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
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
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
“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.”