TALKING WITH YOUR CHILD ABOUT ADOPTION

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Some adoptive parents feel very comfortable in discussing adoption with their child, while others have some anxiety. All adoptive parents, however, have one thing in common. They understand that not only does their child need and deserve knowledge of how their family was created through adoption, but also that his or her knowledge must be provided in a way which will give their child the pride and self-respect every person needs as a foundation in life.

What do you say and when do you say it? Every child - and family situation - is different, but there are many common themes which the adoption community has come to embrace. The practice followed by some parents many years ago of hiding any information about the adoption until the child was "old enough" has been rejected. Although that policy may have been followed with good intentions, many problems resulted. Many children would accidently learn from others they were adopted, instead of from their parents, creating confusion and parent-trust issues. Other children would wrongly assume their parents’ silence was due to embarrassment about the adoption, creating shame in the child, unjustly believing something must be "wrong" with adoption.

Now, openness is embraced. Although your child grew in your heart and not physically in your body, you don’t want to deny your young child the great joys every child receives when hearing about your anticipation of his or her arrival into the family, and how cherished and important a part of your family he or she has become. How your child views him or herself - and adoption itself - will depend almost exclusively upon you. You will want to reaffirm adoption was a decision made out of love by both you and the birth parent(s), all wanting one thing; a wonderful life for this child.

The text above is from the Parent’s Introduction Page to the book ADOPTION STORIES FOR YOUNG CHILDREN by Randall Hicks. Although that book is now out of print, there are many excellent books written for children to reaffirm that adoption is a common and loving way of entering a family. These books embrace the feeling of the adoption community that a child is best served by being raised with the knowledge that he or she was adopted. A child instinctively knows we enjoy talking about good things, and adoption is clearly a "good" thing. It is how he or she came to be your son or daughter. You can’t get much "gooder" than that, so why would a parent not want to share that joy with their child? Having great joy in being an adoptive parent, and having the desire to share that information with your child, however, does not always mean it is easy to know exactly how to bring up those issues. Fortunately, since books will always be one of a parent and child’s favorite shared activities, there are many wonderful childrens’ books with an adoption theme. These books help the word "adoption" be an easily spoken, everyday word with no mystery or discomfort attached for parent or child, and establishes basic themes of how adoption is a natural and common, loving and permanent way to be a family.


Adoption from a child's point of view

Unlike the other Adoption101.com articles, this article will focus almost exclusively upon books. This is because children’s books are traditionally the most common and popular method to bring key isses of adoption before your child in a casual, positive and fun way. This is not to say an adopted child’s library should consist of 50% adoption books, or even 25%. However, four or five of the right adoption books is often ideal. Adoption is only one small part of his or her wonderfully diverse life, and his or her library should be just as diverse. Finding the right balance of adoption books is important, however, so let’s look at the different types of adoption books.

Books Using Illustrations

Most children’s adoption books use illustrations rather than the realism of actual photographs. These illustrations can be of either people or animal characters. Since many children identify with cuddly animals, it makes an effective method in tandem with stories and illustrations of actual children. A popular book using the parallel of an animal’s family is A MOTHER FOR CHOCO, by Keiko Kasza. Choco is a little bird who lived all alone and wished he had a mother. One day he set out to find her. After fruitlessly considering giraffes, penguins and the like, he finally found his true mother, the warm and loving Mrs. Bear. Choco knew she was his mother because she did what mother’s do: run to him when she hears him cry and hold him tight, give him big kisses, and sing and dance together. She knew Mrs. Bear was his mother because she loved him, not because they looked alike. This hardback is a sweetly told story with illustrations that children love.

Most children’s adoption books use illustrations of human characters, not animals such as Choco. One such book focusing upon a parents’ joy in adopting their child is TELL ME AGAIN ABOUT THE NIGHT I WAS BORN, by actress and adoptive mother, Jamie Lee Curtis. The text of this wonderfully illustrated book revels in a child’s joy in his or her birth and entering a family with so much love waiting to be given: "Tell me again about the night I was born... Tell me again about the first time you held me in your arms... Tell me again about the first time you saw me through the nursery window and how you couldn’t believe something so small could make you smile so big..." A somewhat magical view of one adoptive family’s beginnings is found in OVER THE MOON, by Karen Katz. It tells the story of adoptive parents’ trip to pick up and meet their new baby, and bring her home to start their family. The illustrations in this book are most likely the most colorful and enchanting you will see in any book of this type. This book does not receive the publicity of TELL ME AGAIN ABOUT THE NIGHT I WAS BORN, but is equally skilled at telling a similar story, but with a completely different approach. It is ideal for adoptive parents who traveled to another state or country to complete their adoption, but is enjoyable for all children.

Another book with this approach is THE DAY WE MET YOU, by Phoebe Koehler. With rich, pastel illustrations, a mother and father give a loving description of the joyful, excited preparations for bringing home their new baby. These include the same things any parent would do: buying a car seat, clothes, formula, diapers and toys, and telling excited grandparents of the new family member. Although the story is clearly of adopted parents receiving the call that they had become "parents," the word "adoption" is not even used.

Books Using Actual Photographs

Although the loving elements of adoption are well told via illustrations in the books mentioned above, it is beneficial for children to. The chance for a child to subconsciously identify with other "real" adopted children - rather than drawings of people - is important. This is especially true for children who are not raised with many adopted friends. Such books help prevent a child thinking he or she is somehow different from other children due to being adopted. Instead, right before their eyes, are photographs of children who were adopted - yet they are just like your child - they have a mom or dad or both, they have two eyes and two ears, they are happy sometimes and sad sometimes.

Of "Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood" fame, Mr. Rogers’ LET'S TALK ABOUT IT: ADOPTION is an excellent book. This book emphasizes that it is good for families to talk about their feelings - and adoption - and that it is natural to sometimes be sad or have questions, just like it is natural to be happy and joyful in belonging to a family. You can see there is a lot of diversity in the approach books take toward adoption: animated illustrations or realistic photographs, human or animal characters, books about boys or girls, children of different color and origins, different ages, etc. This diversity is good for children, as your child will subconsciously see he or she is part of a giant group, not different in any negative sort of way.

Special "Adoption Day" Celebrations

Some adoptive parents question whether they should celebrate their child’s adoption day (the day their child legally became theirs by court approval) as a special day much like a birthday. Some adoptive parents feel it is appropriate to do this, while others do not. Depending upon the traditions of the family, neither option is right or wrong. Regardless of whether a special party is part of the family tradition, it is important for a child to understand the importance and specialness of that day, even if is not acknowledged as such each year.

One book dealing with this issue is TWO BIRTHDAYS FOR BETH, by Gay Lynn Cronin. It features a young girl who misunderstands her mother’s story of her adoption, thinking the celebrating of her arrival means two birthdays. As she and her doll scour the house for the anticipated hidden presents, with no success, her mother explains she has only one birthday, and even though the date of her adoption is truly special, it is not one celebrated each year with cake and presents. When Beth tells her mother that "being adopted is different, so I thought it meant two birthdays" her mother responds, "Adoption is different, but the love is the same. I don’t love you because you’re adopted. I love you because you’re Beth. And I think Beth is absolutely wonderful, don’t you?" Beth turns and runs to her room. But instead of being disappointed over her lack of presents, she makes a surprise for her mother. It is a folded heart. On one side is her mother, and on the other is Beth. Beth tells her mother, "This side is you. This side is me. Together we make a heart. Together we make a family. Every day. That’s what being adopted means." Two Birthdays for Beth is a nice oversized hardcover with color illustrations. Beth and her mother are African American, but it is a book for children of every ethnic group.

Multi-Racial Adoption Books

For multi-racial placements, where a child’s adoptive parents, or a sibling, looks different, there is Sesame Streets’ WE'RE DIFFERENT, WE'RE THE SAME. This book shows how every person and body part is different. In one example, via both words and illustrations, we see the many different shaped mouths that different people can have. Then we are told how everyone’s mouths are the same, even if they look different: "Our lips form the words we say and smile when it’s a happy day."

Another book, WHY AM I DIFFERENT?, by Norma Simon, focuses on the fact that being adopted is just one of many ways we are all different. Told by the older sister of an adopted baby, we see how we look different, live in different type houses, live in different types of families (with only one parent, with a grandparent, a foster parent), get different things in our lunch box, finally... how boring life would be if everyone were exactly the same! A child concludes "Hey, being different is good!"

International Adoption Stories

If your child is adopted from another country, it is helpful to have books touching upon that type of adoption, although the same issues covered in the books mentioned above are still needed. THROUGH MOON AND STARS AND NIGHT SKIES is an uncomplicated story using bright illustrations of a child’s journey from a distant land to America to join the family he had long thought about. OVER THE MOON (mentioned above)  is not specifically described as an international adoption story, although it does involve adoptive parents taking an airplane to meet their child.

Those adopting from China will find OUR BABY FROM CHINA, by Nancy D’Antonio to be one of the best. We follow an adoptive couple’s trek to China to adopt their new daughter. Not only are the issues of adoption discussed, with color photos to match, but a true feeling of a trip to China is felt. ALLISON, by Allen Say, is another hardback book focusing on a Chinese girl’s adoption. Allison suddenly becomes aware she does not look like her mom and dad and this angers and confuses her. The words of her parents and teacher do not console her. However, when she herself adopts a stray kitten, she understands how much love a person can have for someone not born to them.

Foster Care Issues for Children

There are unique issues for a child adopted from a foster care environment, where a child has bonds with a birth parent, but the child’s safety requires removal from their home. ZACHARY'S NEW HOME, by Geraldine and Paul Blomquist, addresses these issues for young children. Zachary, a kitten, is removed from his family. Once they had fun together, but now he never sees his father, and his mother is always mad and sometimes even hits him. A kindly kangaroo takes him to a foster home. It is scary to be in a new place, but there are other kids there who can’t live with their parents either. When Zachary was eventually adopted by a loving pair of ducks, he did not want to go. Even though he still was mad he could not live with his "real" parents, he gradually learned how special it was to receive the love of the ducks and be a part of their home.


Selecting your child's library

How many books in your child’s library should be adoption books, and of what type? Some experts advise that several books of each type is best: actual photos of children and families illustrations. Significantly, every "adoption book" need not make the subject of adoption its core element. Many books are beneficial even when adoption is only a minor aspect of the story, as its puts adoption in perspective as just one part of a person’s life. Once a child passes the early elementary school years, adoption books can make up a much smaller percentage of your home library. During those earlier years, however, you will often find that a child is regularly choosing an adoption book as a story to be read by mom or dad, not because he or she sees it as "an adoption book," rather because it is simply a good story.

As a child matures past children’s books, he or she can identify with adopted characters in literature for older children and adults. In the Bible one can study Moses, who was adopted and a chosen person by God. Jesus was adopted by his step-father Moses (and even Mary as the child was not biologically hers). In other words, the most famous people in both the old and new testaments are adopted. Impressive to a child. In the comics we can admire Superman, who was adopted by an Earth family. In real life we can see famous adopted individuals, like two former Presidents, Herbert Hoover and Gerald Ford, country singer, Faith Hill, even Aristotle. The is no shortage of well known adoptive parents, including Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, Steven Speilberg, Michelle Pfeiffer, to name but a few. To see a helpful list of hundreds of well known adoptees, birrth and adoptive parents, visit celebrities.adoption.com.

When a child reaches about the age of seven, and through the age of eleven, his or her questioning about adoption will be different that in younger years. Often parents and their children are so involved at this age with school and outside activities (baseball, soccer, scouts etc.), that adoption issues are less discussed as compared to the earlier foundation years. However, it is at this age that children have a greater understanding of how babies are born through sexual intercourse, and how adoption is different. This is compounded by how they might perceive themselves as different from non-adopted friends and are more aware of their appearance, including if they look different from their adoptive parents. Children begin to wonder about their place in the world as compared to others, and this often brings them full circle to their creation through adoption.

It is at this age that more detailed questions about why their birth parents felt adoption was best for them. They may secretly wonder if as a baby they did something wrong to result in the birth parent not keeping them. Others fear that they were not a pretty baby. Naturally, these questions require great sensitivity from parents. Luckily, the positive foundation you laid so carefully in your child’s early years when discussing adoption will help your child understand these issues, as you explain them in a more mature fashion than was appropriate earlier. Also, because of the fact adoption has always been an easily spoken word in your home, these questions can be asked without embarrassment by your child, and answered comfortably by you (because you’ve already had seven years of "easy " questions getting you ready for this phase of your child’s growth.)

A popular book for children age seven and up is WHY WAS I ADOPTED? by Carole Livingston. This book uses comic illustrations, but discusses adoption in a more mature approach. Issues like birth parent motivations to place a child for adoption (poverty, youth, even death), adoptive parent and adoptee feelings (being a family does not mean being happy every second, it means giving and receiving love), and how the adoption process works. Whether your adoption is open or closed, domestic or international, the most important thing to remember when you speak about adoption with your child is to let your joy in the subject be apparent. Adoption is how your son or daughter came to be your child. He or she will want to see the happiness in your face when discussing it, whether to your own child, or to someone else.


Adoption from the adoptive parents' point of view

What about help for you, the adoptive parent? Lois Melina, noted author and an adoptive parent, has written the two most acclaimed books on the subject of discussing adoption with your child, as well as all the issues related to adoption faced by adoptive parents. Adoption is a complicated subject in which even the most loving parent needs guidance. RAISING ADOPTED CHILDREN and MAKING SENSE OF ADOPTION, both by Lois Melina, review the "how, when and why" of discussing adoption with your child, and are the most popular books in this category. RAISING ADOPTED CHILDREN examines children’s physical, emotional and psychological development at every age, and guides you regarding the appropriate time to discuss certain aspects of your child’s adoption. There are also special chapters assisting with issues concerning multiracial and single parent adoptions. MAKING SENSE OF ADOPTION devotes individual chapters to handling such questions as "How Do We Begin?" "Where Did I come From?""Why Didn’t They Keep Me?" "What Does Being Adopted Say About Me?" "Who Am I?" "I Want to Meet My Birth Parents" and for those parents who delayed telling their children about adoption at an earlier time, "Why Didn’t You Tell Me?"


Advice for those just starting to adopt

mistake some adoptive parents make in starting their adoption is to ignore such issues as discussing adoption with a child (when, how and why to do it) until they have already adopted their child. To give yourselves the optimum chance of success, and deal with these issues properly when you need to discuss them with the person considering you as a child’s adoptive parents (the birth mother or agency representative). When you meet that critical person, likely after a significant wait to get to that point of your adoption, you want to show yourselves to be motivated and educated in being not only a good parent, but also a good adoptive parent. To not do so exposes you to the risk that a birth mother or agency representative rejecting you due to the concern that your lack of knowledge indicates a lack of dedication.

For example, if you wanted to learn how to skydive, you would surely learn what you need to know before you left the ground, not on your way down plummeting towards Earth. Adoption is no different. If you meet a birth mother who is considering selecting you as adoptive parents, you will be much better prepared to answer her questions about how you will talk about adoption with your child if you have read Lois Melina’s books. Showing her the childrens’ books you have waiting to share with your child, and their positive and loving approach to adoption, can’t help but impress her.

The books mentioned above can be ordered through your local bookstore (sadly, even the largest bookstores stock few adoption titles), or via internet booksellers like amazon.com or barnes&noble.com. Both offer the books at a significant discount. You may wish to write down the book titles of interest to you (or print this page) and use the link below to TELL ME AGAIN ABOUT THE NIGHT I WAS BORN, and from there you can see the other books mentioned and see which ones are right for you.

In addition to the helpful websites mentioned above, an excellent adoption magazine is Adoptive Families. Subscriptions are available including a free copy to peruse it in advance. Click here to visit their site.

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