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Challenge: Open Discussion

Using Positive Adoption Language

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The words we choose to use can have more of an impact than we realize. Using a word in the wrong context, or a word that may have a different meaning to someone else can leave an impression of being less supportive or caring than we intend. Understanding the terms that you will encounter, or a loved one will encounter, will help build relationships. Using precise, positive adoption language instead of vague or negative adoption language can show support for those we care for, during one of their most emotional journeys. Continue reading for positive adoption terminology.


Instead of:

Birth/Biological Parents

Real/Natural Parents

Why: Saying “real parents” implies that the adoptive parents are somehow fake parents. Similarly, the term “natural” implies that the adoptive parents are somehow “unnatural” in a negative way. Whereas biological” describes the factual relationship of birth children and birth parents.

Placed for Adoption

Given Up

Why: “Given up” implies that the child is unimportant or was unwanted. It also discounts the amount of consideration that a birth mom put into her decision.



Why: Even when a child is placed for adoption, it does not mean they are not wanted. In fact, that’s usually as far from the truth as one can get. There are many circumstances surrounding unintended pregnancies and why a child would be placed for adoption.


Track Down

Why: The term “tracked down” indicates that the individuals being looked for are making themselves unavailable or are uncooperative. Using the term “search” implies ‘looking’ instead of ‘tracking.’

Born to Unmarried Parents


Why: Describing a child as illegitimate implies a negative judgment of the child him/herself. Stating that a child is born to unmarried parents describes the situation factually instead.

International/Intercountry Adoption

Foreign Adoption

Why: The word foreign can imply being ‘out of place’ so describing an international adoption or a child who was placed for adoption from an international location as ‘foreign” can imply that they don’t belong in their adoptive family.


Own Child; Natural Child

Why: Regardless of the way a child comes into anyone’s family, they are in fact their parents’ “own child.” Making a contrast between someone’s adopted child and their “own child” discounts the validity of their family unit. Furthermore, describing a biological child as “natural” implies that an adopted child is “unnatural” in some way.

Adopt the Child

Keep the Child

Why: Stating that you get to “keep the child” sounds like you are winning the child or purchasing the child. While there are costs associated with adoption, you are not purchasing a child.

I am interested in hearing about your adoption story if/when you are ready to share.

Why were they given up?

Why: If you must say this, make sure that you are saying it because of an important need to know the story, not just out of mere curiosity. You’re asking for private details about someone’s child. If it’s because you’re considering adoption or something similar, let the adoptive parents know so that they understand your motivation in asking something so personal.


Couldn’t you have your own children?

Why: While infertility may be a reason that a person pursues adoption, it is not appropriate to ask if someone adopted because they could not have a biological child. There are many reasons to adopt and someone else’s reason is really none of anyone’s concern.

Terminology can have an impact in our overall message and hold undertones that we may not intend. While it is important to use language that does not imply that an adoption is any more or less than a birth of a child, keep in mind that your genuine interest in this meaningful event in your family’s life is what matters. The most important thing is to speak with pure intent.

Nicole Witt is Executive Director of The Adoption Consultancy ( as well as a frequent speaker on adoption and infertility. The Adoption Consultancy is 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 3 to 12 months. Nicole has helped hundreds of people to realize their dream of becoming parents.

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