We’ve all been there. You’re reading a post on an online adoption forum or someone’s blog and come across words that are like fingernails on a chalk board. What drives you up the wall and makes you want to grab your red pencil or type a scathing response or tell the person off differs for each of us.

  • “BM” for “birth mom”
  • “Our birth mother” rather than “our child’s birth mother”
  • “Gave up for adoption” rather than “placed for adoption”


Words Matter in Adoption

Yes, words matter, especially in the sensitive world of adoption. How we phrase things are important. But while I 100% believe in their importance, I’ve also come to believe that we live in an age of hyper-vigilance to words, and an unfortunate acceptance of aggressive correction. As an educator, I believe this is the wrong approach. In fact, it can be counter-productive.

What’s Your Goal in Correcting

Time for a little honesty—why are you wanting to correct someone’s adoption language? Are you trying to educate them so that they will be more likely in the future to use more respectful adoption language in the future? Or are you trying to embarrass them and put them in their place for their ignorance. Or are you maybe trying just a little to show off your superior adoption cred?

In my mind the only acceptable reason for correcting someone’s adoption language is to educate, and education requires sensitivity to both word and timing. And yes, feel free to share this blog freely with all your online and in-person adoption support groups!

How People Learn More Respectful Adoption Language

People learn by making mistakes and being corrected when necessary and only to the degree necessary. No more, no less.

1st Level of Education:

Simply reply to their question using the preferred terminology in your answer. That is often all that is necessary if they are new to the world of adoption.

If they are posting when distraught or with a particularly sensitive question, not further “correction” is appropriate. We need to look for teachable moments and this is not one.

Example of a post: I just found out that our birth mother is using drugs and probably drinking during this pregnancy. What should I do?

Educational Response: I’m so sorry to hear that the expectant woman who is considering you as an adoptive placement is going through this. Your options may be limited, but…

2nd Level of Education

If it is not a particularly intense post, and you have responded with the preferred language, but you feel more is necessary, then for your second post (after you have addressed their question) choose something like the following to increase the odds that they will hear your words:

  1. Hey, the world of adoption can be a language minefield. I know at the beginning I struggled because I knew what I wanted to say, but didn’t know the “right” way to say it. Someone was kind enough to help me so thought I’d pay it forward. Generally speaking the preferred term is ______. I’m not trying to be picky, but thought you’d want to know.
  2. By the way, the preferred way to say this is _____. Not trying to be picky, just figured you would want to know, and how would you know unless someone told you.
  3. It looks like you are new(ish) to the world of adoption and people are rightly very sensitive to language. I’m not trying to embarrass you at all, but wanted to let you know some of the language pitfalls in adoption. For example, it is generally considered better to say ____, rather than ____ because ______. Welcome, by the way. I look forward to learning more about your journey.

Other Creating a Family resources you will enjoy:

Image credit: Shawn Allen