Should an adopted child be told
he is adopted? All the experienced people in this field agree that
the child should know. He’s sure to find out sooner or later
from someone or other, no matter how carefully the parents think
they are keeping the secret. It is practically always a very disturbing
experience for a child of any age, or even for an adult, to discover
suddenly that he is adopted. It may shatter his sense of security
Supposing a baby has been adopted during his first year, when should
he be told? The news shouldn’t be saved for any definite age.
The parents should, from the beginning, let the fact that he’s
adopted come openly, but casually, into their conversations with
each other, with the child, and with their acquaintances. This creates
an atmosphere in which the child can ask questions whenever he is
at a stage of development where the subject interests him. He finds
out what adoption means bit by bit, as he gains understanding.
Some adopting parents make the mistake of trying to keep the adoption
secret, others make the opposite mistake of stressing too much.
If parents are inwardly uneasy about the fact that the child is
adopted, and feel that, to be honest, they must always stress the
point, the child will begin to wonder, “What’s wrong
with being adopted, anyway?” But if they accept the adoption
as naturally as they accept the color of the child’s hair,
they won’t have to make a secret of it, or keep throwing it
in his face, either.
Let’s say that a child around 3 hears his mother explaining
to a new acquaintance that he is adopted, and asks, “What’s
adopted, Mommy?” She might answer, “A long time ago
I wanted to have a little baby boy very much to love and take care
of. So I went to a place where there were a lot of babies, and I
told the lady, ‘I want a little boy with brown hair and brown
eyes.’ So she brought me a baby and it was you. And I said,
‘Oh, this is just exactly the baby that I want. I want to
adopt him and take him home to keep forever.’ And that’s
how I adopted you.” This makes a good beginning, because it
emphasizes the positive side of the adoption, the fact that the
mother received just what she wanted. The story will delight him
and he’ll want to hear it many times.
But somewhere between the ages of 3 and 4, if he is like most children,
he will want to know where babies come from in the beginning. . . .
It is best to answer truthfully, but simply enough so that the 3-year-old
can understand easily. But when his adopted mother explains that
babies grow inside the mother’s abdomen, it will make him
wonder how this fits in with the story of picking him out from all
the other babies at the institution. Maybe then, or months later
he’ll ask, “Did I grow inside you?” Then the adopting
mother can explain, simply and casually, that he grew inside another
mother before he was adopted. This is apt to confuse him for a while
but he will get it clear later.
Eventually he will raise the more difficult question of why his
own mother gave him up. To tell him that his mother didn’t
want him would shake his confidence in all mothers. Any sort of
made-up reason may bother him later in some unexpected way. Perhaps
the best answer and nearest to the truth might be, “I don’t
know why she couldn’t take care of you, but I’m sure
she wanted to.” During the period when the child is digesting
this idea, he needs to be reminded, along with a hug, that he’s
always going to be yours now.
He must belong completely. The secret fear that the adopted child
may have is that his adopting parents will some day give him up
as his true parents did, if they should change their minds, or if
he were bad. Adopting parents should always remember this and vow
that they would never under any circumstances say or hint that the
idea has ever crossed their minds of giving him up. One threat uttered
in a thoughtless or angry moment might be enough to destroy the
child’s confidence in them forever. They should be ready to
let him know that he is theirs forever at any time the question
seems to enter his mind, for instance, when he is talking about
his adoption. I’d like to add, though, that it’s a mistake
for the adopting parents to worry so about the child’s security
that they overemphasize their talk of loving him. Basically, the
thing that gives the adopted child the greatest security is being
loved, wholeheartedly and naturally.