Thursday, August 25, 2005

Curioisity Killed the Kid

One of the hot topics amongst adoptive parents is how to deal with curious strangers. There are certainly differing views about the best method. Some parents are very frustrated with the intrusions, others just laugh it off or take it as an opportunity to educate people about adoption. I, personally, think it would be great fun to share with people about my experiences as an adoptive mom.

But it isn't all about me.

I read something, somewhere (and I'd give credit, if I could remember where) that made me think about this issue from the point of view of my children. It's been stewing in my mind for a while, and none of these situations have actually happened to me yet. So, you can comment as you see fit. But here are some of my thoughts about how kids might interpret comments from curious strangers.

"Is she adopted?" From what I have heard, this seems to be a question that a lot of parents encounter while out shopping, at a restaurant, etc. In most cases, this seems like a funny question since you'd only be asking if the child's ethnicity obviously didn't "match" that of his parents. So, in these cases, why bother asking, since the child probably IS adopted?

I said something like this when I first saw Angie at the library with her daughter. I think I said "is she from China?" It was an awkward question because I was already pretty sure of the answer. Yet, I asked because I wanted to talk to her about adoption, and I wanted to tell her that we were adopting. I just didn't know how to start the conversation. I now realize that my reasons for the conversation were not worth the intrusion or the potential damage to her child. (Angie, of course, was very gracious and helpful.)

What I have learned since that happened: first - it isn't necessary to tell every adoptive parent that I see that I am adopting too. And this also applies to curious strangers who might want to start up conversation with adoptive parents THEY see in order to tell them about their friend/relative who has adopted. We act like it is some novelty, when really, it isn't. It can be annoying to parents, or even exhausting - especially if they just want to be a family without interruption.

But the real issue, as I said before, isn't how parents take it. It's how the kids take it. Consider what a kid might think, using my family as an example:

1. Boo and Bug might think: Why does she get all of the attention? I must not be as important since I wasn't adopted.

2. Bao might think: mom and dad told me that I belong in this family. Why do people keep asking if I was adopted and not about how Bug and Boo came to our family? There must be something wrong with being adopted. I don't really fit in this family.

3. Bao might think: mom and dad tell me that being Chinese is something to be proud of. But it makes me stick out - people ask if I'm adopted because I don't look like the rest of my family. Why do people bug me about being adopted so much? I wish I wasn't Chinese, then everyone would leave us alone.

"Are your other kids yours?" Answer: "they're all mine." Think about how a kid would process that! If they hear it enough, maybe Boo and Bug will start to think they have some high position by nature of being my biological children. And what would Bao think? Those kinds of words tend to reinforce a belief that she doesn't belong in our family. (I'm not really her daughter... etc.)

If a distinction ***NEEDS*** to be made, this isn't the way to do it. You can refer to children as biological or adopted. But - for the record - if you are a curious stranger, then the distinction does not need to be made. So, for the sake of the kids, don't ask.

"Where are her real parents?" Answer: "You're looking at them." (I REALLY sit up with her at night while she is puking. I REALLY deal with all of her tantrums. I REALLY bathe her and make sure she is fed. Here... pinch me... I'M REAL!) But for Bao, again, hearing that reinforces the "I don't belong" mentality.

Maybe what the stranger wanted to know was "Where are her birth parents?" Or, "where are her Chinese parents?" When Bao gets older, I see myself deferring to her for the answer. If she doesn't feel like telling a stranger her story, then that's the end of the conversation.

I think of children of divorcees in this situation. If there were some characteristic that identified them as such, would people ask them the details about which parent they live with or their relationship with their step-parents? Maybe, I suppose. But would those kids really want to answer? I'm guessing, no. And maybe Bao will be one of those kids who doesn't mind talking about her birthparents. But maybe she won't. And if that's the case, the questions might make her very uncomforable.

"Are they really sisters?" This probably will happen a lot less frequently with our family, unless we adopt another one from China. The answer is: "Yes." (We are a family. They are siblings. That makes them sisters.) Kids who hear this might question the relationships that their parents are trying to reinforce. It is another question that leads kids to feeling alienated in their own families, or like something is "wrong" with their family.

If the inquirer wants to know if the children were born to the same parents, then they might try stating it that way. But, I would challenge the inquirer to look at any other family in the grocery store and ask themselves if they are willing to approach the parent and say, "Excuse me, but I was just wondering if your two daughters were born to the same parents." They might not get a favorable reaction (cough, cough!) And that is because it's a personal question, that isn't any of their business. (Do I have to make the final connection here?)

These are just the common questions that I have heard adoptive parents struggling with. I don't imagine that any of my readers are the curious stranger types. But, I posted this in hopes that maybe someone will stumble upon this and learn (like I did.... I admit that I have made similar mistakes, not thinking about how the children would interpret my comments.)

I guess the moral of the story is, if you are a curious stranger, it is probably safest for the children if you just keep pushing your shopping cart.

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