Kitte Turmell, “How We Told Our Adopted Children,” 1950

We have had the good fortune—my husband and I—to adopt two children, each in infancy, 3 years apart. We have been able to tell our son and daughter—successfully we think—without strain or self-consciousness—that we adopted them. Our son, the first adopted, very soon heard the word “adopted” in improvised lullabies; when he was 2 he was proud to translate its meaning as “you picked me out”; at 3 he joyfully went with us to the nursery on the day when we were at last to take home his newly acquired sister.

How did we know what to say and when to say it? By asking advice of the social agency that found our son for us, as many other parents of adopted children have done. Ours was the Children’s Home Society of California, a State-licensed private organization. A staff member of the agency suggested something like this:

The story of adoption should start as soon as possible. A baby can be helped to feel that “being adopted” is something that makes him loved, even before he is old enough to learn that being adopted is being “chosen.” The story of his adoption should unfold as his understanding unfolds. When the story unfolds gradually, and is pleasantly told, he will think of it as natural and pleasing. He will look at it just as the parents do who have gone through the experience of choosing a child who is to be theirs for life.

The story starts with the way you say “adopted.” If the word is used often, affectionately, easily, with an endearing phrase or a song or a nursery rhyme, and emphasized with a hug or kiss, it will carry warm overtones. It should never be heard first as a playmate’s taunt or an adult’s whisper.

As soon as a toddler asks, “What’s ‘dopted, mommy?” he is ready for an explanation of “chosen” or “picked out.” This can be made personal, as a compliment to the child’s desirability, with the phrase, “We chose—or picked—or wanted—you.”

The age at which a child is old enough to be told more about it varies with different children, the worker told us; it is usually between 3 and 4, and certainly before school age. Whenever he does ask, or is ready to be encouraged to ask, tell him simply as much of the story as he can then follow. If you repeat it, and amplify it a little as his interest grows with his capacity to understand, he can enjoy this true story as much as he does a favorite fairy tale. . .

When the child knows how babies are born the inevitable question will come: “Who was the mother who did carry me in her tummy and why didn’t she keep me?” This is the signal for the explanation, the worker said, that a mother and father entrust a child to another mother and father only because they believe that in this way they can assure a better life for the child than they could give him. . .

Give as vivid a word picture as you can about his natural parents. Often curiosity is easily satisfied with a pleasing description. Tell what the child seems to relish, but do not build up such a fascinating picture that the child will feel robbed when he compares, in his imagination, his natural parents with his adoptive parents. He should not be given the feeling that he has been deprived of a more interesting life or a more colorful heritage than you, his parents, can offer him.

Do not let your child feel isolated by his adoption. Talk with him about other adopted people he knows or that he can be introduced to in normal social contacts. If his national background is different than yours to a marked degree, see to it that he is helped to like and respect “his own kind.” He may learn about this background at school, or through his reading, or through other association with the culture of his forebears. Perhaps he will find out more about it through travel. . .

Long ago my husband and I learned that we also could ward off impertinent questions (and you’ll be surprised to know how many strangers are bold enough to ask whether the adopted child’s first parents were married.) We say that we want the child to be the first to tell his story to outsiders, in order that he may tell as much or as little as he chooses, without feeling, uncomfortably, that others might know more than he does about his personal history.

Perhaps the keystone of the arch through which the child enters into knowledge of his history is this principle, as stated by the children’s agency:

“You must guard against projecting any emotions that might disturb the child about his adoption story. He will be influenced by your attitude; aware of any tension or uneasiness. If you are afraid that the child will not accept his true story, then you, his new parents, need to reexamine your heart, rebuild your feelings of security, refresh your mind on all the favorable factors that convinced you before the adoption that this was the very child for you. Until you have quieted any qualms of your own you are not emotionally ready to start the continued story we are here considering. If you do learn to tell the story well, your reward will be your child’s acceptance of his adoption and of you.”


Source: Kitte Turmell, “How We Told Our Adopted Children,” Child 14 (January 1950):104-106.

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To learn more about The Adoption History Project, please contact Ellen Herman
Department of History, University of Oregon
Eugene, Oregon 97403-1288
(541) 346-3699
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