In Ethiopia, enat means “mother.” And Lisa Scott and Toby Balch of Dartmouth, NS, wanted their daughter, whom they adopted from Ethiopia, to know that Enat, who gave birth to her, loved her very much.
“The adoption conversations really started when she was about three and she started noticing pregnant women,” Scott recalls. “She was interested in how babies are born, so we had to talk about it.”
Preschool is the perfect time
A birds-and-bees chat with a preschooler is potentially full of flaps and bumbles at the best of times, but for parents who’ve adopted, a question like “Where do babies come from?” can lead to a much bigger conversation. And although it might send your parental stress-o-meter through the roof, this is actually a great time to start talking about adoption.
According to psychologist Kiran Pure, “it’s respectful to the child to tell them where they came from, so it doesn’t create surprises later on. If a child starts asking questions at age seven and did not know anything about being adopted, it can cause a lot more anxiety.”
Go for simple facts
Pure describes three- to five-year-olds as literal and concrete in their thinking, so skip the roundabout explanations and go for simple facts. As their ability to speak and understand develops, they may start asking more questions. By age four, they could be keeping you on your toes with a whole slew of who-what-when-where-and-whys. Although they are developing some insight, they still don’t think logically, and they are very much the centre of their own world.
Scott connected her daughter’s natural curiosity about pregnant bellies to the general idea of being born and being adopted, and then focused on specific information that her daughter could relate to her daily life. “We told her, ‘Enat carried you in her belly and Enat loved you. She wanted you to have everything you needed to grow big and strong, good food and a place to play, but Enat knew she couldn’t give you that. So she asked for help, and we went to Ethiopia to get you, to help Enat,” Scott recalls.
Avoid the nitty-gritty details
What kids don’t need at this point are the nitty-gritty details that could cause them to experience emotions they aren’t ready to handle. Complex and painful factors, such as poverty, international circumstances or fertility struggles, are far beyond the grasp of young children. Stick to the basic facts that satisfy your child’s curiosity and help him feel secure, and hold off on the more complicated stuff until the child is older, Pure advises.
Keep it simple
Keep your own feelings in check too, and be comfortable telling a simple, loving version of your child’s adoption story. Scott was careful not to talk about it in an overwhelming way. “The overall messages were of love and support. We’re open and honest, but I don’t get overly emotional about the story,” she says.
Enjoy the process
It also helps to think of the adoption talk as an ongoing process or a long-term family conversation that will be built on gradually over the years, rather than a blurt-it-all-out explanation.
“We don’t sit around and talk about it every day; it just flows in and out of our dialogue,” Scott notes. “Right now she knows about Ethiopia and Enat and her birth — and the story will grow and expand as she gets older and has more questions.”