Positive and Negative Adoption Language: Who is Making the Rules?

I came across this list on my Facebook feed today, and felt really compelled to write about it.  I will admit that I generally do not read adoptive parent blogs (with one exception being this one) and I also do not take part in adoptee support groups where I am instructed to use or not use specific words such as "birth parent".

In some circles, birth parent  is seen as negative and in others (like this list, for example), suddenly birth parent is positive.  Personally, I find the term birth parent as neutral; however, I will say that the adoption industry uses this term to separate a mother who relinquishes places her child, from a mother who adopts a child.   However, the term, birth parents has long been accepted as a way for adoptees to differentiate which mother they are speaking about at any given time.  I would not necessarily deem it positive, though, and it has always bothered me that there is a separate holiday for birth mothers (the Saturday before Mother's Day) from other mothers.

I have written about the term real parents before; however, depending on who you are speaking with and who they view as their "real" parent, this term could be viewed positively or negatively.  I would agree this terminology may be more on the negative side. If nothing else, "real" is confusing because you never know if somebody is speaking of a biological or adoptive parent. It also implies that the other parent(s) are unreal.

The word reunion is in no way negative in my opinion and "making contact with" just seems so sanitized.  When people are separated and they see each other again years later, reunion perfectly describes it.  Is the writer of this list attempting to minimize reunion?  That wouldn't surprise me.

The central theme I see going on in this list is somebody making the rules about adoption language (and they forgot to call and ask my opinion!).  Although I understand education is important and one of the main purposes of my own blog, categorizing words into positive and negative is probably not the best way to go about educating.  Why? Positive and negative are mostly based on opinion.  What I see as negative, you see as positive and vice versa (Example: "Adoption is a loss and a separation of mother and child" versus, "Adoption is all rainbows and unicorns and beautiful and wonderful!") -- you get my drift.

Adoption Triangle?  Today is the first time I have heard this term, I must admit. I have heard grumblings that adoption triad is no longer p.c., but I never really understood why.  Maybe it is outdated; I honestly don't know.  This writer states that the term triad implies equality in adoption; however states correctly, due to power imbalances, that equality is misleading.  She states:

"...the Father, Son and Holy Ghost are a triad.  Executive, Legislative and Judicial are a triad.  Peace, Love and Hope are a triad.  But there is NO TRIAD IN ADOPTION."

I guess my first thought when I saw this list at all, is that how in the world can one person deem certain words "negative" or "positive" without placing those words into context?  For example, the fact that my child is adopted is not negative at all. It is factual.  Further, she was adopted at a final adoption hearing.  There is no positive or negative to it.  What I suspect is going on with "is adopted" being deemed negative is that certain people in the adoption community do not want to acknowledge that adopted people are adopted for life.

There is one word that screams to me when I review this list and that word is:

  1. a mild or indirect word or expression substituted for one considered to be too harsh or blunt when referring to something unpleasant or embarrassing.

I truly believe the point of this list is to water down what actually happens in adoption and make it not only palatable to the general public, but to make it seem better than it actually is.  In addition, this list is acting as a form of "word police". 

I believe every word on this list is acceptable to speak or write if placed in proper context.  What I would like to see instead of a "positive/negative" list is one that looks like this:


* where are your real parents?
* where did your parents get you?
* Why do you not look like your parents?
* How do you feel about being adopted?
* How do your parents feel about your reunion?

A similar list could be made on what not to say to adoptive parents; however, as adults, they should be able to handle the general public's ignorance about adoption language.  Kids should not be put in awkward positions because of somebody else's curiosity.  

So, if you take anything positive away from this list, I hope it is this:  think before you speak, do not ask inappropriate, personal (is nosy too negative?) questions to adopted children or parents, and it's o.k. to use both positive and negative terms when speaking and writing, in appropriate context and places, of course.


  1. "Reunion" as a negative word? I'd have to know more about why she think this, but the site is down now. Seems innocuous and accurate to me.

    Also, "disclosure"?

    Your take on is/was adopted is interesting to me. I had the notion that "adopted" was more of a verb for what PARENTS did than an adjective for who the kids ARE, so I have avoided saying "he's adopted" in favor of "they adopted him." So knowing that you feel is it IS part of your identity and that it DOES go on for life, well, that may mean I need to reconsider.

    1. Thanks for sharing that, Lori. I think you are correct that "adopted" is also a verb meaning an action that parents took; however, one of the things I see a lot in my adoptee support groups is that many adoptees state that they "wake up every morning and are still adopted". Whether they view this as a good thing or a bad thing depends on the person; however, adoption is also seen as a thing that was "done to us" - not necessarily negative or positive (again, depending on the person's view) -- it just is.

    2. It's very helpful to have this insight. Thanks, Lynn.

  2. Thought-provoking post, Lynn. I don't usually read any blog posts first thing in the morning before I am fully awake, but "The Adoption List" really bothered me. I spent my entire childhood not talking about being adopted in fear I would have hurt or offended my mom. That is not a healthy parent-child relationship. I can't even remember the two times mom even mentioned that I had another mother what she would have called her. It certainly wouldn’t have come across as bad or negative to me had she called her either natural or birth mother. I just needed her to become a "real" person who gave birth to me and couldn't for some reason raise me as her child. In my opinion, those individuals making up the “proper words/rules” and throwing them out there like they are set in cement couldn’t have possibly walked in some of our shoes as adoptees, where everything was wrong and forbidden. I have often wondered how I am supposed to differentiate between them when I had four “absent” fathers and two mothers who were all not there for me. I assure my choice of words would never be out of disrespect for others, but that it is my truth.

    1. Joanne, you bring up some excellent points which made me think about this adoption language stuff when I was growing up. I don't think my mother mentioned my "other mother" even one time in conversation. She would usually answer any questions I had with, "I don't know" She was never disparaging about my birth mother, but it was just a subject that never came up. In fact, now that I think about it, this LIST was almost not necessary in the culture I grew up in. It must be something about how adoption culture has changed that necessitates people to make lists at all. I'm not sure exactly what that is.

      And that is an even better point, our choice or words (and the tone of voice) just needs to be made with respect to others. You can say anything, no matter how difficult, with kindness and without embarrassing someone for using the "wrong word".

  3. A lot of the "negative" terms seem calculated to make adoptive parents comfortable, not adoptees. Particularly "reunion" and "is adopted." I see Lori's point, above, and I think that's an excellent way to approach adoption as a non-adoptee -- that a child was adopted by her adoptive parents. That neutrally describes what happened, and leaves the choice of identity ("is adopted") or event ("was adopted") up to the adoptee. I think I default to "I'm adopted," personally, but far be it for me to insist that anyone else include it as an identifier.

    I'm going to defend reunion, though, as true and apparently uncomfortable for that adoptive mother. I hope she gets over it. Her kids know how she feels. We always do. For me, reunion hasn't always been a magical wonderland, but it IS a reunion. What we are doing now is finding our way back towards one another.


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