The night after Mrs. Richardson's class talked about family histories, Preston Bradley slept on the stairs.
"What are you doing here, Sweetie?" his mom asked the next morning.
Preston grasped his mother's arm and clung with all his 5-year-old strength. "I thought you would leave," he said.
The previous morning, Mrs. Richardson had cheerfully offered her version of Preston's life story to the kindergarten class: "Preston was abandoned at an orphanage in Mexico by his real parents. Now he lives with the Bradleys."
If his real parents could sneak away like that, why not his new parents too? Preston decided that if he slept on the stairs, he would hear them trying to escape, grasp their ankles and beg them to stay.
Most of the Mrs. Richardsons of the world mean well. They're genuinely interested in the adoption process. They want to talk about it. Unfortunately, they don't know how. Often their well-intended questions and comments may actually harm members of adoptive families — especially kids.
It's fair to assume that most Americans view adoption positively. Families in the U.S. adopt over 120,000 children each year. Adoption "success" stories abound in our newspapers and magazines. Churches and social organizations affirm its value.
Unfortunately, our nation's adoption vocabulary tells a different story. Many people's comments contain subtle implications that adoption is an inferior or illegitimate way to start or join a family.
Marietta Spencer, a social worker specializing in adoption language, notes that words shape our impressions of ourselves and the world around us. She concludes that, for the sake of adoptive families and birth parents, people should learn to speak differently about this family-building method. Spencer even developed a list of phrases she described as Respectful (or Positive) Adoption Language (RAL/PAL).
When I first heard of RAL in adoption training, I was skeptical. Wasn't this just another example of political correctness gone awry? But as people began to ask us questions about our Russian daughter, I started to comprehend the nuances Spencer discussed. Surely our coworkers didn't believe creating a real family was contingent upon giving birth. Surely our friends would never intentionally make our daughter doubt she belonged with us. But their comments could easily confuse a child developing her identity.
Below are examples of questions we received from friends, family and strangers. I'll also share what I wish they'd said: