Saturday, May 2, 2009

Ten Commandments of Telling

I promised to expand on some of the lists I posted from the AAC Conference. This one is from Betsie Keefer's presentation about telling even hard truths to adopted children. It's based on her book, Telling the Truth to Your Adopted or Foster Child: Making Sense of the Past.

The book is really good, covering why to tell as well as how to tell. And there's lots more than the Ten Commandments, but that's what the presentation focused on, so I will, too. We've covered many of these before (see here, for instance), but always good to get reinforcement.

I. Do not lie.

This is a no-brainer, right? It's your child's story, and they are entitled to have it told straight. Omissions are OK if developmentally necessary (but see IV), but no lies. Kids have a way of finding out the truth, and then we've broken trust. Betsie said that adopted kids tend to snoop more than non-adopted kids (curiosity about their background), so it's not at all unusual for them to ferret out the truth before they are told.

II. Tell information in an age-appropriate way.

Of course, but HOW?! Betsie gave some examples of telling a child a very hard truth at different ages, building to the whole truth-- that the birth mom was drug-addicted and a prostitute, and the child was removed from her care because she left her alone and neglected her.

Age 3: Your first mommy couldn't take care of you. She wasn't ready to be a mommy.

Age 7: Your birth mommy had trouble taking care of herself. She wasn't able to take care of you. Neighbors were worried about you and called the social worker.

Age10: Your birth mom made a bad decision and started using drugs. She couldn't think well when she was using drugs and made even more bad decisions. Sometimes she left you alone. That wasn't safe for you.

Age 12: Your birth mom felt sick when she couldn't get drugs. She could not hold a job. She needed money, so she sold herself through prostitution. She left you alone when she met customers or bought drugs. Neighbors called the social worker, and a judge agreed you needed a safe home to grow up in.

III. Allow the child to be angry without joining in.

You know how you can diss your brother, but no one else can? Same goes when your child is angry with birth parents. Acknowledge the hurt and anger without bad-mouthing the birth parents.

IV. Share all information by the time the child is 12.

It's important to give the child all the information before the teenage years. That's the key period for identity formation, and they need all available information before that point. And, by the teenage years, kids don't believe a word their parents say! So you better get the information out while they are still listening.

V. Remember the child knows more than you think.

See snooping, above! Not to mention, if anyone in the family knows it, chances are your child has overheard parts of the story and are filling in the blanks on her own. Or someone else -- older siblings, school friends who heard something from their parents -- is telling your child. And they are likely not doing it in a kind and understanding way. Even if they are, the game of "rumour" should remind you how skewed the story will be by the time your child hears it.

Also, your child is probably developmentally ready to hear parts of the story before you think they are. Although parents are experts in their child, their reluctance to share hard truths and desire to protect the child might lead to underestimating their ability to understand.

VI. If information is negative, use a third party professional.

Choose wisely, interview beforehand, and discuss parameters of telling. AND you must stay when the therapist tells, so that you can offer your child's emotional support, so you know the details shared to clarify later anything your child missed or misunderstood, so you can demostrate to your child than even though you know "the worst" about them, you still love them and are there for them.

VII. Use positive adoption language.

It's important to model positive attitudes about adoption, and that starts with language. Your child relies on you to teach them that language, too.

VIII. Don't impose value judgments.

Even horrific information needs to be conveyed in a neutral manner. Conveying negative judgments of birth family or their actions will be seen as a rejection by adopted children -- if you don't like my birth parents, you don't like me.

And what we see as terribly negative information may not be that for the child. Betsie's example was when she was called in by a family to share the fact that their son was conceived as a result of rape. Everyone was surprised that the boy was actually happy to hear it -- he had internalized ideas of his birth mother as promiscuous, and was glad to know it wasn't so.

IX. Initiate conversation about adoption.

Waiting until kids ask questions isn't adequate. Look for opportunities to raise the issue of adoption:

1. Watch movies/programs with adoption themes with your child and draw parallels and contrasts to your child's story; use as a springboard to further discussion;

2. Use key times of the year (birthday, Mother's Day, gotcha day, adoption day) to let your child know that you are thinking about their birth family;

3. Comment on your child's positive characteristics and wonder aloud whether they got that characteristic from birth family members;

4. Include the birth family when congratulating your child for accomplishments -- "I'm sure they would be as proud as we are."
X. The child should be in control of his story outside the family.

Intimate details should only be shared at your child's discretion. Make sure, though, that your child realizes the difference between "private" and "secret." Secrets connote shame, and you don't want your child to think negative facts are shameful.


Lisa said...

Malinda, Do you know the credentials of the authors? It sounds like they have quite a bit of experience. I especially like the "don't join in on the anger" bit. As a parent, we want to identify with our children's feelings, and it would be easy to do so, especially when they are hurting. That piece of advice is a good reminder.

I still worry about IX on some level (initiate conversation). We had a raging debate on this some time ago on this blog.

I think it's great to have / bring up opportunities to discuss our children's adoption, but I worry that PERSISTENT UNSOLICITED DISCUSSION will give the child the impression that adoption is "all" we define her by. Or even be so saturated she tires of our discussions. Our daughter is many other things besides "our child by adoption."

I find it a bit presumptuous for us to think we can impose our personal opinions on Mother's day and birthdays. This sounds like our OWN agenda. What if our child doesn't want "us" to think about the birth parents on her birthday? And we say we do? Are we imposing our own thoughts on her?

I know I am beating a dead horse after our previous discussion, and there are worries that adoptees may feel unable to discuss by their parents' nonverbal and verbal signals. And, some parents may read their children better than others, this is where it becomes complex.

However, if you leave that door open and tell your child verbally you WILL discuss any topic anytime - opportunities to discuss adoption will happen time and time again. Why LOOK for opportunities? They are all around you. Just the other day we saw a family I know, and the girl happens to be adopted from Romania. My daughter had lots of questions, we had an interesting (and I hope informative) discussion as a result.

Shari U said...

Sounds like some good advice. I can hang with everything except the "all information by age 12". That one hurts a little bit. We have kept our daughter's abandonment information to ourselves, I don't want her to hear from another child in the 3rd grade that "your mom told my mom that you were dumped alongside the street when someone picked you up and took you to the orphanage" or something like that. We don't want other people to pity her or to discuss her personal details. We have just kept it to ourselves. How in the world do you explain to a child that they were abandoned and how they were abandoned without it completely destroying their sense of worth? I would imagine this is a little more of a problem with the children adopted from China as most of them were abandoned and typically not in a pretty way. Truthfully, I had planned to keep that one piece of information secret and had even planned to remove that document from my house so my daughter would never find it. I hate the idea of her ever having to know about this. Can anyone help me wrap my mind around this?

malinda said...


I sympathize with the desire to protect your child from hurtful information, but I say you HAVE to tell. She WILL hear about it from others -- too many people know about the situation in China. It won't take someone hearing it from you and repeating it to her. SOMEONE will say to her, "They hate girls in China. They just leave them by the side of the road to die. You're lucky someone found you and took you to an orphanage." I can almost guarantee it -- people said it in front of Zoe from the time she was 3, and when we went to China when she was 4.5 to adopt baby sister, the guide threw around "abandonment" like it was the word of the day! IT WILL HAPPEN!

So you have a choice -- do you want her to hear it from someone else, or from you, who will be there to give her emotional support and to express it as positively as possible?

Zoe and Maya both know about the one child policy and the social preference for boys. They know that they were put in a place where they would be found quickly, that they were wrapped warmly, and that these things were done as their birth parents did their best to take care of them. They know that their abandonment was caused by big grown-up problems in China, and that they were goo-goo ga-ga babies who couldn't do anything wrong. In fact, they were so tiny their birth parents didn't know them as people -- their birth parents couldn't parent ANY girl baby.

Yes, it hurts. But they need to know.

Mahmee said...

Excellent post!
As a parent of a 3.5 year old who is just starting to voice some questions about adoption, China and her origins in the world, this is extremely helpful.
I whole-heartedly agree that we need to disclose all of the information by age 12, including the abandonment. I also believe that initiating conversations with books, movies, life experience, etc. is important. And...I would love to hear an adoptee's point of view on the 'conversation initiation' issue.
Malinda - when your girls were around age 3 / 4, what did you utilize to start adoption discussions?

Shari U said...

I know that I HAVE to tell her, I just don't WANT to. ever. I understand that she has to hear it from me. I want her to know that she can trust me and I have to be honest with her in order for that to happen. When we first came home with her I knew it was important to start telling her the story of how she came to be with us. It was hard at first, but as I heard myself say it out loud it became more comfortable. I'm sure the abandonment story will be similar and I suppose there's no time like the present to start setting up the framework for that.

Sang-Shil said...

And the dead horse continues to be beaten...

I'll just say that I find it very interesting that some adoptive parents suddenly become very concerned about "imposing their own thoughts" and "pushing" certain priorities and values on their children when it comes to feelings about first (birth) parents, but don't hesitate to "teach," "guide," or "impart" values/feelings towards other people (i.e. other [adoptive] family members, figures of authority, etc.)

Lisa Again said...

Sang-Shil - I'll assume your comment is directed at my original post here. I see what you are getting at, but I am coming from a different angle.

Concerning -
" don't hesitate to "teach," "guide," or "impart" values/feelings towards other people (i.e. other [adoptive] family members, figures of authority, etc.)"

Isn't that what parents do - teach their values? Tell their feelings? Isn't that what PEOPLE do? Isn't that what you do on your blog?

My whole point is - if you are open to discussion with your child, then WHY should AP's look for every opportunity to discuss adoption? The opportunities are everywhere. If you are a conversational family it will come up naturally and not in a "forced" fashion.

Lisa said...

PS Sang-Shil - great post on your blog - "One Thing Adoptive Parents Hate Doing"

Sang-Shil said...

Hi Lisa Again -- **waves**

That was EXACTLY my point... that parents (and people in general) *do* teach values, instruct, tell their feelings, tell people what to do, etc. But especially parents, because that is a huge part of what raising a child is all about. Parents *should be* doing *exactly* these things for their children. :-)

What I wanted to point out was that some adoptive parents do this extensively for "present" family members, especially ones that are "known" but may not be in a child's life every day (i.e. grandparents or cousins), but not for family members that haven't been met or can't be remembered, such as first parents. If we tell our children to, say, remember their grandparents or their cousins on their birthdays or on grandparents day, even though the child doesn't actually see them on those days, it sends the message that we think it important to remember them, think of them, and include them in our emotional/mental lives.

I'm simply asking, why wouldn't we do the same for first parents, say on birthdays or Mothers' Day? Why does language around first parents suddenly involve the words "presumptuous" and "imposing"... but not for other [adoptive] family members? Is it because we don't really feel comfortable thinking of first families as "family members" in the first place? Or is it something else that I'm not thinking of?

As for my blog: First of all, I'm not sure how my blog is relevant to the above discussion about parenting, because my sharing my thoughts (and yes, occasionally even giving advice or "telling people what to do") has none of the power dynamics (or responsibilities of) a parent-child relationship. I am not "raising" anybody, and have absolutely no responsibility to teach or educate or do anything else.

But since you brought it up: While I like to think of my writing there as mostly "telling my feelings" rather than "teaching" or "telling people what to do," I admit that there are moments when I forget myself and give advice, sometimes rather pointedly. (Though not nearly as often as it would seem some adoptive parents would like). The post that you called "great" (Were you being sarcastic? Please clarify.) was one of those rare times, because it is something that I feel VERY, very strongly about.

Lisa said...


I noticed on your blog that you said you wanted to basically reserve the right to grow. I respect that. I read this blog (and now some others) not solely to rant my opinion, but read and evolve, too.

I was not being sarcastic, I was intrigued by this entry. Much appreciated! For those who may be reading this post it's -

I am just quoting part of the entry: "What I find most frustrating is that many white adoptive parents take these calls to move to a diverse environment as a mandate for more Chinese school, or Korean culture camps, or Indian restaurants, or anything else that will allow the parents to retreat to their safe enclaves of whiteness at the end of the day. Sending your kids to school day in and day out with children that look like them is very different from sending them to culture school once a week to make paper lanterns. Living in a neighborhood with families and adults of your child’s race is different from seeing people of color in service positions at the local Mickey D’s. In short, being constantly immersed in a diverse environment is entirely different from merely visiting one whenever it happens to be convenient."

That is exactly what I get from readings of adoptees, and it was put into words much better than I could ever express. Parenting requires us to go out of our comfort zone in many ways. My 8 year old is much more interested in Chinese people (let’s say Asian people), culture, language than she is her birth parents. I worried that maybe there was something I was doing to keep her from expressing her feelings toward her birth family, so I recently consulted an adoption psychologist. She said that my daughter was not in the grief stage yet, and may not get there until adolescence or young adulthood. Her advice was to keep doors open, but don’t force things. I know all children are different, but it’s obvious that overdoing discussion on any topic can turn a child off.

My own rants of avoiding "persistent unsolicited discussion" really pertain a lot to my 8 year old daughter's personality. If I push her too hard with discussion on ANY topic, she shuts down. Let me give you an example of what happened today. We were riding in the car. She said in a delightful, giggly tone "Speech! Speech!" I said "Sydney, your audience is listening" (continuing the playful banter). Sydney said "When I was born into the old house before we moved...." and proceeded to give her speech.

What was the first thing, I, the goof said? "Honey, first of all, you were born in China and brought HOME to the other house." (You know, in response to my readings that many adoptees’ own birth was never discussed with them). Then I playfully addressed her speech. She shut down. I lost her. She was no longer listening. The she said "MOM, I KNOW I was born in China. What I am saying is...oh, just forget it." She wouldn't tell me what it was.

As you rightfully pointed out, we parents are VERY pushy on our values, opinions, advice. I do guide, but I try to let my daughter in the front seat on all life issues. She is in on decision making, and even if we have to override (no, we can’t have a rabbit, we have too many critters already). I listen to and respect her position.

So, my whole and sole point is that I think we parents need to be sure our kids are with us in any discussion – not just initiate conversation to meet “our” needs. WE ARE IN THEIR FACE TOO MUCH ABOUT EVERYTHING - not just adoption/cultural immersion.

Thanks for listening!

PS I am not as into the internet talking as well: Caps for me are not yelling, but emphasizing my point.

Sang-Shil said...


Thank you for sharing that story about your daughter.

Sydney reminds me so much of how I was at her age that it's scary.

LisaLew said...

Voted for this one as Top Post!

Jenn said...

I'm late the party... sigh...

Adult adoptee chiming in because I don't see others addressing the point about conversation initiation. All adoptees are different, but I do have an opinion that might help others.

I personally was thinking about my adoption all the time when I was a kid. I just never talked about it. I talked about everything else, but I didn't want to upset my mom. And I didn't know how to start the conversation. Had my mother brought it up, I would have LOVED to talk about it. I think things might have been a little bit easier for me, knowing it was OK to talk about. I just figured because she never brought it up we weren't supposed to talk about it.

I wasn't given my whole story by age 12. I had to find it on my own at 21. And let me tell you, I would have much rather had my parents give me that information by the time I was 12. I assumed my first mother was a crack whore and my father abandoned her. This couldn't have been more wrong.

I agree 100% as an adult adoptee with the list. It's good advice. Granted, I'm sure there are adoptees out there who feel it's crap, but that's just the nature of being part of a larger group.

Again, sorry I'm so late to the party but it bothered me that nobody really addressed that point so I figured I would so that others who are late on this will maybe see this. :-)

Mary A. said...

As the spouse of someone who discovered only at age 42 that he'd been adopted as an infant, I am so glad to read this post.