Two women having a conversation in a parkHow you describe adoption affects how other people view it. Your words are powerful enough to change someone’s mind regarding adoption, either for the good or bad.
It’s important to understand negative terms in adoption and use more positive adoption language. So today I’d like to share some unhelpful adoption terms and the more positive language to use instead.

Unwanted or problem pregnancy

A pregnancy isn’t a problem or unwanted. A better way to say this could be to say something like, “an unexpected pregnancy,” which accurately describes the situation without making the child seem like a problem or unwanted.
Sometimes women find themselves unexpectedly pregnant. It forces them to decide what they plan to do in this situation. You can be a positive support to someone in this situation by using helpful language that doesn’t make them feel judged or in a hopeless situation.

Illegitimate child

Years ago, the phrase “illegitimate child” was often used to describe a child born to unmarried parents. Today, this term is obsolete. The only people who use this term nowadays don’t realize how negative it sounds.
It’s a hurtful term for a child. It’s also hurtful to a mother who has found herself in a crisis she didn’t plan for. If you’re in a conversation with someone, be sure to use positive words. What you say could turn someone’s view of their situation around, so they feel more in control of their decision rather than trapped by the world’s judgment against them.

Keep your baby

A better phrase is, “parent your baby.” If you’re in an unwanted pregnancy, you have the option to parent your child. A child isn’t an object to keep or not keep. It’s a huge decision for a birth mother, but one many women choose to make.

Give away/give up her child

A birth mother never gives away her child or gives up her child. Rather, she is “considering adoption” or “choosing an adoption plan” for her child. She has thought long and hard about this decision.
It’s the best decision for her and the child. She loves her child enough to make this decision and wants the very best for her child. To use these unhelpful words suggests negativity toward her decision.

Put up for adoption

This is such an outdated term, but many people still use it today without realizing how negative it sounds. A more positive expression is that a birth mother chooses to “place her child,” which emphasizes her choice for her child is well thought out and purposeful.

Adopted child

When you say this, it distinguishes between your kids. No parent wants to do this. A better phrase would be to just say, “She is my child.” Parents don’t choose one child over another, so to say something like this puts your child in a different category. When a child is adopted, they are welcomed into their family by one hundred percent. They aren’t treated any differently than any of the other children, so it’s unhelpful to use different words associated with them.

Real mother

A better term is “birth parent or birth mother.” A birth mother is a term for the adult who gave birth to the child. It’s been used for many years and is still acceptable for most people as long as it’s not used in a demeaning way. In an open adoption, a birth mother has the option to be involved in her child’s life as they grow up. The phrase “real mother” could confuse a child and would imply that the adoptive parents aren’t really parents. Using positive phrases benefits everyone involved in the adoption.

Adopted parents

In the process of adoption, the phrase “adoptive parents” is often used to describe the legal parents of the adoptee. This makes sense since they are accepting all legal and social rights of the child. It’s a good way to clarify who’s who while in the process of adoption.
But in day-to-day conversations, it’s important to drop this phrase and just use the term “parent or parents.” This is more respectful to a child’s adopted parents and helps them feel they’re all part of a family. Also, it’s important to not ask inappropriate questions like, “The child doesn’t look like you,” or “Where does his real parent live?”

Adoptable child

Although this phrase seems more positive, it labels a child as a commodity rather than a human being. A “waiting child” is a better description of a child waiting to be adopted into a loving home. They need a loving family who is also waiting for them to be part of their family.
When you use this more positive phrase, it gives value and meaning to the child’s situation. It brings hope to the child and to the families who are eager to welcome them into their hearts and home.

Other unhelpful phrases to avoid

Here are some other things people say about adoption that are unhelpful to the children and family involved in an adoption. Next to these phrases are more positive phrases you can use.

  • Instead of saying “handicapped child,” change it to “a child with different abilities.”
  • Rather than saying “a hard to place child,” instead say “a child with special needs.”
  • Don’t say, “your adopted kid.” Use the phrase “your child.”
  • If you’re talking to someone who was adopted, rather than calling them “your adopted parents,” you should call them “your parents.”

When you talk about adoption, people listen. What you say can impact how they view adoption, an adopted child, and a birth mother. Using positive phrases in your conversations about adoption helps others to use more positive phrases. Unfortunately, many outdated terms are still being used today.
These terms can make a child or mother feel judged or looked down upon. It can set a child apart in an unhealthy way, so they feel abnormal, like something is wrong with them. As you work hard to use more positive words to describe adoption, you’re helping to educate and instill respect and honor for all involved.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on December 7, 2013, and has since been updated. 

Heather Featherston

Written by Heather Featherston

As the Vice President (VP) of Lifetime Adoption, Heather Featherston holds an MBA and is passionate about working with those facing adoption, pregnancy, and parenting issues. Heather has conducted training for birth parent advocates, spoken to professional groups, and has appeared on television and radio to discuss the multiple aspects of adoption. She has provided one-on-one support to women and hopeful adoptive parents working through adoption decisions.

Since 2002, she has been helping pregnant women and others in crisis to learn more about adoption. Heather also trains and speaks nationwide to pregnancy clinics to effectively meet the needs of women who want to explore adoption for their child. Today, she continues to address the concerns women have about adoption and supports the needs of women who choose adoption for their child.

As a published author of the book Called to Adoption, Featherston loves to see God’s hand at work every day as she helps children and families come together through adoption.

Read more about Heather Featherston