“Telling” has been
a chronic dilemma in the history of adoption because it highlights
the problem of making adoptive kinship real while also acknowledging
its distinctiveness. During the twentieth century, adoption professionals
maintained a firm consensus that children placed in infancy should
be told of their adopted status early in life. Adoptive parents
did not always agree, and anecdotal evidence suggests that many
children were told in adolescence, on the eve of marriage, or even
later in life. Young draftees during the two world wars, for example,
were sometimes surprised to discover they had been adopted. In the
era before most states passed laws mandating confidentiality
and sealed records, the birth certificates needed for military
induction introduced many soldiers and sailors to the fact that
the people who had raised them were not the same as the people who
had conceived them.
In the era of matching, before many
special needs, transracial,
and international adoptions
made the fact of adoption visible, many adoptees were never told
at all. Resistance to telling was a problem that symbolized adopters’
understandable but illogical insecurity, according to social
workers, who suspected that difficulties with telling were linked
to unresolved infertility. By midcentury,
anxiety about telling was a big enough problem that many agencies
required adopters to pledge, in writing, that they would tell. How-to-tell
conversations became routine parts of the adoption process. Telling
became a central ritual of adoptive family life.
Why were adoptees supposed to be told? The reason had less to do
with honesty than it did with emotional inoculation against stigma.
Parents would be wise to tell children about their adoptions with
kindness and love before they learned the truth from unfeeling relatives,
nosy neighbors, or cruel classmates. Behind telling was the hope
that convincing children early on of their selected status would
protect them from the painful realization that many people considered
Telling emerged as the central purpose of a growing children’s
literature, including classic books like The
Chosen Baby (1939) and The Family That Grew (1951).
These books, sometimes accompanied by detailed instructions about
when, how, who, and what to tell, literally made adoption go down
as easily as a bedtime story, a tradition that continues to this
day. No single formula existed for the timing or content of telling,
but advice literature certainly gave the impression that there were
right and wrong ways to talk and feel about adoption. “If
you yourselves have fully accepted your child’s adoption,”
one writer noted in 1955, “you will be able to make him accept
it, fully and happily.” Parents who told successfully would
be rewarded by children who were at peace with their adoptive status.
Parents who did not were asking for trouble.
Until fairly recently, the preferred telling method stressed the
“chosen child.” Parents were instructed to use the words
“chosen” and “adopted” early, often, and
always in a happy and relaxed tone of voice. Even with infants too
young to understand, repeating phrases like “my precious adopted
daughter” and “my dear little adopted son” promised
to boost children’s self-esteem and prepare them for the inevitable
encounter with negative ideas about adoption. Terminology was tricky.
Calling natal parents “real” or “natural,”
for instance, posed problems for parents hoping to communicate that
being adopted was dignified and special. The debate about better
and worse adoption terms is still ongoing.
Questions about birth parents, as
well as the fact of adoption itself, were always at stake in telling.
Because adoption was synonymous with upward mobility, adoptees’
natal backgrounds frequently included “feeble-mindedness,”
poverty, alcoholism, mental illness, criminality, sexual immorality,
and other sordid characteristics. What exactly should children be
told about these? Here too, advice literature stressed the importance
of talking casually about children’s birth
parents. Parents were assured that curiosity about the people
who had given them life was inevitable among adoptees, especially
at the point when they were old enough to understand sex.
In many cases, answering children’s questions involved highly
selective communication, if not outright lies. Even though many
Americans regarded illegitimacy with
moral disapproval and adoption as a eugenic
risk, adopters were supposed to maintain that birth
parents (particularly mothers) were good individuals who had
made selfless decisions for their children. Surrender was an act
of love, not abandonment. Adoption was a wonderful choice, not a
All the effort and emotion that surrounded telling proved that
adoptees were different than non-adopted children. But the paradoxical
goal of telling was to make adoptees feel that they were the same,
just as real as the real thing.