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Adoption Blog: My Paperwork Pregnancies

Will Your Child “Figure Out” That He Was Adopted?

One question I'm frequently asked is, "When did you tell your kids that they were adopted?" I usually give my lengthy response of how I have used the word, "adopted" since they were newborns, so it's part of their identity, just as knowing their gender. Also, it's not something I could avoid discussing, as my kids look nothing like me.

I add on that last part because I adopted transracially within the U.S. Therefore, I felt I needed to discuss adoption with my children from an early age. Talking about why our skin doesn't match didn't seem like a choice. But I've learned that some adoptive parents think there's no point in discussing adoption with their kids, that it's obvious.
A story I recently heard from an adult adoptee confirms for me that parents can't place the responsibility of figuring out adoption on the child, no matter how obvious it may appear to the outside world. This adult adoptee, an African-American gentleman, swears that he had no idea he was adopted until he was in the fifth grade. It didn't matter that his parents and his six older sisters were all Caucasian.
His "discovery day" began as he was walking home from school with a friend. They got into an argument and the friend yelled at him, "No wonder your real mom didn't want you!" He ran home to his mom. Through his tears he asked her, "Why don't you want me?" She was confused and asked what he meant. Once he explained what his friend said to him, she clarified, "No, Honey, he meant your 'biological' mother, not me." His mom saw the obvious confusion on his face and asked, "You know I'm your adoptive mom, right?"
This boy, the only African-American member of his family, just learned he was adopted at 10 years of age. His mom was shocked and said, "I assumed you knew! Didn't you wonder why you look different from the rest of us?" He shook his head and told his mom about their neighbor's dog, that had puppies many years ago. The mother dog was a yellow lab, but her puppies were different colors. Some were black, some were brown, some were yellow. He figured his mother could have babies of different colors, too. Why should he have assumed the dog family was different than his own?
When I heard this story, I thought that nothing like this could still happen today, since people are so much more open about discussing adoption. Then I remembered a conversation I had with another adoptive mother not too long ago. Years after adopting her daughter she adopted the girl's newborn half-sister. The woman's older daughter had blonde hair and blue eyes. Her younger daughter was biracial and looked entirely African-American. I watched her grow up, as she attended preschool with one of my children.
Once, when our kids were four years old and were happily playing at our feet with one another, she asked me, "Have you told your son that he's adopted?" I was taken aback to be asked this from someone in the adoption community. "Yes," I replied, "We discuss adoption all the time in our house." She grimaced and said, "Shoot. I haven't gotten around to bringing it up. And then sometime after that, I'll have to figure out how to tell her that she's black." I had no idea how to respond. I just looked from this beautiful, dark-skinned girl with curly, black hair to her light-skinned, blonde mother. How much longer did this mom think that she could delay having this discussion?
As I previously mentioned, I felt I had to have the adoption talk early because it was obvious that we adopted. I'd like to think that the majority of adoptive parents agree with me, and not with the parents in the two stories above. Never did I think my kids would just figure out they were adopted. How could they if I never used the language to explain how our family was formed?
We have talked about adoption so much that my children used to believe that every child was adopted. They thought of every pregnant woman as a birth mother for a future adoption. I've had to remind them numerous times that our family is not the "norm," as most children's birth mothers are their everyday mothers.
It's not easy to tell your children that your family is not the same as most of their friends. But as a parent, not every conversation you have with your child will be comfortable. That's part of the parenting job, in my opinion. Of course, many don't consciously avoid complicated discussions, like the "adoption" one, they just put it off until later. But it's going to be difficult later if your 10-year-old African-American son just realizes that he's different than this siblings.
You can't turn back the clock and have the adoption talk, if you haven't already. However, you can begin today. Please don't assume that your child will figure it out. If you put it off long enough that he does, or someone else points it out, he'll be confused and angry with you. Teach your child the words to explain their adoption and let him see that adoption is nothing to be embarrassed about. Yes, your family looks different because you don't "match," and that's just fine. It's absolutely beautiful.

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Wow, Danielle, I would have never guess those situations happened still today. Not only do we talk about adoption openly and have since day one, but I will bring it up every once in a while if my kids have not done so for a while. I want to make sure to address their questions as they change and grow and I never want them to think they can’t ask me whatever they want.

By Gaby on Thursday, January 03, 2013 at 5:59 pm.

I, too, adopted transracially. My daughter’s adoption story is told as often and as casually as my friend tells the story of the birth of her children. I don’t find it difficult at all—-families come in all types. My daughter, at a very young age, when asked how I could be her mother by her inquisitive friends started saying “We don’t match, I was adopted.” That satisfied everyone and still does (she’s now a middle schooler).

By va1026 on Wednesday, January 09, 2013 at 2:42 pm.

I wholeheartedly agree with the author.  As the white adoptive mother of two african american girls, we have always had frequent conversations about race and about adoption.  We also have good relationships with birth parents and siblings.   

Imagine my surprise last year when I was telling the girls I would be out that evening, because I was going to a lecture on adoption and my then 5 year old asked why.  I said, because I have 2 adopted daughters, and I might learn something I don’t know.  Her response?  A shocked “I’m adopted?  I knew my sister was, but I didn’t know I was.”

Its kind of a funny story, but more importantly, serves as a reminder that they understand “the facts” differently at different times in their development.  It is an ongoing process.

By Anne 427 on Wednesday, January 09, 2013 at 3:28 pm.

My daughter looks very different than me and my husband, and when she was 2, someone asked me of we were going to tell her she was adopted.  I actually had to try not to laugh out loud . . . by that time, she was already saying things like “Mommy arm pink, my arm brown?” . . . so yeah, we talked about it always, right from the day she came home as a 1-year-old.  We talk every time we look at photo albums, every time Mother’s Day or her birthday rolls around, at the grocery store when we see someone who looks like her, etc. (Though that kind of commentary has tapered off now that she’s 6).  And because we are waiting right now for another daughter, the topic comes up often, and she gets to see firsthand how much *she* was anticipated.

By NancyL on Wednesday, January 09, 2013 at 4:37 pm.

I can’t imagine not discussing adoption with an adopted child under any circumstances. Even if they “figure it out” they still deserve the respect of an open discussion initiated by their parents. How would a young child even know about adoption and what it means without someone, hopefully their parents, explaining it to them. You state that it was something you couldn’t avoid discussing because of their obvious physical differences. My son, adopted as a newborn, looks very much like my husband, yet I also felt compelled to discuss adoption with him from an early age, simply because it’s part of who is is. He deserves to know that part of his story - that part that comes before us. I think you have handled things wonderfully.

By SunlandMom on Wednesday, January 09, 2013 at 6:48 pm.

Omg crying at work reading the story about the little boy not realizing he was adopted because he saw the puppies of different colors. How awful for him. I admit I have been putting it off, but tonight I am sitting down with my 2 year old and talking to him about it. No more excuses. He needs to know why he doesn’t look like me. I owe him that.

By Aug_mom on Monday, January 14, 2013 at 10:15 pm.

Both of our sons look very much like us.  We adopted both of them as infants and started talking to them from day one about adoption.  I am glad that we did for many reasons. One is that while they were babies I could not even say the word “birthmother” without crying.  By talking to them when they were too small to understand,  by the time they were old enough to have a conversation, I was actually ready to be able to talk with them. 

Like Danielle, our sons also used to think that everyone was adopted.  I remember when the oldest was about six.  I was shocked to realize one day that he thought adoption was the norm.  Then I had to explain that a lot of babies lived with and were raised by their birthparents like I was with Grammy and Pa.

By Richelle on Wednesday, January 16, 2013 at 12:21 pm.

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Meet the Author

Danielle Pennel

Danielle Pennel


I have recently adopted or am adopting from...
U.S. Newborn, U.S. Newborn

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