The following factsheet was written by Patricia Johnston at Perspective Press ([url][/url]) about respectful adoption language. What adoption language do you consider respectful and disrespectful?
P.O. Box 90318, Indianapolis, IN 46290 USA * (317)872-3055 *
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Using Respectful Adoption Language
by Pat Johnston
Respectful Adoption Language (RAL) is vocabulary about adoption which has been chosen to reflect maximum respect, dignity, responsibility and objectivity about the decisions made by birthparents and adoptive parents in discussing the family planning decisions they have made for children who have been adopted. First introduced by Minneapolis social worker Marietta Spencer as postive adoption language or constructive adoption language and evolving over the past 20 years, the use of RAL helps to eliminate the emotional overcharging which for many years has served to perpetuate a societally-held myth that adoption is a second-best and lesser-than alternative for all involved--that in being part of an adoption one has somehow missed out on a "real" family experience. The use of this vocabulary acknowledges those involved in adoption as thoughtful and responsible people, reassigns them authority and responsibility for their actions, and, by eliminating the emotionally-charged words which sometimes lead to a subconscious feeling of competition or conflict, helps to promote understanding among members of the adoption circle.
RAL begins with the concept of family. Historically people have been considered to be members of the same family when one or more of several conditions are met: they are linked by blood (father and son,) they are linked by law (husband and wife,) they are linked by social custom (woman and her husband's sister), they are linked by love. We don't blink at the concept of two non-genetically-related people being members of the same family if one or more of the other criteria are met...except in adoption.
Though in adoption parent and child are linked by love and by law, the fact that they are not connected by blood has often meant that some people are unwilling to acknowledge their relationship as genuine and permanent. Thus they use qualifiers ("This is Bill's adopted son") in situations where they would not dream of doing so in a non-adoptive family ("This is Bill's birth-control-failure son" or "This is Mary's caesarean-section daughter.") They tend not to assign a full and permanent relationship to persons related through adoption ("Do you have any children of your own?" or "Have you ever met your real mother?" or "Are they natural brothers and sisters?") They assume that adoptive relationships are tentative ("Will the agency take him back now that you know he's handicapped?" or "What if his real parents want him back?")
As the concept of family changes, it is important that we consistently acknowledge that any two people who choose to spend their lives committed to one another are indeed a family. A couple who has chosen a childfree lifestyle and a single parent with children are just as much families as is a married couple who has given birth to six children.
The reality is that adoption is a method of joining a family, just as is birth. It is a method of family planning, as are birth control pills or abortion. Though the impact of adoption must be acknowledged consistently in helping a person who has been adopted or one who has made an adoption to assimilate this issue positively, adoption should not be described as a "condition." In most articles or situations not centering on adoption (for example, during an introduction, in a news or feature story or an obituary about a business person or a celebrity) it is inappropriate to refer to the adoption at all. (An exception may be in an arrival announcement.) When it is appropriate to refer to the fact of adoption, it is correct to say "Kathy was adopted," (referring to they way in which she arrived in her family.) Phrasing it in the present tense-- "Kathy is adopted"--implies that adoption is a disability with which to cope.
Those who raise and nurture a child are his parents: his mother, father, mommy, daddy, etcThose who conceive and give birth to a child are his birthparents: his birthmother and birthfather. Technically, all of us have birthparents, however not all of us live in the custody of our birthparents. But increasingly those who have chosen adoption for the children to whom they have given birth but are not parenting are asking that the terms birthparent, birthmother, and birthfather be used exclusively to describe those who have already made such a plan. From this perspective it would be inappropriate to label a pregnant woman dealing with an untimely pregnancy a birthparent. Before she gives birth, she is an expectant parent. Not until she gives birth and actually chooses adoption would she be appropriately called a birthparent..
In describing family relationships involving adoption it is always best to AVOID such terms as real parent, real mother, real father, real family--terms which imply that adoptive relationships are artificial and tentative-- as well as terms such as natural parent and natural child--terms which imply that in not being genetically linked we are less than whole or that our relationships are less important than are relationships by birth. Indeed in adoption children will always have TWO "real" families: one by birth and one by adoption. Similarly, when conscientiously using RAL, one would never refer to a child as one of your own, which intimates that genetic relationship is stronger and more enduring and adoptive relationships tentative and temporary.
In describing the decision-making process birthparents go through in considering adoption as an option for an untimely pregnancy, it is preferred to use terms which acknowledge them to be responsible and in control of their own decisions.
In the past, it is true, birthparents often had little choice about the outcome of an out-of-wedlock pregnancy. In earlier times they did indeed surrender, relinquish, give up and even sometimes abandon their children. These emotion-laden terms, conjuring up images of babies torn from the arms of unwilling parents, are no longer valid except in those unusual cases in which a birthparent's rights are involuntarily terminated by court action after abuse or neglect.
In an age of increasing acceptance of out-of-wedlock pregnancy and single parenthood, today's birthparents are generally well counseled and well informed about their options, and using Respectful Adoption Language acknowledges this reality. Increasingly, as agencies take on the role of facilitator and mediator rather than lifter-of-burdens and grantor-of-children, the phrase place for adoption is also being questioned. The preferred RAL terms to describe birthparents' adoption decisions are make an adoption plan, plan an adoption or choose adoption ("Linda chose adoption for her baby") Well counseled birthparents who do not decide on adoption do not keep their babies (children are not possessions) but instead they choose to parent them ("After considering her options, Paula decided to parent her child herself.")
The process by which families prepare themselves to become parents is often referred to as a homestudy. This term carries with it an old view of the process as a weeding out or judgment. Today, more and more agencies are coming to view their role as less God-like and more facilitative. The preferred positive term, then, is parent preparation, a process whereby agency and prospective adopters come to know one another and work toward expanding a family.
As both sets of parents consider the ways in which they may plan an adoption their choices include retaining their privacy in a traditional or confidential (not closed) adoption or they may opt to have varying degrees of ongoing contact between birthparents and adopters in a process commonly known as open adoption. Some adopters parent children born outside the U.S. in a style of adoption respectfully referred to as international adoption. The older term foreign has negative connotations in other uses and so is now discouraged. Similarly, adopters who choose to parent one or more older children, sibling groups, or children facing physical or emotional or mental challenges are said to be parenting children with special needs or waiting children, terms seen as potentially less damaging to the self esteem of these children than the older term hard-to-place.
While adoption is not a handicap, it is a life-long process. Frequently news stories refer to reunions between people who are related genetically but have not been raised in the same family. In most such instances these encounters do not carry with them the full spectrum of understanding that the usual use of the term reunion implies. While children adopted at an older age may indeed experience a reunion, most adoptees join their families as infants, and as such they have no common store of memories or experience such as are traditionally shared in a reunion. The more objective descriptor for a meeting between a child and the birthparents who planned his adoption (a term which neither boosts unrealistic expectations for the event nor implies a competition for loyalties between birthparents and adoptive parents) is meeting.
This short poem by Rita Laws first seen in OURS: The Magazine of Adoptive Families (now Adoptive Families magazine) attempts to point out humorously the impact of negative language in adoption...
Four Adoption Terms Defined
Natural child: any child who is not artificial.
Real parent: any parent who is not imaginary.
Your own child: any child who is not someone else's child.
Adopted child: a natural child, with a real parent, who is all my own.
Respectful Adoption Language, however, is very serious business. Just as in advertising we choose our words carefully to portray a positive image of the produce we endorse (selling Mustangs rather than Tortoises, New Yorkers rather than Podunkers), and in politics we take great care to use terminology seen positively by the class or group of people it describes, those of us who feel that adoption is a beautiful and healthy way to form a family and a responsible and respectable alternative to other forms of family planning, ask that you consider the language you use very carefully when speaking about those of us who are touched by adoption!
This material has been adapted and excerpted from ADOPTING AFTER INFERTILITY by infertility and adoption educator Patricia Irwin Johnston (copyright 1992). For a look at this book's table of contents and reviews, click here. Those reading a print-out will find this article and others on the internet at [url][/url]
P.O. Box 90318, Indianapolis, IN 46290 USA * (317)872-3055
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Thank you very much for the information. How does one get permission to use the fact sheet on a web site?
I hope many forum users will read your thread, and take note of the definitions.
I have a number of concerns with RAL. Here's my take on language.
A Few Words on Words in Adoption
In adoption, as in life, it is not always what we say, but how we say it that matters. This is, in part, because words in and of themselves, are only tools. Tone, body language and, most importantly the context we use, often reflect our underlying meaning. It is also important to note that personal experience and understanding also effect how words are heard. Therefore, any discussion on adoption language has to take in to account both how the words are used and how others interpret them.
Look in any dictionary and you will find at least two definitions for many words. Add to this the emotions, past experiences and associations that one individual has with a particular word, and it is often hard to discern what a person's definition of the word is. Too often we assume that our definition of a word is the same as everyone else's.
Just as there has been an evolution in adoption practice, so too has the language of adoption evolved. Take, for instance, the word "illegitimate". It is a word rarely used in adoption today, but as the following excerpt from The Willows, a commercial maternity home in Kansas City, MO, illustrates it was used freely in 1926.
"Here again you may have some scruples about illegitimacy because certain facts are unknown to you. To begin with, here in our home, we have only illegitimate children for adoption, the offspring of young women of good families who thru lack of proper supervision or misplaced confidence, have erred against society," and "And remember since high grade married people are not giving up their children for adoption, your baby will be of illegitimate birth." The Willows Magazine, 1926.
Let's take a look at more recent developments. In 1979 Marrietta Spencer, a Minneapolis social worker, wrote an article entitled "The Terminology of Adoption" for the Child Welfare League of America. It laid the groundwork for her work on "Constructive Adoption Terminology", that would later evolve into Pat Johnson's work on "Positive Adoption Language" (PAL) and Speaking Positively: Using Respective Adoptive Language (RAL). All of these works were developed to help adopted people, birthparents, adoptive parents and adoption professionals find the right words to convey the reality of their adoption experience.
Finding simple terms that apply to everyone's experience is obviously a challenge, and I would say an impossibility. In the first place, not everyone has the same experience with adoption, and, as mentioned previously, words often hold different meanings based on an individual's experience with it. Another difficulty is that terms that elevate one person's experience, often diminishes someone else's. Speaking thoughtfully is not only about relating our own experience accurately, but taking other's experiences into account as well.
Another factor to take into consideration is that some words, even if used with the best intentions, have an effect on how people view themselves, others and their actions. A primary example of this is the use of the word birthmother to describe a pregnant woman considering adoption for her baby. Using the term birthmother in this way is inappropriate, as in adoption circles a birthmother is someone who has relinquished her rights to parent her child. Many birthmothers have stated that being given the title birthmother before their decision was final acted as a form of subtle coercion in that they began to see themselves as birthmothers prior to making a final decision. Additionally, prospective adoptive parents who are "matched" with these expectant mothers, may also have a harder time accepting the mother's decision to parent her child if they have already believe her to be a birthmother. In fact I have heard a number of pre-adoptive parents refer to a pregnant mother as the birthmother of their child, or simply our birthmother.
Other words are simply loaded. Take, for instance, the use of the word family. In adoption language it is a word that is often preceded by another word?adoptive family, birth family, and foster family immediately come to mind. For those who in these families, these descriptions of their family can seem diminishing. They see themselves as family, pure and simple.
Part of the problem is that many hold dear in their hearts a "Leave it to Beaver" image of what family is. The general public, while enamored of the nuclear family, need only look at their own families to see that the definition of family is changing. One child's familial connections may include parents, step-parents, grandparents, god-parents, foster parents, aunts and uncles, step-brothers and sisters, and in the case of adoption, birthfamily.
It is important in adoption to define exactly what an adoptive family is. For years, adoptive parents were told that they should "take the baby home and act as if they were born to you." The theory was that by severing all ties with the birthfamily, adoptive parents would be able to create a family "all their own." Babies were seen as "clean slates" and genetic influences were considered minimal at best. The only importance birthparents held during those years were if the adopted child started acting out as a teen-ager. The adopted child then turned from "one of their own" into "a bad seed".
Legally, the language was, and continues to be, language that insulates the adopted person and his or her adoptive parents from the birthfamily. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the sealed records laws that most states still hold near and dear to their hearts.
In more recent writing, Pat Johnson, in her article Speaking Positively: Using Respectful Adoption Language states: "The reality is that adoption is a method of joining a family, just as in birth." While she goes on to say that "the impact of adoption must be acknowledged" nowhere does she discuss the connections in adoption. The fact is a child comes into their adoptive family bringing with them a whole set of family members that they are connected to by birth. This is true whether or not the child's birthfamily is known or unknown. The child will always carry these connections in their cells, in their shape of their jaw, the way they laugh, in their temperament and talents. It is, therefore, important to use language that honors and acknowledges all the connections in an adopted person's life
Adoption language that is inclusive acknowledges that, unlike birth, building a family by adoption extends the family beyond the child him or herself. In both international and domestic transracial adoption for example, the whole family becomes a transracial family. Or, in the words of Beth Hall and Gail Steinberg, the authors of Inside Transracial Adoption , "When a family adopts members of different races, each person receives the opportunity to understand and experience life from a new point of view never before imagined. The family as a whole has the chance to move forward to develop its own new form." I would say that their philosophy of transracial adoption is a good starting point for those in all types of adoption to embrace. Adoption should expand our view of family, not restrict it to what we believed family to be. In that way everyone who is a part of the one adopted is embraced and everything that it is a part of the one adopted, whether it be culture or country, talent or temperament is honored.
Unlike most articles on adoption language this one will not end with a little chart that diagrams old and new terms. Instead, I will offer you a few questions to hopefully help you think about the meaning of the words you use in adoption.
1) Do you or others use the word with a silent, but intended, only in front of it? [As in "She is (only) his birthmother." Or "They are (only) his adoptive family."]
2) Does your language honor the connections that exist? [For example, calling an expectant mother, or an adoptive mother, "mom".]
3) Do you use qualifying language inappropriately to diminish others? [As in "She's not one of their own, she's adopted." or "He's not her real father."]
4) Do you use terms in a derogatory manner as a way of diminishing another's role? [Such as calling a birthmother a "host mother", calling a birthfather a "sperm donor", or calling adoptive parents "the adopters".]
5) Does your language reflect the reality of the situation, both legally and practically? [For example, Pat Johnson, using RAL, refers to the term reunion this way. "While children adopted at an older age may indeed experience a reunion, most adoptees join their families as infants, and as such they have no common store of memories or experience such as are traditionally shared in a reunion." Personally I find this description diminishing of the connections between an adopted person and his or her birthfamily. We often go to "family reunions" where the connections between people are based on extended family ties and not on a previous extended relationship.]
6) Do you use words that have other, more common associations? [On the internet one of the acronyms used for birthmother is BM. Prospective adoptive parents are sometimes referred to as PAP's. Need I say more?]
7) Have you asked others involved how they would like to be addressed or referred to? [Many adopted persons I know prefer that term to adoptee According to Dr. G. William Troxler , "The term "adoptee" is a linguistic diminutive intended to keep adopted people servile. That is to say an adoptee is in a position of subservience just as an employee is to an employer or as a lessee is to a lessor." Other see no problem with referring to themselves as adoptees.]
8) Do you continue to use language that others find offensive? [If you know, for example, that your daughter's birthmother really dislikes the term "our birthmother" when she is being referred to, than to continue using the word would be insensitive..]
Adoption language that is honorable, respectful and thoughtful honors all the connections inherent in adoption. Whether those connections exist through law, blood or love.
Brenda Romanchik, Director
Insight: Open Adoption Resources and Support
721 Hawthorne
Royal Oak, MI 48067
toll-free expectant parent/birthparent line 877-879-0669
Copyright 2002
it annoys me to hear my sister talk about her real family and she means her blood family when she says it. she was adopted then in foster care, so i know she has to differentiate (sp?) between them all. we, the people in circle, remind her that we are her real family and the one that birthed her isn't. or people who were raised by a family that adopted them still calling them their adopted family. maybe that's just me though. (wow that looks confusing!)
"illegitimate"-hmm sounds like a disease, which is not a good way to refer to a child.
also, if calling someone's birthmom or birthdad that offends them, what would be the proper term(s)?
bromanchik~ well said...thank you
azurelupe~ In reunion It would be best to "sort out" what language both parties would feel comfortable using, just because a label has become the "norm" does not nessisarily mean that both parties will agree on it.
Nathan~ I need to point out that this author wrote the book for adoptive or preadoptive parents.
There is also a book entitled Truthful adoption language..written by a natural mother here in Canada.
(is it my imagination, or was my msg posted 2 days ago in this thread deleted? )
I wanted to voice my opinion, and i did it in a calm and nonflaming manner.
Respectul Adoption Language only shows respect for adoptive parents, not for mothers separated from their children by adoption.
RAL reduces the original mothers to being breeders or incubators, as this is what in my opinion the word "birthmother' means - a mother only at the time of birth, a vessel to produce a baby, a mother for reproductive purposes only.
This is confirmed in the same article when the word parents - i.e mother and father - is said to be only the adoptive parents. The natural mother is hence not a mother any longer, and thus she's only an incubator for her child. This in my opiniondemeans her to being only valuable as a womb or a "gene donor."
In my opinion this is not respectul to her at all. Calling her the first mother or natural mother, acknowleding that she is one of 4 parents that the adoptee will always have - two raising the adoptee and two who are in exile - is being honest. And respectful. Honest that she is still a mother by the laws of natural whereas the adoptive mother is a mother because of state adoption laws. Two mothers, always.
Moderator Response: No, it isnt your imagination, however, since you choose to repost, I edited your post to soften the negative blanket statements which many members on this forum find hurtful.
I always found the word "mother" in and of itself a bit cold and removed. I'm more comfortable with referring to our "natural mothers", "first mothers", or "birth mothers" as birthmoms. I agree with Brenda though; it's the intention of the word. Bmoms are NOT incubators, in my eyes. I know that with all of my kids' bmoms, had the situation been right, they would have kept and loved their children. Especially for bmom #1, whom we have the closest relationship with, she just didn't have a choice. She didn't do anything more wrong than most of us have ever done, but her circumstances were not good. Bmom #2 was pretty mentally ill most of the time we knew her, and Bmom #3 is extremely shy concerning contact, from what I think is the result of dumb beliefs planted in her head that she's "bad" if she wants to be a more active part of our family. All parties need to be open, honest, respectful, and clear on what they need.
This is not open for debateyour thread was edited to remove the blanket statements you made, because you donŒt speak for all birthmothers, you can only speak for yourself.
Continued debate of moderator action will result in your account being banned.