“Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” Doesn’t Work for Adoptive Parenting Either

Dawn Davenport


Adoption: Talking to Older Children

Discussions about adoption get more difficult as a child gets older, but that doesn’t mean a child isn’t thinking about it.

I think most adoptive parents are on board with the idea that children should be told that they are adopted from a very early age.  We start incorporating the word “adopted” into our vocabulary from the beginning.  We make and read their Life Books to them after their baths as they sit on our laps in their cute little footy pajamas.  Naturally we are pleased as punch when our toddlers proudly tell the world they are adopted with nary a self conscious hesitation.  Yes, we pat ourselves on the back, we have aced this adoptive parenting business.

As our children age, they outgrow their Life Books or at least the sitting on our lap while we read it to them part.  They don’t openly announce their adoption status to the world.  They become busy with growing and mastering and all the other parts of being a kid, and then a tween, and then a teen.  It’s easy to believe that our job is done.  We’ve told them, they’ve accepted it, now let’s move on.

We know, however, from talking with teens and adult adoptees, that kids don’t stop thinking about being adopted when they outgrow their footy pajamas.  In particular, they wonder about their birth parents: who they are, what they liked to do, what they looked like, why they didn’t parent them.  Some kids think about this a lot, some think about it a little, but from what I can tell from talking to teens and adults, most think about it some.

There are some kids who will readily talk and ask these questions to their parents and birth parents, if they are in an open adoption.  But lots of kids, my own included, might think and wonder, but never bring the subject up.  And even the most curious and talkative child will steer clear of this conversation if they sense that it makes their parents uncomfortable.  It is way too easy for parents to assume that if it isn’t spoken, it isn’t thought. If the kids don’t ask, then we don’t need to tell.  This is mighty convenient since we just as soon not talk about it anyway.  If we’re not careful, this can become a self perpetuating cycle.  Our discomfort, keeps them silent, and their silence justifies our own.

So what’s a parent to do?  First of all, we need to accept that we are 100% our kid’s parent.  We will be there for them, and they for us, for the rest of our life.  Their curiosity and desire to know more about their birth parents has nothing to do with us and doesn’t threaten our relationship.  Part of “being there for them” is being their go-to source of information on all the Big Four Topics of Life (BTLs): sex, drugs, rock and roll, and adoption.  (OK, it’s really the Big Three since it’s only in your dreams that they are going to view you as an expert on music.  By the age of thirteen, fourteen at the latest, they are going to think that your musical taste and computer literacy are both hopelessly out of date, but you still want them to come to you with their questions about the other three.)

Kids have a tendency to not voice their questions about the BTLs leaving the ball in the parental court to still provide information even when not asked.  If you’re lucky, your little darling will respond like a sponge when you open the conversation about adoption.  I’ve never had that experience, but I have dreamed about what it might be like.  My experience involves a lot of me throwing out a conversation starter and watching it drop like a dead weight.  Still, I look for opportunities to start the conversation because I want my kids to know that I am available when and if they want to talk.  I have to consciously look for times that I can bring up birth parents, genetic traits, and adoption. I toss the opening out there, and then respect their decision to either run with it or let it drop.

Oh, and as long as we’re talking about BTLs, we need to talk about the fourth BTL–race.  Especially if we are raising a child of a different race, we have to talk about race and prejudice and navigating our white society as a minority.  We have to be open to listening to their experiences without trying to minimize or explain.

The other thing I can do as a parent is to realize that I can’t be their only go-to resource.  They need to have the opportunity to talk with other adopted people—kids their own age and adults if possible.  Sometimes it’s simply easier to open up in a group of people who are living your experience.  As much as I want to be “enough” for my child, I’m probably not.

The truth is that sometimes these conversations make me uncomfortable.  So does talking about sex and drinking and drugs, but I still do it because that’s part of my job as a mom.  Unlike footy pajamas, kids don’t outgrow the need to talk, or know that they can talk, about the BTLs.


Image credit: Bindaas Madhavi

26/07/2010 | by Dawn Davenport | Categories: Adoption, Adoption Blog, Blog | 10 Comments

10 Responses to “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” Doesn’t Work for Adoptive Parenting Either

  1. Avatar 윤선 says:

    I think it’s really important for parents to bring the topic up. Not all the time, obviously, but sometimes. As an adoptee, I rarely brought the topic up, yet I had all these things bottled up in my head (see my blog for proof of that! LOL). There was all this stuff going around the blogosphere a couple of months ago, when an AP made a post that said parents should wait for their kids to bring the subject up. I totally disagree with this. Like I said to him, I think that’s waiting for something to be made from nothing. It’s a parent’s job to lead, not just sit around and wait for their kids to do it.

    • Avatar Dawn says:

      I couldn’t agree more. Thanks for sharing it from the adoptee’s position. How can a child talk about a subject unless they have information and they know they have a receptive audience.

  2. Avatar Ann says:

    Thank you for shedding more light on this topic. As a prospective adoptive parent, this will be very important for us to know and practice. Great post, Dawn! http://babyadoption.wordpress.com

  3. Avatar Addie says:

    Your timing for this post is perfect. I just realized recently that my normally talkative son is not talking so much about his adoption. He is 9 so I guess he’s on target to start internally processing things. I had decided to not bring up the subject again until he did, but I guess I’ll throw it out sometimes just to let him know that I’m open to talk if he wants to. Thanks for your post and your timing.

  4. Avatar Angela says:

    Great post- thank you! We’ve been talking to our 7 yr old about her adoption for years, and it’s been one of her favorite stories, and it’s always been a sweet time when we’d talk about traveling to China to meet her and about how she grew in another woman’s tummy. So this year on her gotcha day we were blindsided, when she became very sad, and cried for two days about her birth mom, and her grief about not ever knowing her. We’ve always been open about her adoption, but I found our daughter was trying to protect us in her own way, from her grief. We’re just continuing to be open to her and talking with her about it whenever she wants. My lesson learned from this experience is that this is much more complicated than just telling our simple adoption story, and our daughter’s grief and loss gets lost in the mix when we want to focus on our elation and joy at being her parents. And we have to acknowledge her loss and honor it, as much as we relish our own joy. Thank you again Dawn.

  5. Avatar Sara says:

    I am reading George Burns’ book “Gracie: A Love Story.” George and Gracie adopted their two kids in the 1930s. He talks about how they made sure to talk to the kids about adoption. They even brought the kids back to the adoption agency to meet the woman who ran it. I don’t know if George and Gracie were being progressive or just aware that, with thier fame, there was no way to keep the adoptions secret. Its a touching part of the book.

  6. Avatar andy says:

    Awesome post! As a grown up adoptee, this is so very true! I had the best relationship with my mom, she was open to talk about adoption but NEVER brought it up, so it made me feel like I shouldn’t bring it up, even when I wanted to.

    • Avatar Dawn says:

      Thank you so much for saying it better than I did. Our job as parents is to bring it up and then respect their decision on where the conversation goes.

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