Are you a conspicuous family? Do you and your kids “match?” Do you show up at community events with a new kid in tow occasionally? Many adoptive, foster, and kinship families face the challenge of intrusive questions when they are obviously of different races or ethnicities from one another. Foster families commonly face intrusive questions when they get new placements joining their home. Though we live in the perspective that families form in many different ways, society around us often still asks nosy questions about who we are and how we built our family.
Poking the Bear
How do you handle intrusive questions about how your kids came to your family? It’s a topic about which many adoptive and foster parents are fiercely protective – sometimes with excellent reason. It’s so hard to manage the shock we feel when nosy questions get asked – especially in front of our kids. After all, when intrusive questions are framed in ugly ways, especially in front of our kids, Mama or Papa Bear comes to the surface. With the start of a new school year, the questions often circle ’round again so it’s a great time to prepare yourself and expand your tools.
Buffer Your Kids
Our online community often talks about this issue, and we appreciate the wide variety of perspectives members share. There is no one way to handle these intrusive questions. Many of us admit to having a super-sensitive radar to these questions because we feel protective over our kids. We don’t want them unnecessarily “othered” over one more thing. We can do a few things to buffer our kids from these intrusions.
1. Prepare them in advance
Your kids need preparation for the questions when starting a new school year, joining a new community club, or moving to a new school or church. These questions can stir up confusing emotions. Talk with them about what invasive questions might feel like when they hear them. Normalize those feelings by naming them: shock, surprise, discomfort, “deer in the headlights,” or other adjectives you can offer to label the emotions.
2. Prepare some scripts
An arsenal of canned responses can be your best tool for handling the discomfort of intrusive questions. Depending on your children’s temperament and “style,” practice a few scripts together that help them feel in control of their emotions.
Here’s a smattering of scripts – used by kids and adults both – for handling intrusive questions:
- “That’s not my story to tell.”
- “Oh, why do you ask?”
- “I wonder if you can hear how your question crosses so many lines?”
- “We love our family story, but we don’t share it with strangers.”
- “Thanks for asking but I hope you can hear how intrusive it is.”
- “I don’t want to talk about that with you.”
- “I’ll let Johnny share that information if and when he feels he wants to.”
The goal is to teach them to respond, not react. But be prepared to practice a lot. We adults can struggle to control our Momma or Poppa Bear in the heat of the moment, right? It makes sense that our younger and less experienced kids will need even more scaffolding than we do, which is okay. Again, normalize that for them as well! Tell them about times when you didn’t get it right or allowed someone to push your line. They’ll appreciate your authenticity and modeling that it’s a learning process.
3. Give them an out
One of the scripts that you can and should offer your kids is, “That’s private information, and I prefer not to answer.” No further explanation is necessary when you and your child can articulate that sentiment. Make sure your kids know that they should feel free to shut down the conversations that make them uncomfortable. They can walk away from peers on the playground or start a new conversation altogether. Kids are great at changing the subject by saying, “Hey! Let’s play dodgeball!” or something similar to get the attention off themselves.
Another popular “out” is to develop a signal that everyone in your family can use to convey that they need a rescue. For example, tugging on the earlobe means, “Mom, get me out of this.” If the intrusive conversations are happening frequently at school, you can intervene with the teacher to work out a rescue signal with your child. Our priority is always to buffer our kids with preparation in advance and rescue at the moment to make them feel safe and confident in our care.
More is Caught than Taught
In our vigilance to protect our kids, we might forget that this nosy question might be from someone trying to connect with us from their own place of sensitivity or othering. In addition to preparing our kids before these situations arise, we have a few things to attend to in our self-reflection and preparation.
It’s critical to remember our kids are watching and will learn how to respond primarily from our examples. The adage, “more is caught than taught,” is so true here – we are the model our kids will follow in these conversations. We want them to see our examples as both consistent and open-hearted to learning.
Consider the Source
If we can take a breath and consider the person asking the question, we often have the chance to take control of the situation rather than react to it. Our pause allows us to respond with a neutral-toned, “why do you ask?” Engaging our own curiosity might open the door to learning that this person is trying to make inroads into the local adoption or foster community for personal reasons. We might hear that they’ve recently accepted the placement of a kinship child and feel isolated and alone.
Alternately, when we stop and consider the source, we might learn that the person inquiring just is unaware of the possible intrusion their questions represent. It’s helpful if we remember that not all ignorance is willful or from a place of ill-intent. After all, the general population still doesn’t fully understand the world of adoption, foster care, or kinship families as we do. Sometimes they simply have not had the same exposure to the intricacies of raising an adoptive, foster, or kinship child.
Assume the Best
In adoption and foster circles, we parents learn – sometimes the hard way – about protecting our children’s privacy. Again, it’s easy to forget that the rest of society around us, especially in this social media “share it all” culture, does not know what oversteps the lines of privacy regarding how our kids joined our family.
When we can stop and assume that the intrusive-to-us questions are rooted in simple curiosity or perhaps a way of showing interest in our families, it can inform how we respond. For example, answering their question with “why do you ask?” or “that’s not my story to tell” can help them see where they crossed lines of appropriateness. It allows them to reframe their question if it genuinely comes from pure intentions.
These moments are what you practice for when you buffer your kids preventatively! Our preparations give us choices in how to respond. As one mom said in our group, “do I need to be offended by this?” Preparing yourself and your kids gives you choices and thus opportunities to respond from a position of strength.
You’ll Know it When You Hear it.
Please don’t read what we are not saying. When inquiries are pointed, ugly, and hurtful, you only need to shut them down. Protect yourself and your children. Even if “assume the best” is your personal mantra, there is no need to subject yourselves to verbal trauma from a rude person. We are saying to take a beat to assess the source. Decide if you can assume the best at the moment. In most cases, it’s our experience that you will know the difference when it’s happening.
Decide Who You Are
Indeed, it’s not as if we face these challenging and intrusive inquiries every time we step out the door. So, we can consider how to respond to Nosy Nellies as an extension of how we strive to respond to all the other daily life challenges we face. Again, because our kids are watching us, this is yet another area to model our family values and help them learn how to implement them.
- Who are you as a family? What is your family identity?
- Who do you want your kids to become?
- How do you want your kids to carry that persona out in easy and hard times?
The answers to these questions can help you decide how to intentionally respond. Your child will carry that into their interactions at school and on the bus when they see it modeled and practiced by you.
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Normalize Your Family Values
Consistently responding to and interacting with the world according to our family values give our kids life skills to handle many challenging moments they will face. Reinforcing your family identity in the face of intrusive questions anchors them into your family as they develop their own sense of identity.
Being at peace with oneself internally is not a skill that comes naturally to many people. Defining your family identity in even layers over their lifetime builds that skill. Like the tools researchers suggest for drug-proofing our kids, this effort to internalize your family values also buffers them against the othering that intrusive questions stir. Additionally, normalizing your family values and how to live them in pleasant and unpleasant moments helps our kids learn the importance of internal wholeness.
Take the Long View
Whether you are new to these intrusive questions or your family has fielded them for a while now, it’s helpful to take a deep breath and consider the big picture. Whatever your method of handling these questions turns out to be, try to keep in mind what you want your kids to learn and who you want them to become. Pointing your responses toward who you want to be and modeling how to get there is the long view of parenting adoptive, foster, or kinship kids to healthy, whole adults.
How have you taken the long view to handle intrusive questions for your family? Tell us in the comments!
Image Credits: Polina Zimmerman; Andrea Piacquadio; Monstera