Our Words Matter: Positive Adoption Language

Our Words Matter: Positive Adoption Language

If I asked you what you know about Marietta Spencer, you would most likely meet me with a blank stare.  Understandably so.   It’s not her name you will recognize, but her words.

Marietta wasn’t just a ninety-five year old former social worker who recently passed away.  No,  Marietta Spencer changed the adoption world for the better.  In 1979, Spencer wrote an article called “The Terminology of Adoption” where she encouraged those in the adoption community to toss out their archaic vernacular.

Prior adoption terminology commonly used during the Baby Scoop Era and before, was clinical and abrasive.   Babies were “given up” for adoption, birth mothers were “unwed girls,” and some children were labeled “handicapped” (rather than “a child with special needs).  Essentially, stereotypes reigned before Spencer turned her convictions into a commitment to initiate change.

Spencer passionately advocated because she understood that words matter.   The way we talk about adoption matters, to birth parents, parents who adopt, and adoptees (people who were adopted). The words we use shape our society, our media, and, of course, individual attitudes toward adoption.

One example of a powerful shift in language is stating that a child “was adopted” not that a child “is adopted.”   One is past tense, the other is present tense.   The argument for moving from “is” to “was” is that adoption is a one-time legal process, not an ongoing one.   The other reason is that a child who was adopted shouldn’t perpetually be labeled as “adopted” when a child is, first and foremost, a person, not a label.

Another distinction Spencer advocated for was eradicating the term “real parent.”   Instead, there’s a distinction made between all the child’s parents:   birth parent and adoptive parent.   Other terms used to describe birth parents include biological parent, natural parent, and first parent.  And adoptive parents, myself included, just refer to ourselves as the child’s parent, no qualifier is necessary.

Whether you agree with all Positive Adoption Language (PAL) or not, the important takeaway is that Spencer fought to change how we talk about adoption, and thus, how we feel about adoption.   Changing the terminology to be more positive (and accurate) has played a significant part in shaping the many incredible changes in adoption including an increase in open adoption, more quality adoption education availability, and encouraging respect for all triad members.

Whatever language you and your family decide upon is right for you.  There really is no black or white:  but there is a whole lot of gray.   The key is to make sure the language you opt to use in your home is what is best for your child and his or her adoption circumstances.   And certainly, all parents should continue in the spirit of the great Marietta Spencer:  that change is good.

Written By
Rachel Garlinghouse

Rachel lives in the St. Louis area with her husband and four children.  Her favorite things are kitchen dance parties, coffee with a dollop of ice cream, and shopping at Home Goods.  Rachel is passionate about the intersection of adoption and race, sharing her experiences in her books and articles, on her blog White Sugar Brown Sugar, and via media appearances, including CNN, MSNBC, CBS, and NPR.   Rachel and her husband have been in the adoption community for a decade, encouraging others and simmering in hope, empathy, and education.  Contact Rachel and keep up with her family’s adventures on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Pinterest.