Otter Pass is launching a new series “How to Talk to Your Kid about My Kid.” Every parent has had that moment when your precious child says EXACTLY the wrong thing and hurts or embarrasses another kid. This series aims to help you avoid that through practical tips for thoughtful conversations in your home. This week, co-founders Jonathan and Jessica Goudeau give you some ideas for how to teach your non-adopted kids about adoption.
It happens every few months. Some kid on the playground watches us go tell our daughter that she has five more minutes to play and then turns to our kid: “Wait, THAT’S your dad? He doesn’t look like you!”
Those comments are hard on our daughter. She’s been home with us for a few years now, but she was old enough when she came home as a toddler from China to be aware of the many changes that were happening in her life. And even if she hadn’t been super aware of the adoption process, it’s not hard to tell: she’s Chinese and the rest of us are not. She wakes up every day aware on some level that she’s different.
It’s not to say that those differences bother her most of the time. In fact, it’s a pretty routine part of our life; we’re pretty comfortable talking about the fact that we always wanted a brown-eyed girl or that her eyes or her hair or her hearing aid are all things that make her very special. In our family, that difference is celebrated and normalized. That doesn’t mean we won’t have a lot of work ahead, but adoption is our bread and butter. We’re working through language that connects best with our family on a daily basis.
Comments from other kids can make it extra hard, though. We ONLY sympathize with those parents who catch their little ones staring at our family. There’s something precious and mildly horrifying about those honest preschool years when kids say whatever they’re thinking or noticing with absolute candor.
We recognize that so many fellow parents are doing everything they can to help us out, but it’s easier to stop a tank than a preschooler with a burning question.
With all of our daughters, we’ve learned you can’t make them stop asking about or pointing out differences. In fact, the more you try to do that, the worse it is—the louder they want to ask or the more insistent they become. And frankly, that can feel worse: one women tried to shush her daughter in the store checkout line asking about our daughter one time and it just got weirder and weirder for all of us.
Here are five proactive things that you can do to help your kids have positive language about adoption. These are all targeted for younger kids since they tend to be the ones who say whatever it is they’re thinking:
1) Talk about adoption as a normal way families come together. When you’re having conversations about how families are made, talk about adoption too. This can be age appropriate and as technical as you’d like. If your kids are old enough for the birds and the bees, they might be old enough to talk about foster care and adoption details. If not, try something simple: “Some families have babies that come home from the hospital, some families travel to go get babies in other countries, some families take care of babies for awhile so their birth families can take a little time. Some families look alike, others don’t, but love is what makes a family.”
2) Have these conversations at home or in the car but not in front of our kid. It can feel really uncomfortable for a child to become an object lesson. Make sure you’re teaching your child appropriate language about people and their differences, but have those conversations in private. Let them know they can ask you any questions they want to, but that when we talk about people in front of them, it can feel rude or uncomfortable. The difference is important: it’s not shameful to talk about our daughter being Chinese (she IS! and she’s beautiful!), but talking about her being different from our family can make her feel awkward, so let your kids know those perfectly appropriate questions are best asked in private so they don’t hurt anyone’s feelings.
3) Don’t make adopted kids out to be weird or sad. This happens all the time from really well-meaning people. A mom last year near us at a party pulled her child into her lap, introduced our daughter, and said: “Well, honey, look—this little girl was an orphan. Would you like to bring an orphan into our family some day?” We were horrified, particularly because our kid was there (see above—she’s not an object lesson). But I know other parents have had those conversations that make our daughter out to be Little Orphan Annie or some poor baby starving in an orphanage somewhere. All most children need to know is that, for a variety of reasons, she ended up in our family and we’re glad she’s here. Don’t treat her like she’s extra special or extra vulnerable or extra anything. She’s just our kid.
4) Make sure your at-home books feature adopted kids. You can have books about adoption—there are a lot of good ones! But make sure you’re looking for everything from board books to chapter books that sometimes include adopted kids. A diverse library helps prepare kids for a diverse world and you should make sure your kids see adopted families, among many other types of families, as normal parts of their life. If you don’t have a ton of books featuring adoption, grab some. In a pinch, keep an eye on Facebook and show pictures of friends who have formed their families through adoption and tell their stories.
5) Use positive language about adoption. We’re excited we adopted our daughter. We’re happy she’s home with us. We NEVER put down her birth parents. We don’t act like our daughter should be extra grateful, any more than our biological kids should be grateful we brought them into the world. Using positive, informative language in a natural way can be great to normalize adoption. For example, as you’re leaving the preschool pick up line: “Look, there’s Hudson. His hair is dark and his daddy’s hair is light! He’s adopted. Adoption is so cool!”
With just a little bit of preparation, you can help your kids prepare well for interactions thoughtfully. We knew one family had done a good job with this: their older daughter came up to us in a store once and said, “Your family looks like mine and your kids are so cute!” It turns out she was adopted too, but her kind tone and easiness with adoption made our interactions a joy. On behalf of so many adopted parents navigating the world with kids who are different, thanks for helping to make our kids’ play time just a little easier.