What to Do When Someone Uses Inappropriate Adoption Language

Dawn Davenport



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

15/06/2016 | by Dawn Davenport | Categories: Adoption, Adoption Blog, Blog | 7 Comments

7 Responses to What to Do When Someone Uses Inappropriate Adoption Language

  1. Pingback: 6 Helpful Tips for Adoptive Grandparents | James Fletcher Thompson

  2. Pingback: Helpful Tips for Adoptive Grandparents | James Fletcher Thompson

  3. Avatar Anon Adoptive Parent says:

    The other option, which is not listed here, is to directly correct the person’s language without making excuses for the correction (such as “I’m not trying to be picky” or “I’m not trying to embarrass you at all”). I understand that the intent of correcting another person’s improper and often rude adoption language is to educate; however, given that this problematic language is spoken almost exclusively by adoptive parents (or prospective adoptive parents), who have the most privilege in adoption, I don’t often feel I need to apologize in order to make a correction. Sure, if a person is new to the world of adoption, a gentle correction may be necessary, but I’ve seen this over and over again with parents who adopted their children ages ago. They should, and often do, know better, but still fail to use the correct terminology. In those cases, I have no qualms about clearly stating: “The proper term is ‘my child’s birth (or first) mother;’ she is not your birth mother” or “the use of BM as an abbreviation is considered rude and incorrect. Please take the time to type (or say) the words next time.”

    As you state above: words matter. There is a way to correct someone without being aggressive or rude, but also without apologizing for it.

    • Dawn Davenport Dawn Davenport says:

      You’re right that this is an option, but this approach will almost always result in the person becoming defensive or hurt, which lowers the odds of them ever changing their language. I would also add that what is considered “correct” changes over time. No doubt the language we are using now will sound antiquated, naive, and wrong in the future. Why intentionally make someone feel bad? The only reason I would ever take that approach is if I thought the person was intentionally using language to hurt me or my child.

      • Avatar AC says:

        I agree with Anon Adoptive Parent. The phase “I’m not trying to be picky but” immediately made me cringe. It sounds catty. Dropping that off, the rest of the advice is great.

  4. Avatar Eileen says:

    I agree sensitivity is key. Helping people what is correct language not to berate but may save from that happening at a later date. I have learned alot from this group. My adoptive interactions are older when other statements were the norm. Thankyou forr helping me.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Back to Top ↑

Content created by Creating a Family. And remember, there are no guarantees in adoption or infertility treatment. The information provided or referenced on this website should be used only as part of an overall plan to help educate you about the joys and challenges of adopting a child or dealing with infertility. Although the following seems obvious, our attorney insists that we tell you specifically that the information provided on this site may not be appropriate or applicable to you, and despite our best efforts, it may contain errors or important omissions. You should rely only upon the professionals you employ to assist you directly with your individual circumstances. CREATING A FAMILY DOES NOT WARRANT THE INFORMATION OR MATERIALS contained or referenced on this website. CREATING A FAMILY EXPRESSLY DISCLAIMS LIABILITY FOR ERRORS or omissions in this information and materials and PROVIDES NO WARRANTY OF ANY KIND, implied, express or statutory. IN NO EVENT WILL CREATING A FAMILY BE LIABLE FOR ANY DAMAGES, including without limitation direct or indirect, special, incidental, or consequential damages, losses or expenses arising out of or in connection with the use of the information or materials, EVEN IF CREATING A FAMILY OR ITS AGENTS ARE NEGLIGENT AND/OR ARE ADVISED OF THE POSSIBILITY OF SUCH DAMAGES.