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Adoption Language Dictionary: How to not be hurtful when speaking about adoption

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Those involved in adoption hear all kinds of crazy questions and offensive language when people ask them about the process. The “traditional” process of family building through getting pregnant and raising that child is how most people construct their image of families. When presented with a family that was created in a different way, people often unknowingly use harmful or hurtful language.

But words matter! Over the past couple of decades, the language used to discuss adoption has changed significantly. This is in part due to changes in the process as well as due to the realization that the words we choose can hurt people. Those involved in adoption often have some degree of patience answering questions due to the well-meaning intention behind the questions or because they want to take the opportunity to educate others. However, some things will offend without intending to.

Read on to get a dictionary of things that you should start saying and things you should totally avoid when speaking about adoption.

The Approved Adoption Language Dictionary

  • Say “placed for adoption.” Saying that a woman ”put up”, “gave up”, or “gave away” her child for adoption is very outdated terminology that degrades everyone in the process, especially the child. For legal reasons, the birth mother is often reimbursed for the costs of having a child, and the adoptive parents do pay professionals to help them through the adoption process. But using any of the old terms makes the child seem like a product up for auction. Furthermore, this language implies that the birth mom did not want to parent her baby. Often, nothing is further from the truth. Usually she wanted more than anything to be able to provide for her baby but she knew that she just wasn’t in a position to do that. If you want to learn about the process, asking about how the child was “placed for adoption” is much kinder and expresses curiosity instead of degradation.

  • If you need to distinguish, use “birth parent” and “adoptive parent.” When there’s no need to distinguish between the two, it’s appropriate to just refer to the adoptive parents as “parents.” However, if you are asking questions about the birth parents, these are the terms you should use. Never use adjectives like “real” or “own” or “natural”. Also, there’s rarely a need to distinguish the child as an “adopted child”. He or she is simply their child.

  • Use terminology like “planning” and “deciding” when asking expectant mothers questions about their child’s potential placement. Women who are in the process of deciding whether or not to place their child for adoption often hear very polarizing language. Here are some things to remember.

    • The child is not illegitimate. He or she is born to unmarried parents. Likewise, the child is not an unwanted or problem pregnancy. Rather an unintended pregnancy.

    • A woman is not deciding to give away or give up. She is making an adoption plan or choosing adoption.

    • A woman is not deciding whether or not to keep the baby. She is deciding if she is going to parent the baby.

    • A woman is not putting her child up for adoption. She is placing the child for adoption or in the process of finding a family to parent her child.

Language and Questions to Avoid

  • Never say the word “real”. Often, adoptive mothers are asked about the “real” mother of their child. These can be innocent questions because people don’t know how to express their curiosity, but it is important to realize the implication of the word “real.” It implies that the adoptive mother is in some way “unreal” or “imaginary.” When used to ask about the birth mother, it makes the adoptive mom feel slighted. After all, through the adoption process, she has become the legal mother of the child. Implying the birth mother is the only “real” mom can be incredibly hurtful. Likewise, birth mothers often experience guilt when they are quantified as the “real” mother when they are not raising the child. With open adoptions today, birth mothers are often involved with the adoptive family to some extent. Adoption can create a beautiful and intertwined parental love that should not be reduced by the word “real.”

  • Do not use words like “give up” or “put up”. The wording assumes the birth mother “got rid of” the baby because she did not want him or her. Likewise, never ask a birth mom why she did not “want” her baby or ask an adoptive parent why the birth mom did not “want” the baby. This is a very personal question and makes what is most likely an incorrect assumption. Not only is this insulting, but it overlooks the complicated factors that go into every adoption decision. Almost every birth mom “wanted” her baby and would have loved to be able to parent, but for a multitude of reasons chose adoption as the best option for her child.

  • Avoid asking what happens if the birth mother decides she wants the baby back. This question is harmful to both the adoptive parents and the birth parents. The adoption process is set up in such a way that there are many stages of decision making and extensive legal measures. An expectant mother carefully chooses an adoptive family and signs parental rights over to them. After signing the paperwork, there is sometimes a short window of time for a birth mother to change her mind, sometimes there is not. But by the time she gets to the paperwork, the expectant mother has carefully weighed her options. Of course there are horror stories in the news with custody battles, but they are quite rare. Asking this question creates unneeded fear in the adoptive parents’ minds. Even worse, if the child is old enough to understand the question (but not necessarily the legal realities of adoption), it can create huge anxiety for them in wondering if their family is truly permanent.

  • Do not ask any questions about how much the baby cost or how much money the birth mother received. The adoption process does not consist of adoptive parents going to the baby store and picking out a baby. There is no price tag. No matter how you grow your family, having a baby is expensive. Think of the doctors appointments and hospital bills that come with pregnancy. Adoptive parents just pay for the “having a baby” costs in a different way and with different timing versus the costs of giving birth. Birth mothers don’t get a check made out to them for the purchase of their child. He or she is not an object. In some situations, pregnancy-related medical bills and/or living expenses are subsidized, but that’s only so that it doesn’t cost the birth mom anything to place the child for adoption.

  • Never tell adoptive parents that they will probably get pregnant after their adoption. Many people assume families adopt because they can’t get pregnant, but that is not always the case. And even if it was because they could not conceive traditionally, this comment is insensitive because they’ve already been through the rigors of trying to conceive. The adoptive parents have likely researched and agonized over all of their options before coming to this decision. In a not-so-subtle way, this statement implies that adoption is second best and that they should be happy because they still might achieve their original and “better” goal. Plus, it’s just flat-out incorrect. Statistically, those who have adopted are no more likely to get pregnant than those who have not. It’s just one big myth.

Remember, your words matter. With a little thought and effort, you can show support and sincere curiosity without unintentionally offending anyone who has been part of an adoption.


Nicole Witt is the owner of The Adoption Consultancy, an unbiased resource serving pre-adoptive families by providing them with the education, information and guidance they need to safely adopt a newborn, usually within three to 12 months. Nicole has assisted more than 500 singles and couples adopt and she is part of numerous infertility groups to offer support/guidance.

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