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Appropriate Adoption Language

by Pat Johnston, author of Adoption is a Family Affair

Appropriate language and terms to use in referring to adoption, adoptive families, and the adoption triad.

Understanding a bias usually creates an interest in helping others understand it and end it. One way to do that is to begin to model more sensitive and appropriate language. 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 "positive adoption language" (PAL) or "constructive adoption language," the concept of respectful adoption language has evolved over the past 20-something years. The use of RAL helps to eliminate the emotional overcharging which reflects and perpetuate adoptism. 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.

Chances are very good that part of your son's or daughter's preparation for adoption involved learning to use RAL. As they model it for you, they'll soon expect that you begin to learn to use it, too, for your grandchild's sake and for theirs. At first some elements of RAL may seem a bit stilted and awkward, but as you become more sensitive to adoptism and the impact it could have on your precious grandchild, niece or nephew, you will see its benefits, and your conversation will soon be peppered with RAL.

At the root of understanding the need for RAL is the very definition of family and what connects the members of various family groups to one another.

  • Blood and genes (e.g. a birthmother and her birthdaughter) relate some family members to one another.
  • Law (e.g. a husband and wife) forges some family members' connections.
  • Still other family members share no genetic ties or legal connections but are members of the same family by social custom (e.g. a man and his mother-in-law).
  • Sometimes what binds together a group of people as members of the same family is neither genes nor law, but the love they feel for one another (a stepparent's mother, who serves as "Grandma," or a parent's close friend who becomes "Aunt Sally.")

Families expanded by adoption may not share genes, but they are connected by love, by social custom, and by law.
Still, the absence of a "blood tie" has often resulted in the unwillingness of some to acknowledge adoptive relationships as genuine and permanent. Think of the many examples we've discussed already.

As the concept of family changes most of us have begun to 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.

Adoption is a method of joining a family, just as is birth. It is also a method of family planning used by some who feel they are unprepared to parent, just as are birth control pills or abortion. Adoption has an impact on the lives of those it touches, but it is not a "condition." It should not become a label.

In most situations not centering on adoption it is not appropriate to refer to the adoption at all. An exception may be in an arrival announcement, which is indeed adoption-centered. And when it is appropriate to refer to the fact of adoption, it is correct to use past tense-"Kathy was adopted," (referring to the way in which she arrived in her family). Phrasing it in the present tense-"Kathy is adopted"-labels Kathy with an implication that adoption is a disability with which to cope.

Similarly, when conscientiously using RAL, don't refer to a child as one of your own. This term implies that children are chattels. Children are not belongings, they are dependent human beings in need of long term care and guidance by parents prepared for the task.

Try to avoid such terms as real parent, real mother, real father, real family-terms which imply that adoptive relationships are artificial and tentative. Also avoid terms such as natural parent and natural child, 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 absolutely "real" families: one by birth and one by adoption.

Those who raise and nurture a child are his parents: his mother, father, mommy, daddy, etc. Those who conceive and give birth to a child are his birthparents: his birthmother and birthfather. Technically, it would seem that all of us have birthparents, though 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. For example, a pregnant woman dealing with an untimely pregnancy is not 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 the decision-making process expectant parents 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. In some countries, safe-place abandonment is the only legal way to choose adoption for a child. In North America, 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-nearly always 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. In RAL, the preferred phrases 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 or make a commitment to parenting ("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 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 confidential (not closed) adoption or opting to have varying degrees of ongoing contact between birthparents and adopters in a process known as openness in 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. These terms are seen as potentially less damaging to the self-esteem of these children than is 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. Meeting is the more objective way to describe the coming together of a person who has been adopted and the birthparents who planned his adoption. Additionally, meeting is a term which neither boosts unrealistic expectations for the event nor implies a competition for loyalties between birthparents and adoptive parents.

Respectful Adoption Language is serious business. Just as in advertising we choose our words carefully to portray a positive image of the product 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 join us in considering the language you use very carefully when speaking about those of us who are touched by adoption! After all, you're about to be one of us!


Excerpted from Adoption Is a Family Affair! What Relatives and Friends Must Know with permission from Perspectives Press: The Infertility and Adoption Publisher PO Box 90318, Indianapolis, IN 46290-0318 * (317)872-3055 * ppress@iquest.net Copyright 2001 Pat Johnston. May not be reproduced with permission.

Pat Johnston, is the publisher at Perspectives Press, Inc. and the author of Adoption Is a Family Affair! What Relatives and Friends Must Know. She also wrote Taking Charge of Infertility, Understanding Infertility: Insights for Family and Friends, Adopting after Infertility and Launching a Baby's Adoption. She also edited the poetry anthology Perspectives on a Grafted Tree.


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