Special needs

10 things NOT to say to an adoptive parent

Even the most well-intentioned comments sometimes make adoptive parents face-palm.

10 things NOT to say to an adoptive parent

Photo: iStockPhoto

I’ve had two pregnancies, and both times I was shocked when strangers gave themselves permission to touch my belly. But that was nothing compared to the boundaries people crossed after I expanded my family through adoption. So many unsolicited questions and comments have floored me—and my kids, who were all too often in earshot. And in talking with other adoptive parents, I've found we're not alone. So to help folks avoid sounding like Anne of Green Gable’s wretched neighbour Rachel, who famously warned Anne’s new mom, Marilla, that orphans sometimes poison wells, I've crowdsourced  the top ten things not to say to adoptive parents:

“Couldn’t you have real kids?” What? As opposed to robot kids (who really should have been programed to clean up)? To insinuate that adopted children are any less “real” than non-adopted kids is incredibly insulting to the parents who’re wiping their bums, baking their birthday cakes, and braiding their hair.

“You’re lucky you didn’t have to go through labour/ breastfeeding/ stretch marks/ night feeds” (or anything else pregnancy- or newborn-related). For some parents, adoption was a choice made after years of fertility struggles. Telling them they’re lucky to have skipped longed-for experiences negates the grief they went through on their journey to parenthood.

“What’s wrong with him? Why was he put into care? Didn’t his mother want him?” often quickly followed by, “Or is his mother dead?” Even if we overlook the bluntness of these questions, let’s stop and think about the details they’re intended to elicit. Do I really need to explain this? My kid's life story is not for your Jerry Springer-esque consumption.

Adoptive parents typically only share sensitive information on a need-to-know basis, say with educators, medical professionals or a very close family member or friend. And even if you are a very close family member or friend, we still might meet such questions with a polite-but-firm “That’s his story to tell.” Our kids deserve the right to choose for themselves when and with whom they entrust the most personal details about their lives.

“Can the birth parents still come and take her back?” Hopefully this one is never asked in front of the child, or you can rest assured there will be a lot of emotions to untangle, once you’ve wrapped up this chat and set off on your merry way. So let’s leave it at this—if the unthinkable happens, Liam Neeson will be called and he’ll sort it out.

“How much did you pay for him?” That makes it sound as though we casually tossed our kids into a cart, along with a family-sized pack of Cheetos and a six-pack of paper towels. How much did we pay? Let us tally up the braces, school clothes, college funds, and get back to you on that.

“You’re too easy on them… they’ll end up spoiled.” Adopted children often have special needs or attachment issues that you may not be aware of, and the therapeutic parenting required to raise them can be daunting, difficult and—to the casual observer—sometimes counterintuitive. In order for these children to bond with their new parents and to have their needs met after loss, trauma or neglect, vastly different parenting principals apply. Butt out!


“You’re a saint!” or (said with a shake of the head), “I just don’t know how you do it.” We know this may be intended as flattery, but it basically infers adopted children are so dreadful only the most noble among us could bear to parent them—the sort of people who minister to wounded people in war zones. I admit, my home sometimes feels like one, but my family was not built on superhuman sacrifice, like yours it was built on love, having fun together and nurturing our bonds.

“Where is her real mother/ father?” Standing right in front of you! As someone who has both biological and adoptive kids I quickly learned that bringing forth a baby from my loins was not the mark of motherhood—cleaning vomit off walls and then washing it out of the hair of my flu-riddled son prior to making school lunches—now that kind of dedication a mother makes. The term birth parent or biological parent is more appropriate, when speaking of an adopted child’s family of origin. But before you rephrase this question, please ask yourself if you really need to know the answer anyway.

“Your child is so lucky!” or, “You’re so lucky!” if directed at said child, which is surprisingly often the case. Whether a child was apprehended by the Children’s Aid Society, brought home from an orphanage, or lovingly placed in the arms of adoptive parents by the birth mother herself, for adoption to occur, first there always has to be loss—the most primal kind of loss there is for a child. Never underestimate the grief and mixed emotions that may be entwined with adoption for a child who has experienced it, no matter how awesome their new family and home may be.

“If they’re bad, at least you can send them back.” Where do I start? No parent goes into adoption with the notion that their kids can be tried out then returned like defective toys. We don’t do this to biological kids, so why would we do it to adopted kids? Many adoptive kids will at times exhibit challenging behaviours, rooted in trauma or special needs, but we’re committed to doing our best for them, and we’re in it for the long haul. This comment—even in jest—insinuates the adopted child isn’t a valued member of our family.

So what is it OK to say? If you’re interested in adopting, tell us that: Most of us are pretty open with people who genuinely want to know what adoptive parenting is like.


And we’d often appreciate the chance to talk about how things are going, if we feel that your questions are coming from a place of caring. Why not ask “How are you managing special-needs parenting?” if that’s applicable. Or, “Is there anything I can do to support you right now?”

Rather than refer to our kids as “your adopted kids” or differentiate in any way between them and the kids we gave birth to, just call them all “your kids”—and then set up a play date already!


This article was originally published on Jun 24, 2020

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