“Can’t You Just Give Them Back?” and Other Things Not to Say to Adoptive Families

The year was 2010. Something unthinkable, unfortunate, and mind-bogglingly horrible happened that rocked the world, and to this day is impacting international adoptions. A woman adopted a little boy who turned out to be a lot to handle as a single mom. Well, after the adoption was legalized, she wrote a letter and had her mother put him on an airplane to Moscow. The letter stated that the woman had been lied to about the mental health of the child by the orphanage, the caseworkers, and everyone involved in the process, and she was returning the boy back to Russian child services. Russia reacted in a predictable manner and halted all adoptions to the United States. The family was investigated for neglect. Children who were slated to be adopted by loving families were never welcomed home because of one family’s inexcusable, confusing decision. 

Why do I bring this up? This is precisely the thing that adoptive parents cannot do when they are struggling with their children. However, I cannot tell you the number of times I have heard, “Can’t you just give them back?” as a response to a family who is really struggling with their child’s behavior. Adopting a child is (supposed to be) a lifelong situation. There are exceptions to the rule. For example, if a family has an adoptive placement that is in the “pre-adoptive” phase, they can decide that they aren’t a good fit for a child or that their situation has changed and the child wouldn’t thrive with them. If a child is making threats to himself or others, there are residential treatment options available. However, there is no situation in which a parent can load up their kid and drop them off at an orphanage/foster home/adoption agency and say, “This isn’t working out, take him back.” That is considered child abandonment and is highly illegal. So just stop saying this. 

While we are on the topic of highly questionable suggestions people often have towards “difficult” adopted kids, let’s talk about corporal punishment. My kiddos are adopted from foster care. They were placed in foster care for neglect and physical abuse. Their brains register no difference between me spanking their bottom and being punched by their birth mom. It would produce the exact same “flight, fight, or freeze” response from them if I’m screaming at them because they are doing something wrong as it would someone screaming at them for no reason. So. When you see a kid really struggling in Wal-Mart (which can be overstimulating, too bright, too loud, and overwhelming), sidling up to their exasperated parent and suggesting they “just need to give their kid a good whooping”  actually says, “you should re-traumatize your already clearly overwhelmed, scared, and traumatized child.” This is not quality parenting despite your grandpappy having raised five good (emotionally repressed) men with regular whippings. Saying, “Well, my parents beat me, and I turned out okay,” isn’t going to cut it anymore. You are not okay if you think that the right response to a kid in distress is, “let’s create more distress.” There are enough studies out there showing the negative effects of spankings. Know better, do better.

“Who are their real parents?” Look. I know. I’ve, in my ignorance, said these exact words. I get what you’re asking here. I understand the curiosity of why you want to know how a very Caucasian couple has a very dark-skinned daughter. I’m aware that it looks different, and some people have BIG FEELINGS about this. However, unless that person is a dear friend and she has offered up the information to you freely about who the “biological parents” might be, you have no right to this information. Sometimes it is for safety reasons that they cannot tell anyone who the biological parents are. Sometimes it is unknown. In any case, the correct phrase is “biological parents”, and the correct answer is almost always either, “That is none of your business,” or “I’m the real parent. However I think what you were asking was, ‘Who are her biological parents?’ and the answer is, ‘That is private information.’”

“Where did you get her from?” This is a similar question, but the implications are different. If you know the family well, you can ask, “Was she adopted internationally or domestically?”  However, if you actually know the family well, you probably already know the answer to that question and also exactly how many times they’ve had to field that question, and you’ll spare them. I understand the curiosity. I do. I know you probably don’t mean to insult the child or the family, but it comes across wrong. Also, there is a chance that the answer is, “She’s from here.” Just because a kid is a different ethnicity than their parents doesn’t mean they’ve come from someplace else. Don’t find yourself in the position of looking like an accidental racist. 

“How much did he cost?” Children are not puppies, or houses, or groceries. You don’t buy them on sale or hunt for a bargain (at least, I hope not). It is devaluing to ask how much a child was purchased for, in part because it isn’t a purchase. If you want to know how much an adoption costs, that’s a different question. How much do lawyers, international travel, hotel stays, caseworker wages, etc. cost? That’s really what the money is going to “buy”. That and all of the government fees. Sometimes the answer is $0 because it was a foster care adoption. Sometimes it is a number so large that your eyes will bug out. Either way, the parents will tell you the price doesn’t matter since they want and love their child. Also, for the love, do not say this in front of the child ever. That takes a bad thing and makes it worse. 

“Don’t you know them orphanage babies are natural killers?” or something equally inflammatory. I could spend a lot of time researching serial killers and explain to you why that isn’t true or? No. I’m just not going there. Yes, orphanages, especially understaffed, over full orphanages, can be one of the worst places for a child to exist. Yes, that can breed mental health issues. However, the way to help those kids is to get them out of the orphanages and get them the help they need. It is insulting and harmful to perpetuate these stereotypes. It breeds fear and mistrust that can cause a child to develop more mental health problems. Don’t consign a child to a life of crime and mental disease because you are ignorant. Don’t insult their family by assuming they haven’t done their research. If you’re friends with the family, sure, voice your concern in a loving way. Hopefully, they have already considered the risks and are prepared to take whatever comes at them. 

“Are you going to tell her she’s adopted?”  Yes. The answer is yes. It is always and forever yes they will tell her she’s adopted. Because that is considered best practice now. Also, some idiot asking, “Are you going to tell her she’s adopted?” in front of her, thereby revealing she is in fact adopted, could really wreck her world. It used to be taboo to talk about adoption, but it is becoming more common for adoptions to be open to some degree. Adoptees will often have some contact with birth families from an early age. It isn’t something that can or should be hidden. Families are still feeling the impact of their adoption journey being a hidden secret as if it was meant to be shameful, or embarrassing. We need to completely remove this stigma. Adoption is beautiful and should not be hidden. 

“Why don’t you get one that looks like you?” while staring at a beautiful blonde little girl who is now insecure that she doesn’t look like her mama. If looks could kill, I would be a stone-cold murderer. This actually happened to my family, and my little girl is still not totally recovered. She wants her hair straightened to match mine and wishes her hair was darker to match mine. She is easily the most beautiful, sensitive, precious child I’ve ever known, and some inconsiderate idiot has made her wish she wasn’t herself. I know this happens. I know people aren’t trying to be evil. I’m aware that often people don’t know what to say to or about adoptive families, and so they get it wrong. Before I was an adoptive mom, I know I said things about “real parents” meaning “biological parents”, and I asked where a precious African American baby came from (thinking she was adopted from Haiti, as it was right after the terrible earthquake in Haiti). I was ignorant and I was corrected. Many years later I am still embarrassed if I think too hard about it, but now I know. 

Maybe you’re like me. Maybe you just didn’t know. You’ve got so many questions. You’re excited about the idea of adoption, and you want to know more. Here’s the thing. Adoptive families aren’t looking to be the poster children/spokespersons for the adoption community. It’s an often unwanted side effect. A lot of times, adoptive families are happy to discuss their adoption with people they know. The best way to find out things about adoption, however, is to go to an adoption information meeting at a local adoption agency. You can ask any questions you have and not be considered rude or intrusive. You will be judged pretty hard if you start talking about “making good money” as a foster parent. This is untrue, and if that’s your motivation you need to not be a foster parent. 

Everyone’s adoption experience has similarities but also varies dramatically. Asking insensitive questions can roll off of some children’s backs but will sink in deep to others’. The best practice is to think before you speak, and only ask if you’re sure the parent is okay with it. Don’t try to discourage them from adoption because you’ve had a bad experience or you know someone that had a bad experience. Most likely, you’ll only serve to make them feel angry and defensive. At best, you’re telling them something they already know; at worst, you’re causing them pain. Don’t be that person. 

So back to the, “Can’t you just give them back?” Another thing about adoption that is important to understand is that often children struggle with attachment. Saying, “Can’t you give them back?” within earshot of any child could be disastrous. Adults need to be more aware that children can often hear things we don’t think they are paying attention to. A kid hearing that they could be “returned” by an authority (basically any adult that isn’t their parent) could strain an already difficult relationship. 

So here’s the bottom line: Before you say something you and the family will regret, think about if it would be polite to say. If you wouldn’t ever think of saying it to a stranger, don’t say it to an adoptive family. If you wouldn’t think of saying it to someone about their biological child, don’t say it to an adoptive family. If it’s something you’d say about a dog, don’t say it to or about an adopted child. If you aren’t sure, don’t say it to an adoptive family. Ask Google. Google’s feelings won’t get hurt, and it won’t need an extra emergency therapy session to deal with whatever insensitive thing someone at church said to them about their child. Any internet search engine, really, is a better option than asking living, breathing families whose feelings you can hurt. It’s not that you shouldn’t want answers to your questions, it is understanding that some questions aren’t good to ask.

Are you and your partner ready to start the adoption process? Visit Adoption.org or call 1-800-ADOPT-98 to begin your adoption journey. We have 130+ years of adoption experience and would love to help you.