The Expert Angle

Words have power. The importance of positive adoption language.

Words have power. The importance of positive adoption language.

Posted on: April 28, 2021 | By: Desiree Huffnagle , Program Director - Golden Cradle Adoption Program

Words have power to convey messages and evoke feelings.  Language is the vehicle we use daily to communicate our ideas and notions about the world we live in.  Words have a way of shaping our beliefs and thought processes.  

Adoption can be an emotion-driven topic, sometimes we fail to realize that word choice in certain contexts may convey unintended negative messages.  For example, it is typical to hear the phrase “giving up for adoption” or to ask about a child’s “real” parents.  Terms like these among others, can have a damaging effect on how others perceive adoption as well as on how adoption triad members view themselves. 

When we use positive adoption language, we say that adoption is a way to build a family in the same way we say that birth is a way to build a family.  Positive adoption language can help correct the stigma that adoption once carried. It encourages the world to view adoption not as second-best to parenthood, but rather, as a positive option for those who cannot or are not ready to parent. By using positive adoption language, we honor and show respect to birth parents for making a loving, courageous, and selfless choice. 

For adoptive parents, we affirm their role as their child’s forever family.  Most importantly, for the child, using honest, but positive language, can be the difference between shame and confidence about their story. It’s more than being politically correct. It’s being emotionally correct.

Whether you are an expectant or birth parent, a waiting adoptive family, clinical professional, or even just a friend to an adoptive family, it is crucial that you familiarize yourself with positive adoption language.

Why use positive adoption language? 

Positive adoption language can stop the spread of misconceptions. By using positive adoption language, we educate others about adoption. We choose emotionally "correct" words over emotion-laden words. We speak and write in positive adoption language with the hopes of impacting others so that this language will someday become the norm.

Choose the following positive adoption language instead of negative terms that help perpetuate the myth that adoption is second best. By using positive adoption language, you'll reflect the true nature of adoption, free of implications (Adoption Families, 2014).

What’s wrong with these terms?

  • “Put Up” for adoption: This term originated from the Orphan Train Movement of the mid 1800’s, when homeless children from the cities were taken to the countryside and “put up” on stage for landowners to select. These children became the landowner’s property and were taken home to work as field hands.
  • “Give Up” for adoption: People tend to use the phrase “give up” when referring to bad things or destructive habits. “He gave up drinking/gambling/smoking.” For obvious reasons, we don’t want to categorize a child by using this same terminology. Additionally, the subtle connotation of the term “give up” suggests an indiscriminate and careless action. On the contrary, birth parents undergo an intense emotional experience to make this choice, take great care in selecting adoptive parents, and display remarkable strength in moving forward with their adoption plan. Choosing adoption is a responsible decision that they control.
  • Using the words “real” or “natural” when describing a child’s birth parents implies that their adoptive parents are somehow “fake” or “unnatural.” The truth is that adoptive parents are “real” parents, just as the birth mother is “real” in her role as well. These terms also imply that because they are not blood-related, the relationships in an adoptive family are not as strong or lasting as relationships by birth. Using reaffirming language with children is crucial to ensure they feel confident that they are being raised in the family they are meant to be in. Alternatively, mixing up these terms can have confusing and detrimental consequences on the emotional development of adoptees.
  • By using the adjective “adopted” when referring to a child, one implies that this person’s position within their family requires a qualification, and is subject to a classification. It sends the message that there is a different value placed on this child because he or she does not share a biological connection to their parent. This could impact identity formation and self-esteem. As much as possible, when referring to individuals, refrain from using the word “adopted” as an adjective. Try and use the word adoption as a verb that describes the way a family was formed (she was adopted), or as a noun when referring to a person (As an adoptee, Jessica…). A person’s adoption is a part of who they are, but it shouldn’t be a stipulation. As individuals, we see ourselves as many things, all of which collectively inform our identity as a whole. “I am a dancer, an adoptee, a big sister, and an artist.”
  • Saying that an expectant mother chose to “keep her child,” implies that the child is a possession to be had and ignores the responsibilities of parenting. Instead, say that she chose to “parent her child” because she is choosing to parent instead of placing for adoption, which is very much within her right and an option that she should feel empowered to choose.
Common phrases to avoid
  • "It is so wonderful that you have adopted a child in need!"
  • "Your son/daugher is so lucky to have been adopted by you."
  • "Your son/daughter is so much better off with you as a parent."
  • "I could not raise someone else's child."

What's wrong with these phrases?

It is very important to consider positive adoption language when talking to adoptive families about their children. There are many well-meaning people who talk about adoption using phrases or asking questions that can be unintentionally hurtful. The phrases mentioned above are problematic because they are based on misguided assumptions about adoption. Phrases like these imply that adoptive parents are more saint-like than the birth parents and are somehow better and more fit to parent. They also imply that adoptees should feel grateful, and even indebted, to their adoptive parents for adopting them, which completely ignores all the losses associated with adoption. These kinds of phrases are damaging and need to be erased from the adoption dialogue. They only serve to further the misconceptions about adoption.

Transforming perceptions, one word at a time.

We can’t expect society to change its perception of adoption overnight, but changing the way it speaks of adoption is one step towards meaningful heart change. It isn’t easy to change the way a culture speaks; it’s even hard changing our own language. You may find yourself correcting your wording mid-sentence; that’s okay.  It’s an opportunity to share your perception of adoption to help influence how others begin to think and talk about adoption. Be attentive to how your family and friends are speaking about adoption. You can be an adoption advocate, educating others on how to reference it in a more positive, considerate manner. Be kind, but don’t be afraid to respectfully correct people who use negative adoption language.


Helpful Resources