Give a WISE Answer
Q: We are a transracial adoptive family. Our 7-year-old son, who is biracial, recently introduced his older sister (Caucasian) to a new friend. When the friend commented that the siblings looked different, our son explained that he is adopted, something he has always been comfortable sharing. The friend responded, “Why don’t you live with your real parents?” Our daughter said our son looked baffled by the question, and she was so offended that she did not know how to respond without being rude. We want our children to be polite and respectful, but we also want them to feel empowered to respond to situations like this. How can we better prepare all of our children for others’ comments and questions about adoption?
A: I can only imagine the variety of thoughts and emotions that this situation triggered for your children. It would be wonderful if we could shield all children from people and comments that hurt their feelings, but we know that’s not a realistic plan. Those in the adoption community also know that, on occasion, both children and adults say things that are usually not intended to be hurtful but can be upsetting nonetheless. Questions or comments can range from fairly benign to downright insulting and may be direct or overheard.
A good approach to preparing your family is to discuss potential situations and develop ways to respond respectfully but with purpose. Be prepared for how questions and statements may differ based on the developmental stage in play. In early preschool years, it is natural for children to notice physical differences and be uncomfortably direct. So a young child may blatantly ask “Why are you a different color than your mommy?” An elementary-age child may have some understanding of different types of families but may have limited information about adoption. A 9-year-old might ask if your adopted child lived in an orphanage or ask about “real” parents. As children approach adolescence, and identity formation becomes a developmental task, a peer’s questions or comments may turn to details about your child’s history, how he feels about being adopted, or if he plans to look for his birth family.
The Center for Adoption Support and Education (C.A.S.E) offers a family-friendly tool called the WISE Up Powerbook that explores some common remarks about adoption and four basic ways to respond. The workbook also encourages children to discuss what feelings may be triggered by certain statements or questions. Is he annoyed to be asked what country he’s from, or is he proud to discuss his heritage? Does he feel sad or angry when other children use the concept of adoption as a way to explain why he is different in some way?
The WISE Up approach may be helpful:
Walk Away or Ignore. This is the most passive option that may be well suited for a “when you can’t say something nice” moment. Children need to know it’s okay to ignore a nosey question without feeling obligated to say anything about their adoption or their family member’s adoption.
It’s Private. Expressing that the topic is off limits can be a powerful but simple response. It’s perfectly acceptable to say “I really only talk about that with my family” or just say “no” and change the subject.
Share something. First, talk with your immediate family about what information is okay to discuss with others. Be clear about what is shared with extended family, friends, and acquaintances as the details shared may vary. As you stated, your son has always been comfortable explaining that he joined your family through adoption. You may want to clarify whether he prefers to share that information himself or if anyone in the family can share this as well. He may also feel comfortable with immediate family knowing the reason he is not with his birth family, but this may not be a topic he or your other children discuss with their peers.
Educate them. You participated in a great deal of training prior to adopting a child; others simply do not have the same knowledge. Your family may choose to give information if you feel someone could benefit from a better understanding. For example, your daughter might have been comfortable explaining to your son’s friend that adoptive families don’t say “real parents” but rather say biological or birth family because “real” implies that the adoptive parents are “fake.” She may have then followed up with an “it’s private” response.
It will be most empowering for family members to try all different responses, possibly through role play, and evaluate which feels most comfortable to each of them. Start by establishing who can say what to whom, and then practice approaching questions and comments that may not fit comfortably in the “permissible” area. Also, revisit the discussion prior to the start of each school year or when the children may be around new people such as moving to a new neighborhood, joining a new church, or participating in a new extracurricular activity. And while you cannot avoid or even prepare for every comment or question, they can become opportunities to connect with your child as you’ve set the stage for open communication and open expression in these situations.
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