Telling your child they are adopted – when and how
By Michelle Aspeling
Coordinator: Pretoria Adoption Support Group, South Africa
Families are formed in many ways and adoption is a beautiful way to make a family. From the moment I received the referral of my son to the moment I laid eyes on him and looked into those little brown eyes, I knew he was my son.
After all the excitement and the joy that came with this blessed moment in my life, I had a great fear of how do I tell him I did not give birth to him? Although for everyone else it might be obvious, as I am vanilla and he is chocolate, my biggest fear was, how would he respond and would he still love me as mommy?
During our home study preparation we were informed and educated on all aspects that lay ahead of us, so I knew from the beginning that he had the right to know that although he did not come from my body, this was just a technicality, as he was my choice and my gift from God.
There is often hesitancy on the part of adoptive parents, especially in cases of same-race adoptions for a variety of reasons, not to tell their children they are adopted. During our home study preparation we were told that a child should never remember the moment they found out they were adopted; they should simply grow up knowing it. I thought this made a lot of sense, and wanted to share some of the choices we made about telling our son that he is adopted.
Tell your child at an early age
It doesn’t have to be a major undertaking, as it is often best to introduce the idea slowly and over time. This can avoid the risk of the child finding out by accident from a family member or friend. Some parents choose to wait until the child is in their teens before telling them child they are adopted, but adolescence is in itself a difficult time, so this may not be the best time.
In some ways, this can make the question of how to go about telling your child they are adopted somewhat easier, as small children tend to ask simpler questions than older children. My son was four when he came home from nursery school and proudly told me: “I came from your tummy!” and pointed to my tummy. (The teacher had explained to all the kids in the class where they came from and that they were born from their mommy’s tummies.) At that moment, my heart skipped a beat and I said, “Skattebol, families are made in all kinds of ways, and sometimes children don’t come from their mommy’s tummy, but I’m still your mommy.”
This satisfied him for the moment. I did not deceive my child, nor did I make a big deal about it either, as telling them they are adopted is an ongoing process. As your child is able to better understand things as they get older, you can explain more and more. Obviously, a one or two-year-old is not going to comprehend the complicated facts of adoption, but they can start becoming partially aware of their special identity.
It is important to explain a little at a time. Only answer the questions asked. This will allow your child to comprehend what you are telling them. Answer each question as they come up, so that they are not overwhelmed and confused. Children may only understand a small fraction of what has been explained, but, as they get older and are able to understand more detail, you will be able to build on an existing foundation.
Never place birth parents in a negative light
I used the following explanation: “You didn’t grow in mommy’s tummy. You have a birth mother (or tummy mummy) and you grew inside her. She loved you very much. She couldn’t take care of you. Now, you are my child and I am so lucky to be your mommy.”
It makes the child feel less rejected to know that they were loved deeply, but the biological parents just weren’t able to give them the kind of home they wanted the child to have. You just have to find that middle ground between “over glamorising” birth parents and talking negatively about them.
Adoption is not a shameful thing, it is simply the child’s “truth”. We decided to be open about adoption, to talk about it freely, but not obsessively, and have our son always know how he came into our family.
Tell their story
We do this by telling our son bedtime stories of how we prayed for him, how we travelled to pick him up from the orphanage, how he came to live with us, and the joy, anticipation and love we felt. As he gets older, we adapt the story according to his level of understanding. He is now starting to add his own bits and sometimes it is just wonderful how he is able to comprehend certain facts and explain to me what he understands.
Recently, he said: “I sat on the chair at the orphanage and was waiting for Mommy and Daddy to come and get me!” He asks questions which create a great dialogue between us. Other methods, such as reading a book about adoption, scrap booking and pictures, are ways parents can use to tell their children their story. Always stay positive!
Celebrate your differences
Our family is not defined by who received whose DNA, we are defined by relationship, as not one of us in our family shares the same genetics. It doesn’t matter how you are formed; what matters is the love you share and the memories you create. We celebrate his culture, heritage, food, art, and more. Our son is from Cambodia, so it is not always easy living in South Africa to participate in the various festivities, but we take him to the temple, cook Cambodian cuisine and try to incorporate Cambodian traditions in our home.
Adoptive parents should not fear saying the “wrong thing”; there is no correct language or method to use when telling a child they are adopted. You know your child best, so approach the discussion in the way you feel is most appropriate.
- Transracial adoption: Thoughts of a South African Adoptive Mom (aurettebowes.wordpress.com)