A Few Words on Words in Adoption

  • Currently 5/5 Stars.
You may use the stars on the left to rate and leave feedback for the current article. No registration is required. Waiting for 5 votes 5.0 of 5 stars (1 votes) — Thanks for your vote

Please fill out the following optional information before submitting your rating:

How we hear the words

In adoption, as in life, it is not always what we say, but how we say it that matters. This is, in part, because words in and of themselves, are only tools. Tone, body language and, most importantly the context we use, often reflect our underlying meaning. It is also important to note that personal experience and understanding also affect how words are heard. Therefore, any discussion on adoption language has to take into account both how the words are used and how others interpret them.

Look in any dictionary and you will find at least two definitions for many words. Add to this the emotions, past experiences, and associations that one individual has with a particular word, and it is often hard to discern what a person's definition of the word is. Too often we assume that our definition of a word is the same as everyone else's.

I am married to a man from Germany. When we met, the only German word I knew was Gesundheit (which, by the way, translates to "good health" not "God Bless You" as I originally thought). My husband-to-be, on the other hand, had the English vocabulary of a two-year-old. Consequently, we spent hours and hours finding the words to describe our lives and express our feelings. We would often take as long as 15 minutes to describe what a certain word meant to us. We became so proficient at communicating this way that, when he told me he loved me and I answered in kind, we spent a good hour or so discussing what the meaning of the "love" was to us. Which brings me to another point. Our definition of the word "love" 16 years ago, when we first uttered those words, is vastly different than the definition of "love" we share today. Years have deepened its meaning. So, too, as we learn and grow into our adoption experiences does the meaning of many of the words we use change.


Just as there has been an evolution in adoption practice, so too has the language of adoption evolved. Take, for instance, the word "illegitimate." It is a word rarely used in adoption today, but as the following excerpt from The Willows, a commercial maternity home in Kansas City, MO, illustrates it was used freely in 1926.

"Here again you may have some scruples about illegitimacy because certain facts are unknown to you. To begin with, here in our home, we have only illegitimate children for adoption, the offspring of young women of good families who thru lack of proper supervision or misplaced confidence, have erred against society."


"And remember since high grade married people are not giving up their children for adoption, your baby will be of illegitimate birth."

The Willows Magazine, 1926.

Where modern language came from

Let's take a look at more recent developments. In 1979, Marrietta Spencer, a Minneapolis social worker, wrote an article entitled "The Terminology of Adoption" for the Child Welfare League of America. It laid the groundwork for her work on "Constructive Adoption Terminology" that would later evolve into Pat Johnston's work on Positive Adoption Language (PAL) and Speaking Positively: Using Respectful Adoptive Language (RAL). All of these works were developed to help adopted people, birthparents, adoptive parents, and adoption professionals find the right words to convey the reality of their adoption experience.

Finding simple terms that apply to everyone's experience is obviously a challenge, and I would say an impossibility. In the first place, not everyone has the same experience with adoption and, as mentioned previously, words often hold different meanings based on an individual's experience with them. Another difficulty is that terms that elevate one person's experience often diminish someone else's. Speaking thoughtfully is not only about relating our own experience accurately, but taking others' experiences into account as well.

Another factor to take into consideration is that some words, even if used with the best intentions, have an effect on how people view themselves, others, and their actions. A primary example of this is the use of the word "birthmother" to describe a pregnant woman considering adoption for her baby. Using the term "birthmother" in this way is inappropriate since, in adoption circles, a birthmother is someone who has relinquished her rights to parent her child. Until she signs a consent to adoption she is still the child's legal parent/mother. Many birthmothers have stated that being given the title "birthmother" before their decision was final acted as a form of subtle coercion in that they began to see themselves as birthmothers prior to making a final decision, and not the mothers or parents of their children. Additionally, prospective adoptive parents who are "matched" with these expectant mothers, also often have a harder time accepting the mother's decision to parent her child when they already believe her to be a birthmother. In fact there are a number of pre-adoptive parents who refer to a pregnant mother as the birthmother of their child, or simply "our birthmother."

Other words are simply loaded. Take, for instance, the use of the word "family." In adoption language it is a word that is often preceded by another word... adoptive family, birth family, and foster family immediately come to mind. For those who are in these families, these descriptions of their family can seem diminishing. They see themselves as family, pure and simple. For years, adoptive families have battled the ignorant assumptions of the general public that question the validity of their family. Consider the following scenarios: A casual acquaintance at a birthday party asks an adoptive father if he knows who his child's "real father" is. The sister of an adoptive mother of two little girls asks if her daughter can have the pearl pin she inherited from their mother since the adoptive mother "doesn't have anybody" to pass it down to. An elderly aunt says to a beaming couple holding their new baby, "Now that you've adopted you'll probably get pregnant with one of your own." All of these comments imply that becoming a family through adoption is "less than" becoming a family by giving birth.

It's about family

Part of the problem is that many hold dear in their hearts a "Leave it to Beaver" image of what family is. The general public, while enamored of the nuclear family, need only look at their own families to see that the definition of family is changing. One child's familial connections may include parents, step-parents, grandparents, god-parents, foster parents, aunts and uncles, step-brothers and sisters, and in the case of adoption, birth family.

It is important in adoption to define exactly what an "adoptive family" is. For years, adoptive parents were told that they should "take the baby home and act as if he/she were born to you." The theory was, that by severing all ties with the birth family, adoptive parents would be able to create a family "all their own." Babies were seen as "clean slates" and genetic influences were considered minimal at best. The only importance birthparents held during those years were if the adopted child started acting out as a teen-ager. The adopted child then turned from "one of their own" into "a bad seed."

Legally, the language was, and continues to be, language that insulates the adopted person and his or her adoptive parents from the adopted person's birth family. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the sealed records laws that most states still hold near and dear to their hearts.

Pat Johnston, in her article "Speaking Positively: Using Respectful Adoption Language," states: "The reality is that adoption is a method of joining a family, just as in birth." While she goes on to say that "the impact of adoption must be acknowledged," nowhere does she discuss the connections in adoption. The fact is that a child comes into their adoptive family bringing a whole set of family members to whom they are connected by birth. This is true whether or not the child's birth family is known or unknown. The child will always carry these connections in their cells, in their shape of their jaw, the way they laugh, in their temperament and talents. It is, therefore, important to use language that honors all the connections in an adopted person's life.

Inclusive adoption language acknowledges that, unlike birth, building a family by adoption extends the family beyond the child him/herself. In both international and domestic transracial adoption for example, the whole family becomes a transracial family. Or, in the words of Beth Hall and Gail Steinberg, the authors of "Inside Transracial Adoption," "When a family adopts members of different races, each person receives the opportunity to understand and experience life from a new point of view never before imagined. The family as a whole has the chance to move forward to develop its own new form." I would say that this philosophy of transracial adoption is a good starting point for those in all types of adoption to embrace. Adoption should expand our view of family, not restrict it to what we were taught a family to be. In that way everyone who is a part of the one adopted is embraced and everything that it is a part of the one adopted, whether it be culture or country, talent or temperament, is honored and incorporated.

How we use words

Unlike most articles on adoption language this one will not end with a little chart that diagrams old and new adoption language. Instead, I will offer you a few questions to hopefully help you think about the meaning of the words used to describe adoption.

Do you or others use the word with a silent, but intended, "only" in front of it? (As in "She is (only) his birthmother." Or "They are (only) his adoptive family.")
Does your language honor the connections that exist? (For example, calling an expectant mother, or an adoptive mother, "mom.") Or do you use qualifying language inappropriately to diminish those connections? (As in "She's not one of their own, she's adopted.")
Does your language reflect the reality of the situation, both legally and practically? For example, Pat Johnston, using RAL, refers to the term "reunion" this way: "While children adopted at an older age may indeed experience a reunion, most adoptees join their families as infants, and as such they have no common store of memories or experience such as are traditionally shared in a reunion." Personally I find this description diminishing of the connections between an adopted person and his or her birth family. We often go to "family reunions" where the connections between people are based on extended family ties and not on a previous extended relationship.
Have you asked others involved how they would like to be addressed or referred to? Many adopted persons I know prefer that term (adopted person) to "adoptee." According to Dr. G. William Troxler, "The term 'adoptee' is a linguistic diminutive intended to keep adopted people servile. That is to say an adoptee is in a position of subservience just as an employee is to an employer or as a lessee is to a lessor." Others see no problem with referring to themselves as adoptees.
Do you continue to use language that others find offensive?
Adoption language that is honorable, respectful, and thoughtful honors all the connections inherent in adoption, whether those connections exist through law, blood, or love.

~ Brenda Romanchik
Visitor Comments (0) - Be the first to comment
Adding your comments contributes to the adoption community. Please keep all comments on topic and civil. Visitors are invited to comment and vote for or flag comments based on appropriateness and helpfulness. All comments must adhere to our commenting rules and are subject to moderation.

To see local Adoption resources, please select a location (U.S. only):

Need a Home Study?
Adoption Photolisting
Miguel (TX / 17 / M)
Miguel enjoys playing video games, basketball, and most of all skateboarding. He is a bright youth who requires patience as he sometimes needs direction to comply with... [more]
Parent Profiles
We are Julie and Dan. We've been married for 10 years and have always dreamed of being parents. We look forward to helping a child grow in a nurturing and loving home. We are... [more]
Directory of Adoption Professionals
Find a professional
for all of your adoption needs including:

Note: Our authors are dedicated to honest, engaged, informed, intelligent, and open conversation about adoption. The opinions expressed here may not reflect the views of Adoption.com.

Settings Help Feedback
Template Settings
Width: 1024     1280
Choose a Location:
Choose a Theme: