sensitive person in regards to myself. Yet, when it comes to my son, I can turn into a stereotypical mama bear and it can be a double-edged sword. I feel like if we are allowed to be sensitive about anything it should be our children and their feelings. I had to learn that not all people were intentionally trying to be offensive, and I also had to learn not to be hyper-sensitive. 

It appears that families of transracial adoptions take the brunt of this issue. After exploring on social media, I have become aware of the obstacles that they face daily. I have heard of some outrageous events that surpass offensive language alone. It seems that the obvious difference in appearance between parent and child invites a series of ridiculous questions. Most people seem to have a genuine curiosity but others seem to lack common sense. Giving the benefit of the doubt that they are just curious, their questions or remarks still can be unwelcomed and intrusive. Not everyone shares the same point of view as I do and that is very understandable, and they feel like it forces them to have the conversation of adoption sooner than they anticipated.

I do not consider our family to be a family of transracial adoption; however, my son does not look like me and my skin is significantly darker than his, so I understand how this mistake is commonly made. On a shopping trip, when my son was small enough to be worn, it was one of my first experiences of someone noticing that he was not my natural-born child. Of course, I was rocking and cuddling him as a new mom would and this random lady approached me and said, “Oh, you are so good with that baby. Do you only nanny for one family? My daughter is looking for a good nanny.” Her unsolicited observation drove nails under my skin with every word she spoke. Though I wanted to lash out, I extended grace. I responded, “No ma’am, he is my son, but I hope your daughter finds the nanny she is looking for.” You would think the conservation would have ended there in embarrassment, but it did not. She continued, “Wow, he does not look like you at all. Is he adopted?” I walked away because at that time I lacked the ability to extend grace twice in one day, to the same person.

Another occasion that confronted my newfound ability to divert a rude comment was when another mother at the park asked, “Why is your son white and you’re not?” I was taken aback by her lack of tack and simply explained that he was adopted and that many families have different appearances even when biological. While that was a more difficult situation for me, I understood that my simple delivery was sufficient. I did not owe her an explanation; nonetheless, I responded hoping that she would have exhausted her lack of awareness of me and never ask a ridiculous question like that to anyone in the future. 

Learning how to shift my perspective rather than contributing to a negative-toned conversation has been my biggest challenge. We all have something that helps us with our daily obstacles and personal growth. I have found that my Christian faith has contributed vastly in the redirection of my words and attitude. I have been described as having a very direct personality and style of communication. Being direct does not have to have to be a negative trait especially if used appropriately. Now, as I have found accountability in my faith it has helped me understand that I can not respond in a way that would reflect negatively on what I believe. Yes, we all have different personalities, but I was no longer going to use it to excuse my responses. I choose to directly respond in love, patience, self-control, and kindness. 

Words

One of the things I practiced was changing my internal vocabulary. There were words I used even when I was by myself replaying conversations in my mind. For example, when I stopped using the word ignorant to describe people or actions, it made a huge difference in my response. I internally changed the word ignorant to unaware. This can be hard because we like to let our minds run wild with different scenarios where we tell people off and think about what we could say next time. I have also stopped trying to discern the intent of the other person. Whether they were intentionally trying to hurt my feelings or not is no longer a concern of mine. Their actions are not my responsibility. My responsibility is how I respond regardless of their intentions. 

Your words can influence the direction of a conversation. My advice would be to remain approachable and not reactionary. There is an old saying you catch more bees with honey. Unless a person is being outlandishly offensive you should be able offer some corrective criticism in a diplomatic way. This will provide you the avenue to educate rather than defend and, most importantly, build a positive line of communication. I hate the phrase “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade;” however, it seems to be the best way to describe these conversations. Even if your conversation starts in a negative or offensive direction, it does not mean that it has to stay there. Your words can have a lasting effect if used effectively. In my experience, most people are receptive to a correction when delivered in a non-confrontational manner. 

Is it Appropriate?

Even when you have a positive perspective pertaining to these conversations, it raises the question, are these questions and remarks appropriate? Overall, I would say no. I love sharing our family’s story, but I also like to share it on my own terms. We have always planned to be open and honest with our son about his adoption story. He hears the word adoption pretty often however he is not at the age where he fully understands what it means. I would be pretty upset if someone questioned the nature of our relationship based on physical appearances alone in front of my son and caused a premature conservation to be had. It was easy to have these types of discussions with people when he was a baby and did not understand anything, but now he is at a more delicate age and this information should only come from us. Though I really do enjoy increasing awareness, I really do not like the reason why I have had to. I was unprepared for this portion of adoption. I did not anticipate advocacy, and I really thought the hardest part of adoption was going to be the legal process. 

What is Best for You? 

Snarky remarks is one of the many challenges families of adoptions face, and there is no one way to navigate through it. Like with everything, you have to find what is most comfortable for you and your family. While my approach is to educate and bring awareness, that might not be what is best for your family. You have to establish where your boundaries are for others. What are you comfortable talking about should be a priority; and, as time passes, you can reevaluate your boundaries as well. Know that your boundaries are completely valid and do not be afraid to be firm with them. Although it is not your social responsibility to educate people, know that your experience can benefit others. Our life is full of choices, there is no right or wrong choice in this matter, just the one that best suits you and your family. I realized that I would spend the rest of my life having to listen to incredibly insensitive and dumb remarks. However annoying the comments made, it is my choice how I respond. Despite every instinct, I learned how to have self-control with my words and learned how to help improve people’s vocabulary and try to bring awareness to what they are saying.