Thursday, October 11, 2007

So... What CAN I ask? Proper Adoption Language 101

I was asked this the other day by someone who was reading the FAQs at the bottom of this page. Coincidentally, a similar topic was recently covered in some of the Vietnam groups on Yahoo. There's been some discussion about how patient and understanding an adoptive parent should be regarding comments from strangers, and how much they should reasonably tolerate before they have "just cause" to put rude folks in their places.

So, what CAN I ask? I understand the frustration behind the question. We live in a time where political correctness rules. You can barely say anything anymore, without someone telling you it's offensive. Some group is always eager to accuse another group of "Hate Speech." We are unwilling to let anything go without an apology. Read the paper. Someone is apologizing for their remarks made to someone else almost every day; sometimes, rightfully so and sometimes, not. It's getting ridiculous. This leaves us constantly walking on eggshells, wondering what's appropriate to say. Personally, I say all of this increased attention to sensitivity and supposed tolerance is making us overly sensitive and intolerant of anyone who thinks differently than we do. I think it's turning us into a nation of whiny, cry babies who are unable to shake off the tiniest offense and get on with life. We sound like a bunch of 4 year olds, yelling for our mommies to make the bullies be nice and say "sorry." The very people who scream TOLERANCE the loudest are the first people to get offended and refuse to tolerate the words of others. These, of course, are just my humble opinions- for you to do with as you wish (And please don't assume I'm obviously referring to a group that you are a member of or support, then get offended and leave me a nasty comment. If you do, you're kind of proving my point, anyway. These are just generalities, here, folks. I'm speaking of our culture at large. No particular target). Anyway... I digress. This is a rant best saved for another day.

I have a sign in my kitchen that says, "Put on your big girl panties and deal with it." That sums up how I feel about it. When it comes to adoption conversations, I usually try to cut people as much slack as possible. I have said it before in this blog; I understand the average person is not trying to be offensive, and is merely curious. Most poorly-worded questions are asked out of ignorance, and don't stem from a cruel spirit, so I don't believe I should respond cruelly in return. We, as adoptive parents, have to remember that the average man on the street has not taken a class on proper adoption language. I have asked a few blunt, poorly-worded questions myself (even to other adoptive parents!), so I'm the first to realize we all make mistakes, and have moments when both feet seem to leap involuntarily into our mouths.

For parents, an important thing to keep in mind is the fact that our kids will learn how to deal with the world by our example. I don't want my child to learn to be easily offended from watching her mother. If I react (or overreact) to every little comment, my children will pick up on that. I want them to be able to shake it off, and not let the remarks of others determine how they view themselves. How can I lead them in that direction if I'm huffing and puffing all the time over some offense? My children who have been adopted are going to deal with this stuff throughout their lives. They have to be able to let a few things go, or they won't be very happy people.

Of course, there is a time to say "enough is enough" and speak up for yourself and your child, but there has to be a balance. Sometimes, we just have to be understanding and gracious (albeit through clenched teeth) and keep our mouths shut. Sometimes, we have to be willing to forgive and remember that we can be (have been, will be) offensive at times, too.

So with balance in mind, here are a few tips on what you CAN say...

  • When talking to a friend or family member, I think the best rule of thumb is the old expression: *KISS.* Keep It Simple, Stupid! Simply asking, "How is your adoption going?" or, "How is your baby doing?" shows you care and allows the adoptive parent to tell you as much, or as little detail as they choose.
  • With whatever you ask, just remember- this child is already a son or daughter in the heart of the parent, even before they're brought home. Your sensitivity to that fact will go along way with your adopting friend or family member. Always consider the child to be completely *theirs,* just as you would a biological child. References to birth or biological parents are preferred over ones to "real parents." This is a common source of hurt for many parents. Adoptive parents are REAL. Just pinch one and see what happens! I bet you'll get a REAL reaction.
  • Always use terms that are inclusive, rather than exclusive. Separating a person's children into two groups when speaking about them (biological vs. adopted) is hurtful to both parent and child. Say, "My friend has 3 children," instead of, "My friend has one child of her own, and two adopted."
  • Nobody wants to be defined by a label. Choose words that put the person first, not the label. Understand? Example: "My friend's daughter was adopted from Vietnam," would be preferred over,"My friend has an adopted daughter from Vietnam." See the difference? It may seem like silly semantics, but it can make a big difference to someone who has to hear it all the time. The first way defines the situation or circumstances, but the second way defines, or labels, the child.
  • If in doubt about what to say, don't be afraid to come right out and ask, "How would you prefer I word this?" or admit "I have no idea how to ask about this." or "I'm not sure this is any of my business, but..." Your honesty will be appreciated and both of you will feel more at ease.
  • Also wise to follow, are two other old adages: Put yourself in their shoes and treat others as you would want to be treated. Think: What types of questions would you want (or not want) to answer about your child (or your finances, family relationships, or any other personal subjects)? Would the question you're about to ask make YOU or YOUR child feel uncomfortable, self-conscious, embarrassed, offended, etc... If so, don't ask! Put yourself in the place of the adoptive parent, AND the child. Even at very young ages, they are watching and listening, too.

Some of you are very open, gregarious people and will share anything with anyone, but we need to remember that not everyone is wired that way. We're all different, and what may seem fine to you can come across as horribly rude to someone else. Even the most sociable among us has a family situation that we would consider personal. Maybe too personal to talk about in casual conversation? Or in front of our children? A child's adoption details are often very personal, and many times very difficult for the child to even listen to, or think about, let alone talk about. This means that open discussion about birth parents, abandonment, orphanages, etc. is probably not something the adoptive parent is going to appreciate, especially in front of the child.

If you're approaching a stranger, and feel you absolutely must ask them questions, I'd really recommend being careful with your wording. Most of us adoptive parents are going to be friendly and fine with it, and understand that people are just curious. However, we all have our "off" days and times when we're just tired of having to explain our family to others... again!

  • If you must know where a child "is from," try using the word *born* instead of *from* (Think about it: If I ask you where you are from, you'd most likely tell me where you grew up. Most of our children have grown up here- wherever "here" may be... So their answers should logically be Norfolk, NYC, Milwaukee, etc.- not China, Taiwan, or India). Try: "Your daughter is beautiful. May I ask where she was born?" Better yet, phrasing such as "My friend's daughter was born in China. May I ask where your daughter was born?" lets the parent know why you are asking and they may be less likely to feel defensive.
  • Remember that anything you ask has probably been asked of them 200 times, already- so their patience level may be low. Try to be sensitive to that and not push for information. Be mindful of body language and other little clues that you may be crossing the line. This is just common sense, but it's amazing how many people don't seem to pick up on these cues.
  • If you realize a little too late that you're prying, used poor wording, or you've made someone uncomfortable, simply saying, "I'm sorry- I don't know how to phrase this... I hope I haven't offended you" will usually be welcomed, since it's more than we hear from most people, and will help put you back in our good graces.
The main thing to keep in mind, is this: *Some things are just NONE OF MY BUSINESS.* Say it with me, everybody: Some things are just none of my business... There.

A member of one of the Yahoo groups made an excellent point the other day regarding our sense of entitlement to personal information in our current media-driven culture. We live in a time where we seem to hear everyone's business all the time. I mean, when Britney Spears dents a fender, goes to Starbucks, doesn't wear her underwear, or all 3 at once, we hear about it within 10 minutes and have instant access to the pictures (please don't Google for pictures of Britney without her skivvies when you leave here). This gives us a false sense of entitlement to any and all information about others. We ask any question that pops into our heads, simply because we want to know (I'm guilty of this, too). Our sense of decency seems to have disappeared along with Britney's underpants. However, the public does not have the right to know everything about everybody. Period.

When it comes to our child's adoption details: If we want you to know, we will offer the information at a time and place we feel is appropriate. You really won't even have to ask.


Heather said...

Well stated and sooooo appreciated. Kudos to you.

Miles' Mama said...

Wow--awesome post, as usual! ;)

Thanks for the prayers for my mom. Things aren't completely resolved in terms of her health yet, but at least she is not in scary territory anymore. You can probably take her off the prayer list. Thanks so much!!!

foppa said...

This is a great post with awesome advice and insight. :) Love the post title, so perfect!

Jeanne said...

Well said!