Cross-Cultural Adoption

The Do's and Don'ts for Grown-ups

by Amy Coughlin and Caryn Abramowitz

[Whether they're thoughtless or just clueless, friends and extended family members can often say or do exactly the wrong thing when it comes to adopted children and adoptive families. If you've already adopted or just want to prepare those closest to you for your impending family expansion, these Do's and Don'ts from the authors of Cross Cultural Adoption: How To Answer Questions from Family, Friends & Community are worth passing around to the potentially tactless. If nothing else, it's nicer and less bridge-burning than screaming "Shut up, you insensitive clod!"]

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DO treat her like any other kid. It may be difficult and take a while for adopted children to feel like they belong within their extended families. Treating these children like they're "nothing special" can go a long way toward making them feel at home and comfortable within the group.

Avoid the temptation to spoil her because she didn't have everything that the other kids had in the first few months or years of her life. The most valuable gifts you can offer these children are patience, routine, and consistency -- and most of all, unexaggerated expressions of love and devotion.

DO support her when curious strangers ask questions. When curious (and sometimes thoughtless) strangers ask questions or feel the need to comment on the circumstances of the adoption, do not let them lead you into uncomfortable territory. Instead, gently steer them back to more suitable small talk or respond in such a way that shifts the conversation to positive adoption language that in turn lets the child know that you are on her side.

DO respect her privacy. Adopted children have the same need for and the right to privacy as you do. They do not want their entire life story being told to strangers. If she hears you discussing the intimate details of her origins, she will likely feel embarrassed. Until the child is old enough to decide for herself how much information she would like to share regarding her background, please respect her privacy.

DO treat prospective adoptive parents the same as expectant parents. Adopting a child is just as exciting for soon-to-be parents as being pregnant. They feel the same way all expectant parents do -- overjoyed, overwhelmed, nervous, impatient, and most of all, excited. Don't be afraid to ask adopting parents about these feelings. After all, adoption is neither a secret nor a source of embarrassment or shame.

DO acknowledge and celebrate the differences. One of the best things you can do to show your support as well as your love for the adopted child in your life is to learn a bit about the culture and history of her birth country. Read a couple of books, especially travel books. Even if you have no plans to travel there, there is no better way to get the feeling of another country.


DON'T introduce her as adopted. The pain this inflicts on the child is obvious. The child is made to feel inferior, like she will never be considered a real part of the family. The rule is simple: Don't ever, ever do this.

DON'T say how "lucky" she is. After hearing this enough times, the child can be made to feel like a lifelong charity case, rather than the cherished child she is. Yes, she is lucky, but so is any child who has a supportive, loving family. And we parents are lucky, too, to have been able to create this loving, supportive family.

DON'T assume adoption is a second choice. The reasons people choose to adopt are as varied and unique as the people themselves. While it is true that many choose adoption because of infertility, it is also true that many choose adoption for a myriad of other reasons as well. Many people choose to adopt not because they are out of other options, but rather because they believe that adoption is the best choice for them.

DON'T jump to conclusions about the birth mother. Often thought of as weak, irresponsible, cheap, and worthless, birth mothers often suffer a lifetime of pain far greater than that of childbirth. Please don't jump to the wrong conclusion that these women are any different than you and me or that they love their children any less.

Most cross-cultural adoptive families know little or nothing about the circumstances that led their child's birth mother to relinquish her child. What they do know is that they love their children's birth mothers because they are a part of their children and it is because of them that their beloved children are who they are.

DON'T tell us we're sure to have "our own" now. She is our own. Those parents who choose adoption because of infertility do not secretly harbor lifelong yearnings for a biological child. Having "our own" is now irrelevant; the child we have is the one we want and it is inconceivable that we could love or want any child more. Like all parents, we have the best.

Copyright © 2004 Amy Coughlin and Caryn Abramowitz

[Amy Coughlin is an adoptive mom, a lawyer, teacher, and writer. She lives in Center City, Philadelphia, with her husband, Rich, and their two daughters, Audrey and Natalie.

Caryn Abramowitz is a freelance writer and editor. She is a lawyer by trade and the author of many legal and other types of articles in a variety of publications. She lives in Philadelphia with her husband, Andy, and their daughter Chloe.

They are the authors of Cross Cultural Adoption: How To Answer Questions from Family, Friends & Community published by LifeLine Press; September 2004; $18.95US/$26.95CAN; 0-89526-092-1. For more information, please visit]

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