Tuesday, May 11, 2010

"What to tell -- and when"

Brian Stuy of Research-China offers an opinion on what and when to share about adoption with adopted children, using his discussions with his kids as a contrast to other adoptive parents whom he fears are "force-feeding" kids more information than they want or need:
We have never brought up, unprompted, our daughters' birth parents. We have discussed adoption, conception and pregnancy, and other corollary issues from time to time, but I have never, without having the subject introduced by a daughter, initiated a conversation by saying, "Do you wish you knew your birth mother?" Or, "Do you want to know more about your abandonment?" I have always indicated a willingness to answer any and all questions (not just about adoption but about anything), so I am confident my kids know that if they ask any question we will try to provide them with a good answer. But the point is, I wait for them to ask. Those that force-feed their children the deep issues of abandonment, birth parents and adoption, risk, I believe, getting the kinds of responses displayed above. In fact, by presenting the reality of birth parents before they are mature enough to handle it, for example, I think we risk diminishing our own position as parents to our children.

What do you think? I think my position is made pretty clearly here.  BTW, I'm not talking about Brian behind his back -- I left a comment at his blog!


travelmom and more said...

There is a balance between letting the child initiate conversations about their adoption and the parents bringing this up. We use books with adoption themes to initiate discussion about birth parents and abandonment. I don't want her adoption story or her birthparents to be a taboo topic, which I think we might create by not initiating conversations about her adoption. Additionally, I want to talk to my daughter about her story before she hears stories at the playground. However, I don't want adoption to be the only thing that defines my daughter either, so we don't talk about it a lot but we do from time to time. My guess is at different stages in her development her adoption will come up as she needs it to and I plan to bring it up on a regular basis so the door is open when she needs it to be.

Lee said...


I had a dialog with Brian about this topic when he posted it on his subscription blog. He has changed some of his language, which was more even more restrictive on that blog. My feelings are pretty strong, since I am adopted and my parents definitely thought they talked "openly" on the subject, but the discussion was always focused on how lucky I was to be adopted, and that they were certainly my "real" parents. I don't mean to sound negative here -- that approach/language is what parents were taught when they adopted in the 1960s, and I had fabulous parents.

This was my comment to Brian in October when he first broached the subject:


Brian: I've been meaning to comment on this post for a while, and I'm glad you got the comments issue fixed. I think you make some interesting points here, and it is a topic of growing interest with my own nearly 4-year-old daughter.

We do talk with her about adoption basics, and that includes birth/first parents. I am having a hard time understanding how you discuss adoption, conception and pregnancy without bringing up birth parents. While I would never ask leading questions such as "do you wish you knew your birth mother?", we definitely talk about our daughter's first parents. I don't want her first interactions dealing with questions about her adoption to come from strangers, and at least one child in her pre-school has already asked "where are her parents in China, and why didn't they want her?"

In many cases, I don't think a child would even know the questions to ask. I am adopted myself, and I use my experience to try to talk to my daughter about her own, but I was a domestic adoption to a family of the same race, so I got to choose when I wanted to tell people I was adopted. My daughter doesn't have that choice -- she will get questions, and that will inevitably include questions about her birth family.

I certainly don't "force" information on my daughter, nor do I bring it up out of context (usually it comes up when we are reading or watching something about families). But I'm wondering if you take this same approach to talking to your daughters about things like drugs or sex or even racism. Do you "tuck away" your information and wait for them to come to you with questions, or do you try to prepare them to deal with the challenges and questions they will face in those areas?

To be honest, with all the work and research you've done around adoption, trafficking and what's really going on in China, this post surprised me. I agree there is no need to create unnecessary drama or ask leading questions, but I think dialog is important.

I need to get past some language issues myself -- for some reason I have a hard time using the word orphanage with my daughter, and I need to get over that. She was raised in an orphanage, pure and simple. Calling it "where you lived in China as a baby" isn't going to change the reality of it.

I don't want my daughter to think her adoption is a source of secrets and shame. It is part of her story, and we should all know our story, although defintely in stages, and in age-appropriate ways.


Sorry this is so long, but we had a good back-and-forth discussion about it. I just don't want my daughter to be in the situation I was -- not really coming to terms with my adoption until my 30s and 40s...

Judy said...

According to the therapist (who has a specialty in adoption) that we once went to, it's important to bring up the subject of adoption to our kids -- in age-appropriate ways, of course. Also, it's something that we don't have to bring up all the time, in essence, hitting them with a 2x4 with it, but I think it's something that can be weaved into everyday conversation as much as possible.

In our case, our son has always known that he's adopted, but he had some pretty big misconceptions about his early life until we cleared them up (things like how long he was with his mother).

For me, it's a matter of bringing it up sometimes myself, listening carefully to what he brings up, and at this age (he's 8 now), being more open with him than we were when he was, say 5 years old. We're still age-appropriate, and how we address things will change as time goes on. I certainly don't see it as "force-feeding" him, but as offering him vital information about his beginnings that he might not know how to ask about.

OmegaMom said...

Lee brings up something I agree with and find confusing when talking to people who say "don't bring up these subjects! You're just creating self-fulfilling prophecies!" How on earth can you discuss adoption, birthdays, motherhood, etc. without mentioning, oh, the fact that someone had to be the woman who gave birth to them? My daughter didn't spring full-fledged from the orphanage floor, like Venus on the half shell! Her story doesn't begin the day we adopted her--she had a life before that.

Oh, well. I commented, too.

Anonymous said...

I agree with others that it is good to raise the subject from time to time... otherwise how will our kids know it is okay to talk about it? That said, we don't talk about it all that much. I see where Brian is coming from, but disagree about "never" raising the subject. I think that when raising the subject, it is a good idea to carefully gauge a child's reaction. If they don't seem to want to talk about it, then drop the subject. If they ask questions, I try to provide just enough information to answer the questions without providing additional detail, unless they ask for it. This seems like a good way to gauge their readiness for the information.

I'm still pondering the idea of talking to them about corruption in adoption. I was going to ask Jane Brown about it, but her workshop was canceled. I wonder how Brian's kids would react to finding that information on his blog if he has not mentioned it to them ahead of time.
Sue (aka anonymous)

Anonymous said...

Wow... let's go ahead and raise kids with the expectation that they'll be in therapy by the time they hit 20.

I swear, one day, I will see a post about how Malinda sat down with her two kids and discuss how string theory were responsible for their adoption:

"Well, you see, Zoe, only certain numbers of strings can be seen in our universe. So what happened was that your parents, by sheer quantum mechanics chance, moved into the other string dimensions. They are still there and they love you very much. In the meantime, I'm your adopted mom in these dimensions.

Now if you really want to see them, you have to seek out the Schrodinger's Wizard, who might or might not be in his box.

Just remember, click your heels three times, and you will get a coupon for a free therapy session."

Anonymous said...

I wait for them to ask.

Speaking as both an adoptee and adoptive parent, I STRONGLY disagree with this as a plan while agreeing that some parents do go too far the other way. Much better to gently bring up different age appropriate aspects from time to time (and talking about adoption in it's relation to pregnancy/conception is only ONE aspect).

Plenty of other things I disagree with in his actual blog post too LOL

Mei Ling said...

"Wow... let's go ahead and raise kids with the expectation that they'll be in therapy by the time they hit 20."

Hey, anon, you are aware that kids don't necessarily voice everything they think of. This includes adoption-related subjects. And nobody implied that bringing up adoption frequently enough (so that kids know it's a "safe" topic to discuss) would make these kids end up in therapy.

"Well, I don't want to plant ideas that might not already be in their heads."

In that case, keep on remaining silent, folks. Because frankly, kids are thinking about all sorts of things without you "planting" ideas in their heads about their own adoptions, and you'll NEVER know everything they think about in relation to adoption unless YOU ask. In which case, they still might not tell you everything.

But my point is, you'd be surprised at what kids can process. And no, this won't lead to the sarcastically-implied suggestion of "therapy."

Mei Ling said...

["Well, I don't want to plant ideas that might not already be in their heads."]

P.S. I realize the first anon didn't even state this, but this is often the argument I see in response to "Why *don't* you bring up adoption-related topics?"

And no, my mom didn't bring up adoption all the time either.

Doesn't mean I wasn't thinking about it. ;)

Anonymous said...

Wow, this is also a hot topic on one of the lists right now with people debating what is avoiding the subject and what is just respecting kids' boundaries.

One point I'd like to make is I seriously doubt Brian would be telling his kids how lucky they are to be adopted, so I don't think his reticence comes from any of that. But I've had a discussion around this with him too and in many ways I can see his POV. My daughter is very reluctant to talk about her adoption or first family so I just shoot the probe out there on a regular but not pesky basis and try to make her feel she can talk about her parents any time. But no, we don't have these regular conversations, she ain't mnaking me any first family art any time soon and if anything, I think the permission that has been given to think and say anything has caused her to focus on our relationship more. I did not choose that. It just happened.

Mahmee said...

Wow. Well..I, uh tend to be fairly short and to the point generally speaking. So, having said that...
As an adoptive parent you are the one and only first link your child has to their 'story' / history (which may or may not be much but it is their's and no one else's.) Children are all about questions when they are young and they don't always voice those questions. I can't even imagine not opening up dialogs about their origins in the world.
'What to tell and when'? Well, in my opinion, you tell it all (age appropriately) from the beginning. My questions (as an adoptive parent) have always been motivated not by what to tell but, just how to tell it (age-appropriately). I mean, this is their life story. Hello?!

M said...

As an early childhood teacher and an adoptive mom to two girls ages 7 and 3, my approach is pretty straightforward: I have told my children their adoption stories and read them books about adoption. I have discussed the facts of their adoptions, talk about their birthparents and answer any questions my older daughter may have (and she's had plenty!). But I never read books or have conversations with them about how they should feel about any of this. I imagine they'll feel a range of emotions about their adoptions as they grow, but I'm going to let it come from them and not be based on my feelings or lines from books.

Anonymous said...

Mei Ling,

My point was that there's way too much over-analyzing here of what one should or should not do, it's ridiculous.

That was the main point of my post, not whether one should speak to his/her children or not.

Sister Carrie said...

I'm with Omegamom. How do you not talk about these things? People get into arguments about "when to tell," and it makes no sense to me -- you never not tell. That is, you tell them before they even understand the words, albeit with age-appropriate details. As Mei Ling points out, just because they don't bring it up doesn't mean they aren't thinking about it -- and possibly drawing their own erroneous conclusions.

Anonymous said...

"How do you not talk about these things? People get into arguments about "when to tell," and it makes no sense to me -- you never not tell."

Let me see if I understand you correctly. You're saying that you NEVER hold back any information to your child?

So, if your child was the result of a violent rape (for example), you'd share that with her immediately? As a toddler, a preschooler, in Kindergarten, etc? She'd never be able to remember a time in her life that she didn't know that her biological father raped her mother?

After all, she might be drawing her own erroneous conclusions and thinking that her father was merely away on a long work assignment or in the military instead of serving 25 to life in prison...

My point is that the truth is often pretty damn ugly and there's nothing more ugly than being thrown away. Even though there are mitigating circumstances, kids need a little bit of time to sink some deep roots before they have to be confronted with that reality.

Maybe we should never say never.

LisaLew said...

Travelmom said:

"There is a balance between letting the child initiate conversations about their adoption and the parents bringing this up."

Key word she wrote: BALANCE, not overdo discussion or cease discussion. There are plenty of opportunities for discussion to come up very regularly if the door is open.

Anon - (you know who you are): The remarks concerning Malinda are uncalled for. Many of us are happy to read this blog for a reason, and we don't like to see personal attacks against a person who works very hard to bring us information.