Appropriate Adoption Language

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If you know anyone who is adopted, you need to read this. It might help prevent you from making inappropriate comments that could scar an adopted child.


“Where is her real mother?” a man asked me as I held my toddler in my arms.

“I’m her real mother,” I said calmly, disguising the hackles arising on my neck.

I do all the real things with her. I have real love for her. I am real to her.

The man was not satisfied with the response. “But she has brown skin.”

“I adopted her,” I said.

“Which country is her real mother from? She looks chinky.”

“Her birth mother is from Cambodia,” I answered, managing to control the impulse to lash out my claws like a lioness protecting her cub.


Forget the racist tone, don’t ever refer to an adopted child’s birth parents as their “real” parents. What do you think that does to a kid’s confidence and sense of identity? Children need to feel secure, loved, and relevant. They don’t need people telling them their adopted parents aren’t “real”.

With comments like the above, is it any wonder my daughter recently said to me,


“I wish we had the same colour hair.”

“Why?” I asked. “You have beautiful hair.”

“Then people would know we had the same surname,” she said.


My heart leapt into my throat and restricted my airway. My sadness was not for me, but for my daughter. I have thick skin but children are innocent and impressionable.

So, before you blurt out a thoughtless comment in the presence of an adopted child, stop and think. If in doubt, when the child is out of earshot ask the adoptive parent how to phrase things appropriately.

Can you share other adoption comments you’ve heard that may help readers react appropriately?





4 thoughts on “Appropriate Adoption Language

  1. Oooh, that made my blood boil, there’s thoughtless and then there’s THAT!! Nice to know the best terminology to use though.

    • Sometimes I think people use inappropriate words through awkwardness, without any ill meaning intended. Sometimes, people just don’t think. Either way, I thought it was a good topic to raise – awareness will hopefully create more mindfulness.

  2. My friend used to explain that her son had a tummy mummy and she is his forever mummy. I always thought it sounded perfect. When the boy spoke to me one day about him being adopted, I said that I knew he had been wished for, as was my son who was with me (but who is not adopted). I have always told my son he was wished for very much, and it seemed the right thing to say as the boy was very much wished for. I said I remembered how much joy he brought and how happy he made his parents, and still does. he smiled, we talked a little more, and I feel it was the right thing to say at that time. so sad to hear about the thoughtless comments above.

    • ‘Tummy Mummy’ is a cute way of putting it. I like that. Thanks for sharing. I’m sure people’s thoughtless comments aren’t made with bad intentions – it’s just a product of unfamiliarity with adoption and not knowing the right things to say.

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