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(The following essay is written by adoption expert and author Marietta Spencer, adoption triad consultant and founder of postlegal services for the Children's Home Society of Minnesota in St. Paul, Minnesota, and is reproduced here with permission.)

Positive or negative messages can be conveyed through language. Sometimes language is purely descriptive and explanatory without seeming to carry any emotional baggage; however, words are symbols that often carry a deeper meaning and are instrumental in creating feelings and attitudes.

The constructive use of language requires discernment, thoughtfulness and skill. This essay offers insights and perspectives for individuals interested in mastering accurate, current and positive word choices supportive of birthparents, adopted children and adults as well as of families who have added sons and daughters via adoption.

There are different users of adoption language, and in some cases, language has become outdated and obsolete. The general public has inherited concepts, words and phrases from the past; for example, the phrase "put up for adoption" refers back to the old Orphan Train era, when children were actually put up on display so people could see them.

As changes occur, new speech patterns evolve and new words are coined. When considering adoption language, including sentences, phrases and single words, readers may find it surprising to note how uncritically words in common usage are accepted.

Subgroups within the general public are deeply involved in matters related to adoption. There are those directly touched by adoption (adopted individuals, birthparents and adoptive parents) and their many extended family members. In addition, there are many other people who are part of the support system of the triad: neighbors, teachers, doctors, clergy and others with helping functions in the community.

Professional individuals are actively involved in adoption. The social worker is occupied with assisting in decision making, information and community resource sharing and is trained and licensed by society to represent societal standards. Physicians and attorneys sometimes function as catalysts between the adult parties involved in the adoption contract, in such cases focusing more on their own expertise rather than that of the counseling process. Unfortunately, many of these professionals rely on adoption language currently in general use, disregarding the nuances and implications of these words. (Specific examples are provided at the end of this section.)

Another subgroup that uses adoption language is a growing component of advocacy or special interest groups who rally around emotional causes and purposefully express their messages in strong and emotionally loaded and often negative words. These special interest groups, focusing on their pain and frustrations, point up the need for more constructive language.

Still another part of the public is an evergrowing body of adoptive parent support groups or mutual aid groups, organized around enhancing the successful family relationships of members, among many other goals. (See SUPPORT GROUPS.) While these groups and their members often have no special language tools at their command, they frequently grope for more constructive language to describe adoption and adoption-related subjects. They usually publicize positive terminology for adoption.

Adoptive parents who have been carefully prepared for adoption through the HOME STUDY process and who often have taken special adoption classes have carefully considered adoption-related words and phrases, and consequently, they help to disseminate constructive terminology as they use this language in their conversations with family, friends and others.

In addition, social workers add to and sharpen their skills by melding their expertise with what they learn from the clients they serve. That is why competent post adoption services are so useful to adoptive families, allowing creative service providers the insight and ability to feed back what is needed in birthparent and adoptive parent preparation. Language is a critical part of this preparation and of the ongoing service process.

Words are used to convey feelings, options and activities. Writers use language to illustrate and describe thoughts, situations and factual content. Most writers and researchers, even if they are familiar with adoption language accepted by thoughtful adoption professionals, choose to instead use words whose purpose is to hold the attention of the readers to entertain or to fit commonly accepted (albeit inaccurate or negative) usage. They also often tend to fall back on colloquial expressions.

Constructively selected language benefits those who are directly involved in adoption: the man and woman who shared in a child's conception, for whom adoption was planned immediately after birth or later; the adopted individual; and the parent(s) who adopted and gave family membership to their child. These three parties are best referred to as the "ADOPTION TRIAD."

Following are some examples of appropriate (and inappropriate) terms.

The term adoptee, created as a convenience by writers, researchers and the media, has recently invaded the social service arena. It is interesting to note, however, that adoptive families instinctively avoid its use.

The word adoptee labels the whole person. Rather than helping the child and the community underline that he belongs to his family, it sets him apart, which countermands and contradicts the purpose and function of the institution of adoption. Adoption is not the sole meaning and purpose of any individual's life; instead, it is one aspect of life. Preferable terms are adopted adult, adopted person, adopted child or adopted individual. In many cases, the person's adoptive status is irrelevant; for example, in reporting a celebrity's divorce, it is irrelevant whether the children were adopted or not adopted. Yet most of the time, if the adoptive status of the child is known, it is reported.

In addition, the phrase adoptive parents, although a descriptive and useful term, need only be used if adoption is an issue or of specific interest; for example, when an adopted person introduces a friend to her parents, she does not say, "I would like you to meet my adoptive parents" but merely refers to them as "my parents."

In everyday usage, children (or adults) should be referred to as "my son," "my daughter" or "my children," rather than "my adopted son," "my adopted daughter" or "my adopted children."

My own or their own are terms often used by the public to denote children born to the family as opposed to children who were adopted. Yet the child who was adopted becomes the parents' "own" because of the adoption and their assumption of parental rights and obligations in relation to the child. Parents also occupy the very same parental rights and obligations vis-?-vis their birth children-no more and no less than the rights and obligations they have assumed with children they adopt.

A reference to shared genetic descent is the usual reason for the phrase "their own"; however, its use results in unconstructive implications for the adopted child, parents and siblings, making it sound as if he really does not belong.

Birthmother/birthfather. recently coined term, now widely accepted by all adoption triad members as well as by the general public and popularized by women and men who "gave the child life," but whose offspring was adopted by other parents. The term birthfather, while popular, lacks the air of authenticity, since males do not give birth.

Foreign child, foreign adoption. ?The word foreign connotes a person who is alien and outside the family. But whether a family adopts a child, from the United States or from another country, he becomes a part of that family. He will become enculturated through parenting and by community participation.

In addition, a child adopted from another land is "naturalized" on the basis of adoptive parental citizenship in the United States. Preferred terms are international adoption, intercountry adoption or child adopted from another country.

Genetic mother/father. A term that is appropriate when discussing heredity, genetic descent and lineage issues. It correctly discerns and yet accepts "difference" when aspects of nonshared genetic descent are considered and the locus of the child's genetic traits are discussed in relation to his genetic ancestry.

Home study.?This old term has been rejuvenated and recast into the phrase family assessment or family study or preadoptive counseling used by contemporary adoption agencies. The problem with the phrase home study is that it conjures up the image of the social worker with white gloves and a judgmental attitude. It is not primarily the home that is being studied but the family. The family may change their domicile and move into a different "home."

Natural mother/father/parents.?Originally coined and applied in the legal usage, this term predated the concept and term genetic. Being highly structured and precedent-setting, legal language is often slower to change than are terms in every day use.

The term natural parent is often acceptable to the birthparent, but on deeper consideration, those birthparents who wish their birthchild really well might see otherwise. If the child who was adopted comes to assume that his parents are "unnatural," it will not help his comfort level.

Parenting.?Refers to the child-rearing process. This descriptive and constructive term is usefulin adoption for everyone and should be known to all those counseling pregnant women and those who have recently borne a child. "To parent" is a collective verb for all that is necessary in helping a child grow up and fulfill his potential.

In contrast, the term keeping a child does not connote the entire realm of child-rearing aspects. In addition, the opposite of to keep is to give away, and this phrase implies that a person can own another person and thus is able to give that person away. There is an extremely strong negative aspect to the phrase give away in addition to its inaccuracy. Also, the adopted person who hears he was "given away" is left with a very negative image.

"Real" parents.?Those who have adopted the child are really his parents from that point on. Birthmothers and fathers are genetically related to the child forever, but they are not the child's "parents" subsequent to severing functional family ties and transferring family status and roles to other parents.

Reunion.?At first glance, REUNION sounds like a positive phrase for referring to a first meeting between a birthparent and an adopted adult, but it is misleading if the adopted person was adopted as an infant.

In an infant adoption, the birthmother/father remembers parting with a baby. Coming face-to-face with a now adult birthchild, they must learn to know him or her. In addition, the adopted adult has no recollection or memories of the birthparent(s). More positive phrases are to meet with, to learn to know, to locate.

In older child adoptions, where the child does remember the parent(s), positive phrases include to resume contact, to see again. These phrases are less loaded with drama. It is interesting to note that quite often adults who were adopted as older children are more interested in locating and meeting with siblings than birthparents.

Telling?a child that he or she was adopted is important; however, "telling" implies a one-way communication flow.

Sharing?facts and feelings with one another, discussing adoption information with children sensitively at strategic points in their thought development must be a two-way listening and learning process. (See also EXPLAINING ADOPTION.)

Find more information on terminology

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