Why are words so important to the adoption community?

There are good reasons for our insistence on certain terms!

Meghan Rivard September 22, 2015
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Words convey many things: information, emotions, intention. Also, there are additional factors that influence the meanings of words: tone, body language, and context. Thus, when you are speaking, it is very important to carefully choose the words that will convey your message accurately.

This is especially true when it comes to adoption because adoption touches on many raw, vulnerable, and tender areas of life: grief and loss, love and family. Because it is such a sensitive topic, adoption needs to be spoken about sensitively. It’s important to be aware that there are words in the adoption community that are more appropriate than others or have different meanings now than they did in the past.

That is one reason that many members of the adoption community encourage the use of Positive Adoption Language (PAL). It is important to respect every party in adoption (birth parents, adoptive parents, and the adoptee), and PAL attempts to show thoughtful respect to everyone involved. Most importantly, I want the adoptee to feel respected, and that is why I value positive adoption language so much. I want my daughter, and other children who are adopted, to know their adoption story, to know how to talk about adoption with friends, and how to answer questions that friends will ask her later. I also want my daughter to feel like she can always talk about her birth parents or her adoption story and not be afraid or embarrassed about it in anyway.

I know from experience how words can effect a person in the adoption community and therefore would like to give a few examples of how the adoption language has changed. One word that is not really correct to use anymore is “give up,” i.e. “she gave up her child for adoption.” To me “giving up” means “I just can’t do this,” but “placing a child” means finding a home for a child because of the love of the birth parents. I have heard many people use the phrase “giving up” because they are simply unaware that a more appropriate word to use is “placed.” Placing a child for adoption is not an easy decision but requires much thought and preparation.

Another word is “birth mother.” It is not appropriate to use this word until after the termination of parental rights paperwork has been signed. It can even be considered coercive to refer to a woman making an adoption plan for her child as a “birth mother” until the placement has actually occurred.

Also the word “family.” In her article, “A Few Words on Words in Adoption,” Adoption advocate Brenda Romanchik points out many people think it is necessary to add a defining word before family, such as “adoptive family” or “birth family.” But, she argues, this creates a sense of being “less than.” It’s better to refer to adoptive and foster and birth families simply as a family. Similarly, she expresses, it is not appropriate to use words like “real” (ie, “Where are his real parents?”) or “own” (ie, “They couldn’t have children of their own, so they adopted.”) An adoptive family is a “real” family and adopted children are their parents’ “own.”  To imply otherwise is to take aim at another person’s most closely held connections.

The biggest thing everyone can do is educate others. If you hear someone/family member/friend using adoption language that you don’t appreciate, politely correct them and reinforce the language terms they should be using. Word-of-mouth is one of the best ways to educate and get the “word” out about positive adoption language.

What can we do to spread positive adoption language?

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Meghan Rivard

Meghan is an adoptive mother and a big advocate of adoption and foster care. She resides in Indiana with her husband, their one-year-old daughter who is the center of their lives, and their dog Max. She has a Bachelor's and Master’s Degree in Social Work. Meghan stays at home with her daughter but is so happy she found this outlet to share her personal adoption story and educate about adoption!


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