There is a word that comes up quite frequently when I discuss my status as an adopted child with others that I am very careful to correct. That word is “real.”
It is a common misnomer for the biological or, as we refer to them in our family the “natural” parents of adopted children. The word “real” is this manner is used most often by people who have little or no experience with adoption. Although the mistake is an innocent one, and I am never insulted by the word “real,” my attention to correcting the mistake is fairly strict, and I think that it is important. Language frames concepts, and it is important for adopted children to always know that their place in their adopted family is what is “real.”
The conversation is a fairly standard one, and usually follows along the same lines. I will be engaged in a discussion with someone that, for one reason or another, will lead to the fact that I am an adopted child, and the question will arise. “Do you know your real parents?”
I always feel a little badly when I respond to that question, because the person I am speaking to will usually feel a little embarrassed by the gaffe once I do, and my intention is not to make someone feel badly about a very common and very innocent mistake. However, as I stated earlier, I feel that it is important for adopted children and their adoptive parents that it be understood that what they constitute is a “real” family. And, so, I invariably answer each and every time, “Well, my ‘real’ parents are the people who raised me, but as to my natural parents…”
This brings up another way in which the language used to discuss adopted children can frame the concepts people have about them and their status in their family. As I mentioned earlier, in our family we refer to the people biologically responsible for my birth as my “natural parents.” Some people refer to them as “birth parents,” which I also think is a nice term. The technical term that is used most often, however, is “biological parents.”
There is nothing technically wrong with the word “biological” as a word to refer to the people who brought adopted children into the world, however I avoid it whenever possible. The word “biological” is a scientific term and does nothing to describe relationship. Whether or not the adopted children, or their parents, have or desire any relationship with the birth parents is irrelevant to my avoidance of the term. Adopted children should always be viewed as the product of a relationship, not of simple biological function. It is unimportant what the nature of the relationship between the birth parents was. Using a term like “biological parents” puts a clinical slant on what is really a very joyful occurrence- the event that brought the adopted children into the world so that they could find their way into the family that loves them so much.
A third way that language can be used to frame for others the context of your relationship to and with your adopted children is by your manner of references to the words “adoption” and “adopted.” Essentially, there is too much and there is too little when it comes to discussing your adopted children with others.
For example, introducing the word “adopted” unnecessarily into conversations points out a certain “otherness” of your family that you neither intended nor meant. There is no reason to say to someone, “this is my adopted son, Johnny.” While this may sound like obvious advice, it comes up on occasion, and usually at unexpected times. Even in the cases of families with adopted children who are physically dissimilar to other members of the family, the emphasis should never be placed on the status of the children as adopted. They are children, pure and simple.
However, the reverse is also true in certain circumstances. Sometimes it is pertinent to a discussion to point out that your children are adopted. Other times, and remarkably frequently, others will come right out and ask whether or not a child is adopted. In these circumstances, even when the inquiry is impolite, the best thing that parents can do is to simply provide the information naturally and easily. This provides a frame for the adopted children, and for others, that the truth of their status as adopted is not unduly significant in your family.
Adoption is a very normal way of building a family. The language that you choose to describe it can go a long way toward depicting this to others.