Dear family, friends and nosy strangers to interracial families,
Since my experiences with China and adoption, I have learned so much and I want to share some of my newly acquired wisdom with you. It is my hopes that this letter will serve as a crash course in proper etiquette when communicating with a diverse family. Adoption in itself is a miracle—a way to unite a loving child with people who have a desire to build their family in ways other than or in addition to biological means. Please don’t ruin their joy with your rude comments and intrusive behaviors. Don’t allow racist comments to slip out of your loose mouth—words can hurt and children have feelings, too. Give the family what they need—space, privacy and respect. I know that your curiosity is driving you mad, so let’s discuss some of the most common questions and comments that you should never verbalize to an adoptive parent.
How much did they cost? Absolutely nothing—didn’t you know trafficking is illegal and no one can buy another human being? If you are interested in adoption and are wondering if you can afford to embark on the amazing journey, any adoption agency on the worldwide web can discuss with you the fees related to the process.
Can she speak Chinese? Considering many international adoptions are finalized before children learn the art of verbal communication, do you really think it is possible that she can speak a foreign language? However, when she is old enough, if she expresses interest in learning the language of her homeland, then we may consider a private tutor. Why—is there someone you can recommend?
Can she speak English? Don’t your children speak English? I know—why don’t you ask her yourself? (And believe it or not, they can also handle a fork and only use chopsticks for fun!)
What are they? Alright, Einstein, do I really need to point out to you that they are children? How insensitive and if I ever hear someone ask that question, they should be prepared to receive a tongue lashing.
Is it true that the Chinese people do not want baby girls and the orphanages are full of them? Oh—are you interested in the subject of child abandonment and institutional statistics? I wish they could help but as you see, they are busy spending time with their family. Feel free to check your local library for some research material. The point here is, don’t spread slander and stereotypes—especially in front of children.
Sometimes families include more than one adopted child—when you see two children in the group that are the same race, please don’t ask, “Are they REAL sisters?” Yes, they are real sisters and those are real parents living a real house and they should really not be forced to have this conversation. Move on, please.
And of course, the all familiar question of, “Do you know who their REAL parents are?” If you are crude enough to ask this question, I hope you get this answer: “Yes—we are their real parents. If you are referring to their biological parents, that sort of information is personal and any details we know would be up to them to share when and if they desire to.”
Another real question that should never leave your lips is, “Are their real parents dead?” Again, the people who they call mom and dad are their real parents and you should know better than to ask a question that is so personal (or can cause immense emotional turmoil) such as the subject of biological parents or death.
Please do not ask an adoptive parent, “How many of your own do you have?” All of their children are their own—they are not separated by categories of who birthed them.
If you work in a medical setting and a parent comes in with their child of a different race than they are, please do not ask for more proof of guardianship than you would any other child—that is insulting and discriminatory. Haven’t you ever heard of adoption? Obviously the medical card or information presented should be enough and the parents should not be made to go through an inquisition to receive medical attention for their children. That goes for immigration control as well—why should they have to present more proof of guardianship for their adopted child than they do for their bio child?
Do not—I repeat do not—grab the hand of a child and assume they are lost just because they do not ‘look like’ the people they are standing near. You may just find yourself on the wrong side of goodness when you are being arrested for attempted kidnapping. Of course, we all want to help a child who cannot find their parents but use the context clues—is she standing near a woman and calling her mommy? Does she look distressed or lost? If not—back off, people.
Why didn’t you adopt from your own country? This is a totally out-of-bounds question and there is no way to present it in a way that is acceptable. Be prepared to answer why YOU didn’t adopt from YOUR own country, because that question should go both ways. Parents choose international adoption for many reasons but the most common thread is that they were people who wanted a child—and their child was in need of a family. The birth country is completely irrelevant, though some people may have reasons to why they chose China, India, Russia, etc, to start their search. Those reasons are none of your business. If you are interested in learning the pros and cons of domestic vs. international adoption, you can find many websites that can enlighten you.
Don’t approach and exclaim, “Oh my, she is so cute! I want one!” Like any parent, a compliment given about their child is appreciated, but please don’t act like they are a floppy-eared Golden Retriever or the latest style in purses. They are not an accessory or status symbol—it is a child, most importantly—it is their child. What would you say if I ran up to you and your children and bellowed out the same comment? You would think I was crazy—right?
Please, please, please do not tell a parent who has an adoptive child, “Oh, they are so lucky that you adopted them.” I have corresponded with hundreds of parents and the most common sentiment they admit to me is that they are the lucky ones to have been blessed with such amazing children. Also, these parents did not go out of their way to ‘save’ a child and that term is offensive—please don’t use it.
On that note, do not tell a child, “Oh, you are so precious; I think I’ll just take you home with me.” Or “Oh, you are so precious; can I be your new Mommy?” You have no idea if the child has had attachment issues or possibly still remember their abandonment, or recalls being placed with strangers away from those who love them. A comment like that may bring back a flood of painful memories or plant a bundle of new fears in the mind of a child. What is said in a few seconds could take years to forget. You can just leave it at “Oh, you are so precious.” Enough said.
And no—sorry to burst your bubble but just because their children are Asian, does not mean they are math wizards or science geeks. Just like your children, they are born with different gifts and talents and as they grow, those are still being determined. However, by the time they are grown, I’m sure they will be geniuses in the subject of how rude it is to stereotype people according to their genetics.
Don’t be surprised if when you are dumb enough to ask an inappropriate question, you see a mom suddenly grow horns or bare fangs. Despite our ingrained rules of politeness and minding our manners, our instinct to protect our children is stronger. When a mother senses their children are going to suffer emotionally because of thoughtless words from a stranger—she is going to do what needs to be done and shut you down.
Not all parents are opposed to answering questions about adoption or their children— you may just happen to find a parent or child that really loves to talk about their adoption story. If that happens, count your blessings. First be sure you feel a welcoming atmosphere before you approach a family, and then if you are sure you can pull out your can of common sense and put it to use—keep your comments or questions to a minimum. Ask yourself how would you feel if the tables were turned and a stranger walked up to you and asked personal questions about your children’s lives? The safest route is to let them guide the conversation to what they feel comfortable discussing.
In closing, you may wonder exactly what would be appropriate to say to an adoptive mom or dad when you just want to show your support of their choice to adopt and your admiration for their handsome family. Here are a few appropriate words to use when approaching an interracial family:
“Your family is beautiful and so well-behaved!” (We all love to hear that comment, obviously!)
“I have a grand-daughter that looks just like her!” (Only if it is true, of course, and can be a way to test the waters to see if they are open to talking about adoption.)
“Did you create your family through adoption?” (Again, be alert for clues if they do not want to engage in adoption conversation and if you do feel welcome, keep the questions on the non-personal side.)
A good rule of thumb would be to remember that these people—just like you—are very busy and each time they venture out together it is valued family time. If they have not shown that they want to be spokespeople for adoption, let them finish their meal, activity or event without being interviewed, stared at, or whispered about. You will find that families from the international adoption community are usually patient, kind and willing to communicate about their story— if it is an appropriate time and place, and if you understand that there are some details and information that will not be shared under any circumstances. Remember, they have moved mountains to get their children—so let them enjoy the rewards of parenthood.
Thank you to the members of the International Adoption Community who gave me the research material for this piece! Your patience with the rest of the world is duly noted—Kay Bratt.