How to Use Adoption Positive Language

Language matters. But life is awkward, so it’s also hard to know what to say and when. Over the past few decades, the process of adoption has changed, and we have learned so much more about the lived experiences of members of the adoption community. When times change, our language should change too. So when discussing adoption, it’s important to use adoption positive language.

So, what is “Adoption Positive Language?”  It’s choosing words and phrases that communicate respect for the feelings and experiences of everyone in the adoption process, including the child, birth family, and foster or adoptive family. It celebrates the joys in the adoptive process, instead of focusing on the loss involved. It also honors the permanency of the adoption process while not erasing the past.

This quotation explains it quite directly:

Though in adoption parent and child are linked by love and by law, the fact that they are not connected by blood has often meant that some people are unwilling to acknowledge their relationship as genuine and permanent.

Thus, they use qualifiers (“This is Bill’s adopted son”) in situations where they would not dream of doing so in a non-adoptive family (“This is Bill’s birth-control-failure son” or “This is Mary’s caesarean-section daughter.”)

They tend not to assign a full and permanent relationship to persons related through adoption (“Do you have any children of your own?” or “Have you ever met your real mother?” or “Are they natural brothers and sisters?”)

They assume that adoptive relationships are tentative (“Will the agency take him back now that you know he’s handicapped?” or “What if his real parents want him back?”)

Patricia Irwin Johnston

By using adoption positive language, we affirm that there is no best way to make a family. We communicate to others that no type of family is any more or less valid than another. Making a conscious effort to adjust your vocabulary shows members of the adoption community, especially adoptees, that you care!

Read and share this infographic, & find more examples below!

Adoption Positive Language

Even more adoption positive language…

Give up/put up for adoption ⇒ Place for adoption, make an adoption plan

  • The decision to place a child for adoption is a challenging, emotional one with many facets. A birth parent is not “giving up” their child. They are making a plan that is in the best interest of the child.

Keep the child ⇒ Parent the child

  • Again, a child is not something to be exchanged through keeping or giving away. The decision to make an adoption plan likely means the birth parent recognizes they may not the best person to parent the child, for whatever reason.

Natural/own child ⇒ Biological child

  • Many people will ask an adopting couple, “Don’t you want to have your own children?” First, all children in a family are “our own children,” regardless of how they came to the family! Second, this implies that adopted children are somehow less a part of a family than biological children are or would be.

Reunite with birth family  Make contact with birth family

  • Calling something a reunion makes it seem like a child or family was not whole without a connection to the birth family. In many cases, making contact with a birth family is something that ADDS to an already full life of family and love. Furthermore, making contact doesn’t always result in regular communication, depending on the feelings of the individuals involved. Sometimes that’s all it is–making contact.

Foreign adoption ⇒ International adoption

  • In many ways, this one is just a reflection of society moving into the twenty-first century. “Foreign” can be translated as “strange.” What you really mean is the family adopted internationally, from outside their own country of origin (as opposed to domestically).

Foster kid ⇒ Child in foster care

  • Much like the is adopted/was adopted example above, calling a child a “foster kid” makes foster care a central part of their identity. They are so much more than that! They are complex humans with lots of feelings, interests, and experiences, and just ONE of those pieces is that they were or are in foster care. It’s up to each child how significant this part of their story is to them.

Broken/damaged child ⇒ Child who has experienced trauma

  • No child is broken or damaged, regardless of what has happened to them. Little ones who are coping with abuse or neglect are innocent children who have experienced trauma. We as parents are working to help them heal from this trauma and live as normal a life as possible. We believe they are beautiful, never broken.

We hope this has helped you get a grasp on what adoption positive language is and why it’s important. Practice using this new vocabulary and help others learn too!

-Laura & Nate



Have questions? Want to learn more about foster care & adoption?

Contact us here!


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