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Positive Adoption Language: Terms To Use And Avoid

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Some of the traditional ways of talking about adoption may seem neutral or harmless, but many once widely used terms are now avoided due to carrying negative implications or associations. Taking time to understand and consider these implications is especially important at a time when many discussions and depictions of adoption are criticized for minimizing the perspectives and experiences of children awaiting adoption and people who were adopted.

In 1979, social worker Marietta Spencer introduced a framework that continues to inform how people discuss the many aspects of adoption. Known as Positive Adoption Language, it consists of adoption terminology that’s intended to respect the dignity of everyone involved in the adoption process, including children and parents.

In this article, we’ll cover many of the modern preferences around adoption terminology, including some of the terms that are now often avoided. As always, it’s best to be mindful of the terms that an individual or group prefers—and, of course, to consider whether mentioning a person’s adoption status or history is relevant or necessary.

Learn more about National Adoption Month, a monthlong observance in November focused on raising awareness about children who are awaiting adoption and about the adoption process.

waiting child

The ways to refer to a child awaiting adoption have evolved. Today, perhaps the most widely used term—due to often being considered the most straightforward—is waiting child

Many people object to phrasings like adoptable child and child available for adoption because they can make it seem as if the child is a commodity available to be acquired. As always, it’s best to use the term that a person prefers.

was adopted

Positive Adoption Language encourages the use of the past tense when discussing a person’s adoption, as in I was adopted or James was adopted. In such constructions, adopted is a verb. In contrast, saying that someone is adopted (in which case the word adopted is being used as an adjective) can imply that their adoption is the defining aspect of their identity, as opposed to one element of it or simply one event in their life.

adoptee

The word adoptee refers to a person who was adopted (the suffix -ee denotes a person who is the object of an act—in this case, the act of adoption). The word adoptee is now most often used in formal, legal, and impersonal contexts, but not in the context of personal relationships. For example, adoption agencies may refer to people who have been adopted as adoptees, but this term is not often used by such people to refer to themselves. 

Instead, many simply describe themselves as someone who was adopted or use similar ways of saying this. 

adoptive 

The term adoptive, meaning “of or involving adoption,” has historically been used in formal or legal contexts to describe adults who have adopted children or are seeking to (as in adoptive parents). Similar to the case of adoptee, many now avoid using the word adoptive in the context of personal relationships. Most adherents of Positive Adoption Language stress that it is better to drop the qualifier (adoptive) altogether and refer to people who have adopted a child not as adoptive parents but simply as parents. This, of course, is what many people who have been adopted do: refer to their parents as their parents and address them in familiar ways like Mom and Dad

bio(logical) parent and birth parent

When it is necessary to distinguish the parents who have adopted a child from the parents who share DNA with the child, the two most common terms for the latter are biological parent and birth parent. The term biological child is sometimes used when referring to the child of such a parent. In these contexts, the word biological is sometimes shortened to bio, including in terms like bio parent, bio mom, bio dad, and bio kid. People may refer to or address a birth parent as their birth mom or their birth dad

A term that is intended to mean the same thing as biological parent and birth parent but that is now often avoided is natural parent, which is ironically less natural-sounding and, more importantly, can imply that a parental relationship through adoption is somehow “unnatural.”

guardian 

In the familiar phrase parent or guardian, the word guardian can have various meanings. It can refer to a foster parent, a family member responsible for the care of a child, or a representative of the state responsible for caring for children. Using the inclusive phrase parent or guardian ensures that all children are taken into consideration, regardless of the circumstances of their care. 

open adoption and closed adoption

Adoption can involve many different circumstances. One of the major ways that adoptions differ from one another is in terms of whether there is (or will be) continued contact with the birth parents or not. The term closed adoption is used to refer to an adoption in which the birth parents do not have any contact with the child who has been adopted (in many cases, this non-contact also extends to the parents who have adopted the child). In an open adoption, the child and the adoptive parents have contact with one or both of the birth parents. The nature and frequency of this contact varies widely depending on the circumstances. For example, in some cases it may consist of an occasional phone call, while in other cases it may involve regular meetings and interaction.

home study, parent preparation

To ensure that prospective parents and their home are suitable for caring for a child, adoption agencies conduct a visit known as a home study (or home study visit). A home study is intended to be a comprehensive assessment of the prospective parents, including their financial status and background, as well as a visit to their home to evaluate safety, cleanliness, and available space. Some Positive Adoption Language guidelines recommend the phrase parent preparation as an alternative to home study, but many agencies continue to use the traditional term. 

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international adoption

International adoption is a straightforward term—it indicates the adoption of a child from a different nation. In contrast, terms like foreign adoption are now often avoided due to the negative connotations of the word foreign

Homecoming Day, Adoption Day

Some families like to celebrate the anniversary of the day that they were brought together through adoption, especially the anniversary of the day that a child was brought home for the first time. Some use special terms for the day, such as Homecoming Day or Adoption Day

A term once commonly (and sometimes still) used in this context—but that many now object to—is Gotcha Day (in which the word gotcha is an informal rendering of got you, as in “the day we got you”). Objections to the term are based on a variety of different reasons. 

Some argue that the term objectifies the child and makes it sound as if the child was “captured.” This objection is often raised in relation to criticism of many adoption practices as parent-centered and not sensitive to the needs and perspectives of children. Another objection is that the term Gotcha Day is closely associated with its use in the context of pets to refer to the day that a pet was first brought home. 

parental rights

A birth parent who chooses to make their child eligible for adoption can be said to have terminated their parental rights. This is one way of referring to it in technical legal terms. Of course, there are other, much less informal ways of referring to this decision, and some of these ways have implications that can dehumanize the child being adopted and stigmatize the birth parent. A prime example is the common practice of describing a parent who has terminated their parental rights as having given up their child, which often implies that the decision was made carelessly or callously. Saying that a birth parent has decided to keep a child is also criticized for carrying similar implications. 

meeting

For many people who were adopted, meeting birth parents can be a very complicated situation—one that does not always feel celebratory in the way implied by the word often used to refer to this situation: reunion. For this reason, many prefer the more neutral meeting, which avoids creating additional pressure or expectations around the moment.

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