What Not to Say to Adoptive Parents


“She’s beautiful!”

“He looks just like his dad.”

When a baby is born, we all know exactly what to say. If for some reason you were having trouble, just find the “New Baby” section in the card aisle at your local grocery store. Hallmark has multiple “right words” for new parents (plus, you’ll let them know that you “care enough to send the very best”).

adoptionBut navigating the conversation around adoption is a little more difficult, especially when the child is older. I never would have thought anything of it until my husband and I adopted our son when he was 10 years old. I get that the situation is out of the norm, but some people – even complete strangers – say things that are inadvertently hurtful or downright shocking. It’s something you don’t understand until you’re in the situation; I know I have been guilty of saying some of these things in the past. Because adoption isn’t as common, it is really easy to be unaware.

So today, I’d like to tell you some of the things not  to say to adoptive parents:

1. “Will you ever have a real child?”

This may come as a surprise to many of you, but my child is not synthetic. He is, in fact, a real child. I understand that people want to know if we want biological children, but to suggest that my child is anything but real is a little insulting.

2. “What issues does he have?”

Every time I get asked this question, I mentally answer it with, “What issues does he have?! Let’s talk about the issues you have, starting with why you think it’s appropriate to ask about my son’s issues!” I know that adoption lends itself to certain struggles that children with their biological families don’t face, but all kids, no matter if they are foster, adoptive, or biological, have issues. How would you feel if I came up to you and asked you about your kid’s issues? Rather than asking about the child’s issues, ask how the transition is going instead.

3. “It would have been better if he was younger.”

This one gets my blood boiling. I’m sorry that my son’s age is so disappointing to you. Is it your age that makes you so offensive? Here’s the thing – people need to get over the idea that younger kids are somehow better. To apply this hurtful stigma to older kids just further feeds the reality that they are less likely to be adopted. Before we adopted Isaac, we had told the case worker that we were just looking for a good fit – no matter the age. That’s exactly who he is. He’s not perfect, but he’s the perfect fit for our family.­­

4. “He’s so lucky to have you.”

This is probably the most common, and I know that it comes with good intentions. It’s not as if I don’t appreciate the compliment, but this one is hurtful because it comes with an understanding that we are somehow better than our son. If you are lucky to have something, you are not deserving of it – but I am incredibly grateful that he’s my son, and we’re all just thankful to have each other.

5. Anything regarding reproductive organs.

There are all sorts of reasons that people adopt; some of those have to do with infertility, and some do not. Regardless, when people (including those that don’t even know my last name) start asking about my reproductive organs, it’s like they’re asking about my sex life. If I wanted to invite you into my bedroom, I would have gone into prostitution or the porn industry. As it is, my sex life isn’t even for sale, so why do you think I’d give it to you for free?

6. “You are a saint for adopting.”

I could give you a long list of reasons as to why I’m not a saint (and I’m sure my husband could add to that list). While I applaud you for trying to say something nice, this one bothers me because it puts adoptive parents into a very selective, unattainable group when we shouldn’t be. We’re just normal people. You don’t have to be special to adopt – you just have to make the choice.

Adoptive parents have learned not to get too upset over these questions and statements; we know that ours are not typical situations so we don’t expect people to always have all the right words to say. Thankfully, more often than not, people have had just the right thing to say to our family; over and over we’ve been given words of encouragement, words of celebration, and words that pour into the love we feel as a family. When faced with a need for “just the right thing to say,” my hope is that you will offer the same!

Janelle never imagined herself to be a mom, but found herself being just that when their (at the time, 10-year-old) son, Isaac, moved into their home and hearts in May, 2012. She and her husband were thrilled to adopt him just seven months later, and she loves connecting with other parents trying to navigate the foster-to-adoption process. She enjoys working in Human Resources at her church and has a part-time gig at a bank in Lawrence as the best (and only) shoe shiner in town! She’s passionate about Jesus, board games, traveling the world, and KU basketball - to varying degrees - and if she were ever to go to a party where colors were invited, Janelle would want to talk to orange the most.


  1. A good friend of mine loves to say, ” You can’t fix stupid”, and she’s right. As a mom of twins, I can empathize with the dumb things people say to you! Sometimes it’s best just to smile and walk away:)

    • Cali, Janelle’s post actually reminded me a lot of yours! The phrase “you think you know, but you have NO idea!” kept running through my mind as I read both of them …

    • Cali – I loved the post you shared on what not to say to parents of multiples. I remember thinking how I so identified with the “real” comment. We hear “real” so much that I start to question if we’re living out Pinocchio.

  2. Some of my faves:
    1.) Why didn’t the mother want him/her?
    2.) Aren’t you afraid the real mother will want him back?
    3.) Aren’t you afraid that someday he/she will want to look for (or go live with) their “real” mom?
    4.) How much did he/she cost?

    I have also actually had people ask which of us is unable to have children!!! I answer…well…both of us…since we’d only want children with one another!

    • Mary – oh my goodness! I can’t believe (except that I can) that people ask you which one is unable to have children. Good grief.

      I have a friend that shared that she often gets asked if her husband is “dark skinned” since her kids are darker. And I have another one that always gets called the babysitter.

    • Yes, I think sometimes people think of adoption in the same way that they would think of buying a used car or somehting at a thrift store. They forget that our son is an actual kid… and a pretty awesome one at that!

  3. Great blog post! As an adopted child, I can say the stupid comments don’t stop with talking to the parents. I’ve had people say to me, “Is that your dad? You don’t look anything like him.” “Why didn’t your parents want you?” “I can’t imagine what it would be like to be adopted.” I just roll my eyes at their impressive lack of tact and think about how blessed I am to have been adopted.

    • Marlina – That is so interesting to hear things from your perspective! The neighborhood kids were really confused as to how we had a new 10 year-old son when he first moved in with us. He had a few of them over one time, and one was asking questions right in front of him about why his “real parents didn’t want him.” I was just cringing inside, knowing that he was sitting there listening. But at least I can accept that question coming from a 7 year-old. It’s the 50 year-olds that just blow my mind.

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