When my oldest son was in kindergarten he wanted to shout to the world that he was adopted. He told everyone. Cashiers at the grocery store, all his classmates, strangers at the park. He was loud and proud. And all was fine, until kids started asking him who his “real” mom was. And he would answer the question by saying “my Birth Mom Sarah.” But then came the question, “So Mrs. Karen (I hate being called Mrs. White. I always think of the Clue character, but I digress) isn’t your real mom?”  And he would say “Yes, she is.” And the confusion and arguments with classmates began.

His teacher was great at handling the conflict that arose, but she didn’t know the exact language to use. So I searched high and low for a book to read to the class. It was hard to find one that represented our adoption because we aren’t a multi-racial family, and he wasn’t adopted from overseas. We know his birth family so there are no “I wonder who she is” questions. There weren’t nearly as many books out then as there are now, but I managed to find one. I read it to the class and we discussed adoption. The kids all reacted really well and we discussed what babies need, and what makes a family. We talked about ways all families are different and their similarities. Many of the kids hadn’t heard of adoption before, or thought my son had made up the story, so it was quite the interesting conversation.

In first grade I anticipated doing a similar talk with his class. He still wanted people to know he was adopted and spoke of his birth family in class often. After helping in the classroom a few times, I learned there was another child in the class who was not living with her biological parents and had several brothers who had been removed from the home and were adopted by different families through CPS. Her experiences with adoption were far different from my son’s. They weren’t at all happy, and she was very angry (and rightfully so!) Because of that I talked to my son and chose not to discuss adoption with his class. It was a great discussion for him and me to have because, just like his kindergarten classmates hadn’t understood what adoption meant, my son didn’t understand that other kids’ experiences with adoption could be so different.

By second grade my son was more aware of differences in our family and that of others. He knew that “being adopted” made him different. Thus it started him being far more selective about who he told. If the subject came up he never seemed to shy away from discussing it, but he only told close friends the details of his story. I knew at that point that discussing it in a classroom situation would embarrass him and possibly lead to him being teased. If he had wanted me to I would have gladly, but he was learning to navigate those waters himself.

Several times over the past few years I have listened in as adoption has come up in conversation with his friends. It usually starts when someone mentions his “real mom.” I always cringe hearing that because as his mom I worry about how it will make him feel. He always responds with, “You mean my birth mom . . . ” and then goes on with whatever they are talking about. Generally the conversation moves on to other things. A few times when it hasn’t moved on or I can sense my son feeling distraught, I have continued doing what I was doing but interjected things into their conversation. As I hear things being said that are either incorrect or just negative adoption language, I will add in my thoughts. It has been my experience that if I try to sit down and talk to their friends they either feel like they are in trouble or they revert to the glazed eye Charlie-Brown-teacher-is-talking look. Keeping it casual has been far more effective for me.

There is no right or wrong way to deal with adoption and your child’s friends. It is a tough road to navigate because discussions about adoption often leads to discussions about how babies are born. And Lord knows children at every age have widely varying knowledge of how that works. Talking to your child’s friends about adoption is more about them understanding your child’s experience than trying to teach about what adoption is. Because every adoption looks different, every discussion is different. Do what feels right with your child and talk to them about what they want to share. Every year it may change, but keeping the lines of communication open lets your child know that they can always come to you if they need help explaining their story to friends.