In the past adoption was a private matter. There may have been a few relatives or family members that were aware of the adoption of a new baby, but it was a secret never to be discussed. As a society, we since have decided that adoption is not a shameful status, but something to be celebrated. At least I thought we all understood this. It’s not until I am held captive in a foster-to-adopt training class that I realize we all haven’t shaken the stigma of adoption. In every class there are always a few prospective adoptive parents that ask, “How do we tell them they’re adopted?”. As someone who has done this a few times, I know a thing or two about this topic. Let me help.
So obviously, if your child is 4 or older there really isn’t much discussion to be had. It’s likely that they have either known their birth-mother, or have spent the first few years of their life being raised by foster parents or another caregiver. Most likely someone has explained to the child that you are their new “Forever Parent”, “New Mommy”, or something wonderful and sweet like that to help him or her understand the chain of events that will lead to their adoption. However, if you are adopting a newborn or toddler, you’ll need to do some explaining.
Telling a young child that they are adopted really isn’t any different than explaining to them where babies come from. In general, you give them what they can understand in small pieces at the age at which they are able to understand it. If your three year old says, “Mommy, where do babies come from?” You wouldn’t begin to break down the anatomy of men and women and engage in a full on R-rated break down of the birds and bees. At age 3, that is just way more information than they are able to process. Instead, you might simply tell them that babies come from a Mommy’s Belly. That answers their question, without inappropriate information overload. Over time the discussion will expand to, “How did the baby get into the belly?”, and so on.
This is how the conversation typically goes with my adopted children. “Mommy, where do babies come from?” My response is always, “Babies come from a Mommy’s belly, but you didn’t come out of my belly. You came out of another Mommy’s belly, and then God allowed me to be your Mommy. You are adopted.” This is how we start the conversation at my house every time. Usually around age 5 or 6 they ask who the other mommy is. I may tell them some positive attributes that I know about her, but I always assure the child that I will let them know more about her when they are older. And we just continue adding a little more to the conversation as they become older and more mature.
Honestly, the story of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles has really helped explain the concept of adoption to our boys. As silly as it sounds, as little boys they’ve been able to understand that Master Splinter, a rat, has “adopted” 4 tiny mutagen-tainted baby turtles. That was were they were at ages 4 through 6, and at that time nothing was more awesome than being likened to superheros.
So, the short answer is JUST TELL THEM. If you tip-toe around the issue of adoption you will miss the opportunity to present the topic with love, understanding, and all of its awesomeness. Also, the longer you wait the more opportunity you have for an adult to loudly whisper “He’s adopted, right?”. Adults, for some reason, love whispering about adoption. Doing so just implies one of 2 things. Either shame, or they suspect that you haven’t told the child that they are adopted, or both. If you’ve already talked openly about adoption to your child, then they will understand that there’s absolutely nothing to be ashamed of, and you can easily re-direct the adult who is attempting to be polite, but is instead just misinformed and annoying.