Source:  U.S. Children's Bureau, available through National Library of Medicine,

The history of telling has been closely tied to the modern ritual of parents reading to children. Books for children that helped tell the adoption story quickly emerged, including such classics as The Chosen Baby.




“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 adoption second-rate.

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 last resort.

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.


Document Excerpts

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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
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