The Language of Family: Rethinking How We Talk About Adoption

“What are you?”

Every time she hears that, she cringes a little—but she also sympathizes. People don’t know how to react to her. She has dark, silky hair and chestnut brown skin. Some mistake her for Latina; others assume she’s a tan Caucasian. She speaks English fluently and has no accent. But she doesn’t quite look like her parents. Something is different. That’s the word people keep using.

Miranda Schiffer—nicknamed Mimi—was adopted at age 2 from an orphanage on the island of Luzon in the Philippines. Her three brothers, none of whom are biologically related to her, were all adopted from Cebu, another province of the Philippines.

Schiffer has always known she was adopted. She said adoption is a beautiful part of her story and identity. Her parents, she explained, created a culture of honesty, openness and affirmation in their family. But outside her home, people she meets often don’t know how to talk to her—or how to talk about adoption at all.

“When I tell people I’m adopted,” Schiffer said, “I can see it on their faces—‘Oh, wait. You’re adopted. So, what does that mean? How do I treat you? What does this mean to our friendship? Is it prying to ask more, or is it rude not to?’”

Language is powerful. The words we say and questions we ask make a huge impact. Sometimes, the things we don’t talk about make an impact too. Schiffer thinks Americans don’t talk about adoption enough, and when we do, we don’t do it very well.

So, let’s talk about it. Let’s get better at talking about it.

Long before Schiffer’s parents chose to adopt, her mother worked for Holt International, a nonprofit committed to ensuring every child has a home. Her mother worked for Holt’s Southeast Asia adoption program. She always knew she wanted to adopt. When she and her husband discovered they could not have biological children together, they were excited to adopt—from the Philippines, where Schiffer’s mother had traveled for work.

Holt International is one example of an organization working hard to reshape the language of family. Holt’s Press Center seeks to train journalists how to write and speak about adoption using positive adoption language and terminology.

The Diversity Style Guide created this chart, which combines adoption language guides from the National Council for Adoption and Adoptive Families.

Accurate Language Less-Accurate Language
adoption triad adoption triangle
birth child own child, real child, natural child
birth father; biological father begettor
birth parent/biological parent real parent, natural parent
born to unmarried parents illegitimate
child from abroad foreign child
child in need of a family adoptable child; available child
child placed for adoption an unwanted child
child with special needs handicapped child, hard-to-place child
confidential adoption closed adoption
court termination child taken away
person/individual who was adopted adoptee
finding a family to parent your child putting your child up for adoption
fully-disclosed adoption open adoption
international adoption foreign adoption
make an adoption plan, choose adoption give away, adopt out, give up, put up
making contact with reunion
my child adopted child; own child
parent adoptive parent
to parent the baby/child to keep the baby
permission to sign a release disclosure
search track down parents
unintended pregnancy unwanted/problem pregnancy
was adopted is adopted

Some of these terms seemed obvious to me; many of them surprised me. The world today is double-dipped in politically correct language that doesn’t always match human experience, so I wanted to get Schiffer’s perspective. I read the list to her and asked how these words make her feel. Some of these words have been hurtful to her. Some of the words made her laugh—she said she had never before even considered the difference.

The last few words made her stop and think: “was adopted” versus “is adopted.” Schiffer said these words depend on the person. To some, she said, adoption is a one-time event in their life. But Schiffer has adopted adoption as part of her identity. “I was adopted,” she said, “but I also am adopted. My brothers and I understand that being adopted is unique. It’s something that makes us special. It’s not special negatively, but special positively. It’s a whole other way we can share with people, connect and just express different experiences.”

Schiffer is happy to see organizations like the ones I described above communicating to their publics about the language of family. It’s a starting place, but the problem is that we still don’t talk about adoption often enough. Realistically, who sits around reading press releases from adoption agencies? Those who do are likely more interested in and educated about adoption to begin with. The majority of people are exposed to adoption through media and first-hand experience.

As I explained in my post last week, American media often portray adoption in two-dimensional and negative ways. Journalists (like me) should tell more adoption stories. I don’t mean just more classic “reunion” stories like this and this. I’m talking about deeper stories like this one from NPR.

And as for all you non-journalists, guess what? You’re communicators too in day-to-day life. Every time you open your mouth or listen to someone, you are communicating. It’s time we learn how to communicate better about family. Some families are blood-related. Some families are chosen. Families are built of many ages, ethnicities and experiences. That can be a little scary and confusing, and it’s understandable why people don’t want to talk about it.

But we need to talk about family more and ask questions. You can use the list of words if you find it useful, or just fall back on basic human kindness. Everyone’s adoption story is different, so you can always ask if aren’t sure what to say.

I was adopted.

Can you tell me your story?

. . .

If you have a question for me or want to ask Mimi Schiffer something, leave a comment!


4 thoughts on “The Language of Family: Rethinking How We Talk About Adoption

  1. Eliana Almeida says:

    The Schiffer family is admirable. Their love for each other is genuine and their life testimony shows it.
    I and my family have learned a lot with them! Mimi has taught me a lot about my identity as a person. We love the Schiffers


  2. Haunani Nagel says:

    Wonderfully written! Great job, Mimi, on sharing your personal thoughts and engaging others to think about the language of family. We are so proud to call our friends, the Schiffers, a part of our ohana.


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