Monday, August 27, 2012

Debates. Death. Diversity.

Over at Rage Against the Minivan, Kristen Howerton wrote a strong essay called "Parents Please Teach Your Children About Adoption So My Kids Don't Have To", which was picked up by the Huffington Post and caused a tiny little firestorm there.  Some non-adoptive parents wrote angrily about how teaching their children about adoption was not their responsibility.  We adoptive families "choose that lifestyle." Others complained that children asking personal questions of adopted peers was just par for the course.  A few adoptees and adoptive families chimed in about how inappropriate they thought it was that Howerton shared personal details about her sons' stories online.

Many adoptive parents, myself included, reacted in angry disgust at the ignorance, the blame and the lack of empathy that was so freely expressed by some commentors.  I don't know why I was surprised at this. Humans have been voicing un-informed, un-sympathetic opinions since we first learned to speak, or type.

But this mini- controversy has gotten me thinking. Why do some non-adoptive parents shy away from talking with their children about family diversity, specifically gay, divorced or adoptive families?

Several commentor wrote something along the lines of, "there are so many different kinds of families these days, I couldn't possibly teach my child about all of them!".  To which I respond, you teach your children all the different colors, right? You don't leave out turquoise or navy blue because they are too difficult to explain and we don't see those colors too much anyway? I mean, that would be ridiculous, right?!

So the reason can't just be laziness.  Any parent who has potty trained or taught a kid to tie a shoe cannot be accused of laziness. There must be something bigger holding their tongues.

I think it's fear of death.  No, really. I think we, all of us, hate the idea of letting kids in on the secret that the world is, in fact, a big scary place. That good people, people we love and cherish, die. That bad things happen, that people make poor choices or have bad luck.  We want to keep our children in their innocent childhood bubble for as long as we can. (Sometimes we like to keep ourselves there too.)

I'm guilty of this too.  I haven't let my son in on the secret that sometimes adoption doesn't work. Sometimes adoptive placements are disrupted, and children have to be transitioned to a new family again (and again).  I also haven't talked to him about how some of his friends at the orphanage may never be adopted.  They may grow up without a family.  Those are terrible, terrible truths that I loathe to share with him. But I will when and if he asks, and certainly by the time he is a teen and has read my blog and all his adoption paperwork and our library of adoption books, he will know them.

However, my 6 year old is unlikely to ask me about adoption disruption at the playground.  He is more likely to get asked, as he has many times, "Is that your mom?", "Where's your real mom?", or "How come your mom is white?!" Which are all very good questions.

As an adoptive parent I've had to become very comfortable talking about death.  My son's first mother died, and he remembers it.  We live with her presence daily, and we wouldn't want it any other way.  It was hard to get used to being asked about death unexpectedly. Children don't choose their moments well.  Rushing out the door to get to school/work on time is hardly the moment I want to have a philosophical discussion with my Kindergartener about death.  But I do.

The truth is that my son knows that the world is a big scary place. He knows that people we love die or get hurt or hurt us.  And he is having a happy childhood anyway.  

When we answer curious questions at the playground, we don't tell other children about death, or about relinquishment, or about poverty and third world diseases and the great injustices in our world. We just say, "Yes, we're a family. I'm his real mom. We live together and we love each other. " When I talk to my son about families with 2 dads or 2 moms, I don't give him details about gay sex. When I talk to him about blended families and divorce I don't share details about infidelity or extra-marital affairs.  I just say, "Yes, they are a family. They live together and they love each other, just like we do."

The only thing non-adoptive families need to teach their children about families like mine is this: "Sometimes children are born into a family that can't take care of them. Then they are adopted into a new family.  They are a real family, just like ours. "

Here is everything young children need to know about ALL families:

  • Families love each other and take care of each other. 
  • Sometimes they live together. Sometimes they live far apart.
  • Some families are big, some families are small. 
  • Some families are a mom and dad with kids, some are 2 moms, or 2 dads, some are 1 dad or 1 mom, with kids. Some are grandparents with kids. Some are just 2 people, no kids.  Some are just one person and a dog or cat. 
  • Families change. They grow bigger, they get smaller. People get married, people get divorced. People have babies, people adopt kids. Kids grow up. People die. 
  • Families love each other.

Why do we adults think that children are too delicate to learn these truths? Why don't we trust their resilience and their strength? They see the world the way it is.  Perhaps, better than we do.


  1. I expect that most non-adoptive parents don't teach their children about adoption because it just doesn't come up. When it does, responsible parents will explain the situation to their chidren in a reasonable respectful way. We all understand about teachable moments. These are times when something happens that allows us as parents the opportunity to bring something up that had until that point, been merely theoretical. Adoptive parents, of course, live with adoption all the time, so it is very real to them. As a widow who raised two children after the death of my husband, their father, I did not expect other children to have been "primed" to understand our situation. I did explain to my children that others may be curious about where their father was and (I hope) I gave them the skills to respond appropriately. When my son was little, a friend asked him about his father, my son said, "he died", the friend said "Oh, OK" and that was the end of the conversation.

  2. Thanks Garnett- that is an excellent point, and a family situation that I didn't think of when writing! I think one thing that some "different' families experience is that other parents avoid those teachable moments. I guess we all need to be reminded to open our minds wider, all the time. :)

  3. I can't remember how old I was when I first learned about adoption. Probably I read a kids' book about it. Sometime after that my cousin was legally adopted by her stepfather (i think I was 8 then) so I'm sure my parents had to explain that to me.

    I just want to thank you for writing about all this. I have learned so much about adoption from your musings--you give me much to think about!


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