Adoption Language

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The way we talk about adoption has evolved over time as we become more aware of the complexities of our relationships and the way both children and adults react to words, nuances, and connotations. Here are resources for present and future parents, families, teachers, and others.


    Encyclopedia of Adoption
    Expanded definitions and commentaries on words and phrases common to the adoption experience.
    Glossary of Terms
    Definitions of words and terms used in connection with adoption and foster care, and adoptive and foster families.

Positive Adoption Language

Excerpted from "International Adoption Guidebook," Mary M. Strickert © 2004

First introduced by Minneapolis social worker Marietta Spencer more than 20 years ago, positive adoption language is crafted to give the maximum respect, dignity, responsibility, and objectivity about the decisions made by both birthparents and adoptive parents in discussing the family planning decisions they have made for children who have been adopted. By using positive adoption language, we help abolish the old stereotype that adoption is second best – a dirty little secret that everyone knows about.

If you stop and really think about what you’re saying, positive adoption language is just common sense. For example, take terms such as real parent, real mother, real father, real family – these terms imply that an adopted child is not a real part of the family. By using phrases like this, you are invalidating both the child being a “real” part of the family and the “realness” of the family itself.

Through the use of positive adoption language, we educate others about adoption. By consistently speaking (and writing) in positive adoption language, someday this language will become commonplace – and the old hurtful terms will only serve to expose those who choose to be mean and small-minded. When we use positive adoption language, we say that adoption, like birth, is just another way to build a family. Both are important, but one is not necessarily better than the other.

There Are Better Ways to Say What You Mean

The old clichés "give up" and "put up for adoption" can slip out of our mouths almost unnoticed. However, are these phrases really accurate descriptions of what takes place when parents choose adoption? Of course not – no one who has gestated a child for nine months can cavalierly “give away” that child! Much heart-wrenching thought and soul searching goes into the decision to choose adoption for your child. Yes, parents do "give up" their parental rights, but do not give up on their child or give up loving their child. Saying that they “gave up” their child for adoption stigmatizes birthparents for deciding they aren't ready or able to parent. Saying that birthparents “gave up” their child is akin to saying that the birthparents made the wrong choice, when in fact, the birthparents made an incredibly strong choice by putting their child ahead of themselves.

Instead of contributing to the use of these outdated and hurtful clichés, those of us touched by adoption can do something to change the world for the better by using positive adoption language. We may have to go through a period of retraining our own minds and hearts while we carefully choose the words we use to describe adoption. We may need to (gently) correct and educate our family, our friends, and our co-workers. As we become more accustomed to using positive adoption language, we'll discover that this way of speaking about adoption will feel just as natural as the old hurtful clichés once did – and hearing the old clichés will offend us as much as a racial slur.

What we say and the words we use, communicate a lot about our values. The conscious and consistent use of positive adoption language affirms that adoption is as valid a way to build a family as birth. Choose the following positive adoption language instead of the negative phrases that helps perpetuate the myth that adoption is second best. By using positive adoption language you'll reflect the true nature of adoption – free of innuendo.

Additional Resources: Glossaries

Disabilities Definitions
From the National Adoption Center, definitions of risk factors and physical, emotional, behavioral, and learning disabilities.

Glossary of Adoption Terminology
From AdoptNet.

Glossary of Terms
From the California Association of Adoption Agencies.

Glossary of Terms: Adoption Subsidy
If you are adopting a child who will receive a subsidy, these are the words to know.

Glossary of Terms: Infertility
Words and terms used in the diagnosis and treatment of fertility problems, prepared by Drs. Aniruddha Malpani and Anjali Malpani

Glossary of Terms: Mental Health
From the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration

Language Guidelines

A Journalist's Guide to Adoption
This web-based resource, for journalists by journalists, is intended to build awareness of language nuances, issues, and the manner in which adoption is presented through the media.

General Articles

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