"My loved ones brought their baby home - hooray! But oops, I asked if they'd heard from the baby's mom, and I think I said the wrong thing. What words are right and wrong in adoption today?"
Ouch, words can hurt! Yes, adoptees have 2 sets of parents. I love sharing my son with his birthparents, yet when people ask me how his mom and dad (or worse, how his REAL mom and dad) are doing, I feel like chopped liver. What am I, his babysitter?! These language gaffs are always made with the best of intentions, which is why I continue to write these posts.
Adoption language is constantly changing, so this post will be outdated in a year. However, you can never go wrong by asking the adoptive parents what language they are using.
1. Currently, most adoptive families use the terms "birthparents" or "first parents" to refer to their children's bio families; adoptive families usually fall into one of the two camps instead of using them interchangeably. "Biological parents", "natural parents", and "genetic parents" used to be more common but have mostly fallen out of favor. If it's an open adoption, it's always safe to refer to the birthparents by their first names. Reverse this if your loved ones are birthparents - say, "How are the baby's adoptive parents?" or use their first names if you know them. Not sure what to say? Just ask your loved ones. An awkward question is way better than a hurtful slip of the tongue. The Nugget calls his birthmom 'Tummy Mummy' and his birthdad 'Poppy'.
2. Don't ever refer to a child as "their adopted son/daughter". If it is important to the topic at hand, you can say, "Pam was adopted." (not is, WAS) Adoption is something that happens to a child, it's a one-time life event, not a defining characteristic. Same for adoptive parents - use the modifier only if it is relevant to the conversation.
3. Please avoid praising adoptive parents for adopting. Adoption isn't and shouldn't be something we do out of guilt, to help the less fortunate. We do it because we want to be parents. As an adoptee growing up, I felt so rotten when people would tell me how lucky I was and how wonderful my parents were. Yes, I am lucky. Yes, my parents are wonderful. But all I heard was, "You are a charity case. You are second best. Your parents are saints for taking you in, because no one else would."
4. "Made an adoption plan for the child" and "Placing a child for adoption" are now used instead of "Putting up/giving up a child for adoption" In most cases, adoption is a selfless act made by birthparents. They're not giving a child away like you'd give away a litter of kittens. They are giving their child a chance at what they hope will be a better life, with more opportunities and resources than they could provide. The new phrases show more respect to the sacrifice of the child's birthparents, as well as reinforce to the child that he/she was loved and cared for from the very beginning.
5. Eliminate the word, "real" when discussing any kind of family. Children raised by the same parents are real siblings, as are children who share one or two birthparents. Step-children are real. Step-parents are real. Divorced, separated, and remarried parents are real. Birthparents and adoptive parents are real. Asking someone to define a certain family member as "real" is disrespectful to everyone.
6. If your loved ones have adopted transracially, now's the time to clean up your act. Don't repeat racial slurs and jokes. Rethink stereotypes you might be subconsciously harbor. Even "positive" stereotypes like "Asians are smart" can hurt. Most of all, don't use racial adjectives to describe people unless it's relative to the situation.
It's ok to say, "One of my friends is Chinese and made us the most delicious potstickers from a family recipe."
It's not ok to say, "I saw three huge Black guys in the alley."
Rule of thumb? If you wouldn't replace the racial adjective with "White/Irish/Italian/German/French/etc.", then don't say it.