Around kindergarten, my son’s friends began asking where his father was. He had heard the story of his adoption since he was two years old, so he was prepared with an answer: I am adopted. The statement generally ended that line of inquiry, but as the school year wore on, a new observation was made: You don’t have a dad. That hurt my son’s feelings because, in an instant, he went from being one-of-the-gang to the boy who doesn’t have a father. His friend was not teasing him nor being malicious. He called it like he saw it and what he saw was me — the mom — but no dad.
Not sure what to say, my son said nothing but carried that conversation with him the rest of the day. Later my son shared what happened, and I hugged him with all of my might. I was equally unprepared for the unfiltered comments of a five-year-old, but reminded my sweet boy that he was loved and wanted. It was also my cue that he needed to know the facts: Everyone has a dad, he just didn’t know his.
That experience opened the door for parents who didn’t know my son was adopted to ask me for tips on how to explain adoption to their children.
According to the National Adoption Center, adoption is “a permanent, legally binding arrangement through which a person, usually a child or teenager, becomes a member of a new family. In this arrangement, persons other than the birth parents assume all parental rights and obligations.” That’s quite a mouthful, so I usually say my children came from my heart. When speaking to one of my child’s friends, however, I tell them that “Aaron is adopted, I am his mother, and I do not know his father.” Believe it or not, that simple explanation works for most young children.
Here are a few suggestions to help when your child announces that his friend is adopted and wants to know what that means:
- You can say: Ana has parents but they cannot take care of her, so she lives with Mr. and Mrs. Smith. They are her parents now and love her very much.
- Keep your answers short and to the point because “[y]oung children are simply attempting to find their place in this big world and trying to make sense of the concept of family, whether traditional or non-traditional.”
- Read adoption-themed books to your kids. The library is filled with wonderful books that offer lessons about love and inclusivity. A Mother for Choco by Keiko Kasza is one of my favorites. Click here for more adoption-related titles.
- Watch programs like Dinosaur Train or Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood where themes about adoption and/or foster care are addressed as a natural occurrence versus an exceptional event. Adoption no longer carries the taboo it once did and parents should treat the topic as a normal life experience, much like losing a tooth. Though adopting or fostering a child represents a huge life change for a family, the day-to-day activities resemble those of a traditional household. And children who are not adopted need to know that their friend’s family probably functions a lot like theirs.
- Offer an age-appropriate explanation of the birds and the bees by stating that all animals (except flatworms, jellyfish and female hammerhead sharks) need a mother and father to make a baby. Sometimes father or mothers are absent due to death or divorce or adoption.
- Finally, if your child persists and wants to know why his parents couldn’t take care of his buddy, tell the truth: You do not know. Refrain from making up a story — even if it’s a good one — because that will only add confusion later.
As parents, we try our best to raise compassionate children who will continue to practice empathy and inclusivity into their adult years. Providing them with language to understand diverse families is a great place to start.