Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Planting Seeds

The most frequently expressed reason adoptive parents give me for NOT talking adoption with their kids (and beating hands-down the "I don't know what to say" reason!) -- I don't want to plant ideas in her head.

My usual answer is two-fold -- I bet the idea is already there, and why not?

The idea is already there

ALL adopted kids think about their birth parents. If you've told them they are adopted, and explained that that means they had a family before yours, they are thinking of that first family. I don't know what they are thinking about that family, but I'm willing to guarantee that by age 4 (if not earlier) they ARE thinking about that family. That's what the research says. And yes, I said ALL adopted kids!

Once they're between the ages of 7 & 12, they are thinking A LOT about that first family. For some kids, they are mildly curious and for others they are obsessively curious. Some kids are going to be avoidant -- NOT wanting to think about or know anything about birth family. But guess what? NOT thinking about birth family in this way is thinking about birth family! [DON'T think about the elephant in the living room!]

We are often asked, "What percent of adoptees search for their birth parents?" And our answer surprises people: "One hundred percent." In our experience, all adoptees engage in a search process. It may not be a literal search, but it is a meaningful search nonetheless. It begins when the child first asks, "Why did ithappen?" "Who are they?" "Where are they now?" These questions may be asked out loud, or they may constitute a more private form of searching -- questions that are examined only in the solitute of self-reflection. This universal search begins during the early school years, prompted by the child's growing awareness of adoption issues.

So the idea is there -- what are you going to do about it?!

Why not?

Why don't we want to plant ideas about adoption/birth family in our kids' heads? We're ALWAYS planting ideas in our kids heads -- God loves you, math is fun, honesty is the best policy, be kind to others, recycle, whatever! We're parents, planting ideas in our kids' heads is what we do!

Do you know one single parent who'd say, "I'm going to wait until she's an adult to suggest she never steal -- I don't want to put ideas in her head!" Part of a parent's job -- perhaps the most important part of a parent's job -- is to pass on our values to our kids. Why is adoption exempt from this rule?

Now, sometimes when parents say, "I don't want to put ideas in her head," they mean, "I don't want to cram adoption down her throat." Great! I don't want you to do that, either! But there is a great divide between waiting for her to mention it to show that the idea is already planted through no fault of your own, and harping on adoption all the time. And the danger of waiting and doing no planting of our own is that our child will get the ideas elsewhere, from less informed and caring people (like kids on the playground -- "Your real mother didn't love you, that's why she dumped you like garbage!"); or they'll get the idea that you don't want to talk about it, so they'll seek out information from someone else, which means that SOMEONE ELSE will be passing on THEIR values to your child, not your values. And if they can't talk to you about it, it becomes this THING that stands between you, impairing your relationship. There was an IMMEDIATE improvement of our relationship when Zoe and I started talking about the hard things in adoption.

Sometimes parents say, "I don't want to put ideas in her head," when it comes to FEELINGS about adoption and birth family. Parents will willingly share facts about adoption/birth family, but don't want to suggest any particular emotions that might be associated with it for fear of convincing a child to feel a particular way. So you'll say, "You have a birth mother," but won't say, "Do you sometimes miss your birth mother?"

Again, I have two answers. First, exactly how malleable is your child?! I have a dickens of a time convincing mine to feel a particular way! You've seen the video of Maya saying she's not at all interested in knowing about her birth parents, and you have some idea of how much we talk about adoption and birth parents, including feelings and thoughts, in this house! Second, is that how you convey values about other things? "There is a God." Next! Of course not! We tell our kids how they should feel about things -- "Love God" -- and why they should do certain things -- "Recycle to save the Earth." We even tell them how other people feel, even when we don't know -- "Your teacher doesn't hate you!" Why, then is adoption/birth family off-limits? It shouldn't be. It's something that will always be enormously influential in your child's life, in your life, in the life of your whole family. No, it doesn't define us, but it will always be there.

So plant some seeds. And be amazed at what grows!


Mei-Ling said...

"I don't want to plant ideas in her head."

Plenty of toddlers are probably already thinking about their other parents.

The idea that the adoptive parent is afraid of "planting ideas" in their child's head is absurd.

They're probably already there, waiting for you to acknowledge them.

Lorraine Dusky said...

Hi....thanks for this post. I would like every adoptive parent to read it.

from a birth mother,
lorraine from

Lorraine Dusky said...

Let me add more to my comment:

So often I have met adoptees who have told me that though they were burning up with questions about their adoption, their other families, and wanted to talk to their parents about their thoughts, they felt they could not because it would be perceived as disloyal...and something that should NOT BE TALKED ABOUT. They were supposed to pretend they were not born into some other family, yet everyone knew this singular fact about them.

After I was reunited with my daughter, Jane, her other mother said that relations between them improved because no there was no "what if..."

As I said before, this ought to be required reading for all adoptive parents. Your daughter is fortunate you understand this hole in her life, and are willing to go there.

malinda said...

Thanks, Lorraine! I always appreciate it when you pop in to share your perspective.

I couldn't agree more, Mei-Ling!

wblossom said...

I think adoption talk is very similar to the "birds and the bees" talk that all families have to deal with. You walk a fine line with giving your child the information they need at the time without overwelming them with more than they are emotionally ready to handle. You definately want to give them the information before they learn it from their friends on the playground but I think the timing and the amount of information is really dependant on the emotional readiness of the child.

RamblingMother said...

I agree with you. I have been told by a-moms in my little "group" around here that G is too young to be talking and thinking about adoption. Umm, nope she isn't. I would rather talk to her than have her come up with it all by herself or from other "well meaning/intentioned" people which could mean strange or hurtful ideas to G. And I am not waiting for her to ask, I drop things when looking at pics or reading books about adoption so she will know if she has a thought or question we can flush it out together on her time. She isn't going to go through this alone, though I know it is a journey she may have to do alone. I am her support system for her journey through her adoption story.

Lorraine Dusky said...

Hi, again, it's gratifying to read these comments--because I know there are so many adoptive families who still think and act differently.

Lisa said...

I've said "I don't want to plant ideas in her head" before.

I've grown! (No pun intended.) I now agree that SHOULD and do plant and describe our own values and beliefs system for our children all the while allowing them to make up their minds what "they" think is correct.

HAVING SAID THAT - I am 100% in agreement with what wblossom said:

"I think the timing and the amount of information is really dependant on the emotional readiness of the child." We have to know what concepts our child can relate to at her level of development. For example, a 4 year old is NOT going to "get" the OCP and issues on abandonment like an 8 year old would.

Also, If we live, breathe, think adoption 24/7 then our children will believe we perceive them to be nothing else than "our adopted child." Let them speak openly, you speak openly and the conversation flows naturally.

Go ahead - flog me! I am used to being misheard on here.

Mei-Ling said...

"Also, If we live, breathe, think adoption 24/7 then our children will believe we perceive them to be nothing else than "our adopted child."

I think the idea being conveyed in this post is not about reminding the chldren that they were adopted all the time - it's acknowledging their very different beginnings and recognizing that birth and adoption are indeed not the same.

In response to Lorraine Dusky's comment, I'll say something rather interesting. My parents always made it quite clear that I was allowed and encouraged to ask whichever questions I desired. If they felt hurt or stung whenever I talked about "that other woman who gave birth to me", they didn't show it whenever I brought the topic up.

That said, I still remained silent and didn't persist on asking a whole lot because of the fear that I was being "disloyal."

You might be surprised at just how deep that fear can silence little ones.

Lisa said...

By the way - Hi Mei-Ling! I hope you are doing well and am happy for you that you were able to travel to meet your parents. Even though I know in alot of ways for you it is bittersweet, all the best wishes to you and your family.

Adult adoptee said...

Im a 43 year old adoptee that was in a closed adoption. They told me when i was 5 - i dont remember my mom saying anything or being there and already I knew she could not handle my pain or questions and her pain and never talked about it. They felt it was pretty good tgey at least told me because not all adoptees were told. I buried any feelings fir many many years until this past year i finally felt free to even love my first mom- but my amom still is closed about it and unaffirming of my loss because it hurts her too much and she thought she would have made enough of a difference i guess to make up for my loss. I dont expect her to be there for me emotionally anymore but that is what has damaged our relationship completely. Feeling very alone and grieving for this mixed blessing of "adoption" i am getting ready to send my first mom her first contact from me- it is not easy!!! So painful for the three of us- not sure it will be worth it!!? But need to try. :)