“Words are, in my not-so-humble opinion, our most inexhaustible source of magic. Capable of both inflicting injury and remedying it.”  – Albus Dumbledore in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

When I was a child, I was taught, “Sticks and stones my break my bones, but words can never hurt me.” What a bunch of hogwash. I would guess that words are the number one cause of war, abuse, and divorce. The lasting effects of verbal abuse are well documented. Certain historically common derogatory words have been banished from our vocabulary. Research has proved that belittling words can have a profound effect on self-esteem, and self-esteem is directly related to physical, social, and mental health.

I recently watched the classic story of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Having not watched the TV show since I was a small child, I found myself appalled at the words the reindeer coach used against Rudolph. In today’s society, that coach would have been in big trouble, but it dawned on me that his behavior was totally acceptable and even expected in the era from which the show was created.

The overarching theme that I didn’t understand as a child is that every single person has an innate need to be accepted for who they are. Besides Rudolph needing value in spite of his nose, there is Hermey the elf who wants to be a dentist, all of the toys that live on the Island of Misfit Toys, and even the Abominable Snowman who is grouchy simply because he has a toothache. Each one wants to be loved, accepted, and cherished for who they are and not what others think they should be. Isn’t this the primal need we all have?

As our collective understanding of words and how they affect self-esteem and health issues have increased, words that negatively label or degrade have become looked down upon or even banned. Words about a person’s race, creed, culture, religion, physical and mental abilities, and economic status have become more descriptively factual and less emotional. Why then, do some words and phrases persist in our vocabulary when they lessen the value of another? Isn’t life hard enough as it is?

A research study showed the direct correlation between children and adolescents with low self-esteem and moderate to severe depression as adults (Steiger et al, 2014). Further research has shown that children in foster care and those who have been adopted have elevated risks of low self-esteem, have higher incidents of depression, behavior problems, and lower academic performance (Juffer, 2007).  Even though those in the adoptive community are aware and work to lessen emotional challenges that are part of adoption, there is a general lack of awareness with regard to vocabulary outside the adoption community. As a birth mom, here a few adoption-related words or phrases I wish would disappear:

“Unwanted Pregnancy”

Technically, this phrase is true in many instances. Millions of women, in many circumstances, find themselves pregnant when they didn’t want to be. What, then, is so wrong about this phrase? If you think about it from a child’s perspective, it becomes obvious. If the pregnancy is unwanted, then the child is unwanted. If the child is unwanted before birth, then the child will unwanted after birth. Every child should believe that they were wanted, no matter the circumstances of their conception.

Better word choices: unplanned, unexpected

“Illegitimate Child”

According to my online dictionary, the first definition of illegitimate is, “born to parents who are not married to each other.” If this was the only definition, I would be fine with this word; however, here are the remaining definitions:

  • not sanctioned by law or custom
  • unlawful
  • illegal
  • not in good usage
  • irregular
  • obsolete

Can you imagine a child looking up this word after being described as illegitimate only to find that they are “obsolete” or even “unlawful?” Children are always legitimate. They are always important. They are always valued. PERIOD. THE END.

Better word choices: beloved child, amazing child

“Gave up for Adoption”

Giving something up has the connotation that it wasn’t wanted or was not needed. “Even when the adoptive parents work to ensure that their child knows how much they are wanted and loved, a child who is told that they were “given up” may wonder what is inherently wrong with them that their birth parents didn’t want them. This is also hurtful for the birthparents because love and selflessness is often the motivation behind their choice and has nothing to do with how “wanted” the child was.

Better word choices: placed for adoption (Note: I still don’t like this phrase very much. It’s like “I placed the book on the shelf.” You place things in a certain spot to put them away. I didn’t put my child away. My birth son says, “I wasn’t given up; I was given more,” which is so respectful to all involved, but people don’t understand when someone says “I gave my child more.” More of what? Cookies? “I gave my child more by relinquishing my parental rights so that my child could have every opportunity for happiness in this life” is just too long. There simply is not an adequate phrase.)

“Had to get married.”

I am so grateful we don’t hear this as much any more. Just because a girl/woman gets pregnant out of wedlock does not mean that a marriage has to take place so that the child has a name or whatever. The child can have his/her mother’s name. No one in our culture HAS to get married.  Marriage should always happen for the right reasons at the right time and in the right way or the results can be disastrous for all who are involved.

Better word choices: They got married and are having a baby!

References:

Juffer, F., & van IJzendoorn, M. H. (2007). Adoptees do not lack self-esteem: A meta-analysis of studies on self-esteem of transracial, international, and domestic adoptees. Psychological Bulletin, 133(6), 1067-1083. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/0033-2909.133.6.1067

Steiger, A. E., Allemand, M., Robins, R. W., & Fend, H. A. (2014). Low and decreasing self-esteem during adolescence predict adult depression two decades later. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 106(2), 325-338. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/a0035133