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Positive Adoption Language

Remember the saying we learnt in school, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me”. Wrong. Language has the power to hurt or heal. Using Positive Adoption Language helps a child feel good about who she is. It helps her honour both her past and her present.

Positive Adoption Language (PAL) was introduced by Marietta Spencer, a Minneapolis social worker in the 1970s and publicized further by adoption educator Patricia Irwin Johnston.

An emotion-laden topic like adoption requires some adjustments in language to respect the three stakeholders of the adoption circle, the child, the birth family and the adoptive family.

It’s helpful to remember that adoption always involves a sense of loss for the child. She may (occasionally or often) think of the parents who conceived her, but could not bring her up. This may bring up (mild to extreme) feelings of confusion, sadness, anger and grief.

When we use insensitive language to talk about this aspect of her history, it hurts her to her very core. Let’s think and speak positively about the 3 stakeholders involved in the adoption circle:

  • Birth parents
  • Adoptive parents
  • The child

It’s important to recognise that most people do not use the “wrong” terms deliberately. All the same, thinking before speaking is usually all that’s needed to say the right words. There are two aspects to Positive Adoption Language or PAL. We can use it to describe

  • The child’s family and relationships
  • The actual adoption process

While the following suggestions are for English, it’s quite easy to think of alternative terms we can use in our vernacular Indian languages.

The Family
When we want to say… The logic We can instead choose to say…
Real parents Birth parents and adoptive parents are both real and not imaginary! Birth or biological parents
Natural mother Blood ties do not make motherhood more or less natural Birth or biological mother, woman who gave birth to
Natural child A child is never unnatural or artificial! Birth or biological child
Own child ( as opposed to adopted child) Our children are our own, whether birth, adopted, foster or step- Birth child
Adoptive mother/father It’s better to use ‘adopted’ or ‘adoptive’ only where circumstances require it Mother, Amma, Mom, Mummy, Ma, Father, Daddy, Dad, Papa, Appa, Pitha
Adopted child Ditto Child
  • Adoption is not a disability; it’s simply a way of building a family. The legal process of adoption was a one-time event. It need not be a lifetime label for the child. It makes more sense to say “She was adopted” rather than “She is adopted”
  • It’s not necessary to always refer to the child, the parents, or indeed the entire family as adopted or adoptive. The child belongs to her family; it’s a bonding beyond the umbilical cord.
  • The secrecy and taboo that surround the subject of adoption are harmful to the child’s self-esteem. Though we may do it unintentionally, referring to her birth parents disrespectfully and blaming their choices affects her directly. Her past is a part of who she is.
The Process
When we want to say… The logic We can instead choose to say…
Illegitimate The birth parents’ marital status does not reflect on the child. Born to unmarried parents
Unwed/unmarried mother Same as above Birth mother
Gave away, gave up, surrendered, abandoned, put up for adoption, relinquished an unwanted child A birth mother loves and wants her child, but makes the difficult choice of having another family raise him or her. We can judge her circumstances, not her personally Chose adoption, placed for adoption, made adoption plans, planned for her future
Keep the baby A child needs parenting. She is not an object that we “keep” or “give away” Parent the baby
Adopt-a-street, adopt-a-village, adopt-a-cause Monetary or other support to a program misuses the word ‘adopt’. Child adoption is a way to build a family. Sponsor-a-street, befriend, support, fund
Adopt a resolution, attitude, principle, lifestyle Adopt here means “make one’s own”. It’s still different from a child making a family her own Pass or implement a resolution, take up or embrace a lifestyle etc
Give a child a home, the child is lucky to be adopted When we use “give” and “luck”, it creates an unfair expectation of gratitude from the child. The child is enriching her home and family. Bring home our child; expand or build our family through adoption
Adoption is a noble deed, a social service, a cause Same as above. A child is not a project nor an object of charity Adoption is a wonderful way to build a family
The child was chosen by her parents Same as above The parents chose to expand their family through adoption