One of the questions I am asked most frequently by adoptive parents is when they should share with their child that he or she is adopted. With twenty years of experience in the field of adoption I am pleased to report that, with almost no exceptions, all adoptive parents plan to share this critical information with their children. For many of us fortunate enough to work in this field for decades (I started when I was twelve!) we have seen a shift in society’s level of comfort with adoption. For those of you who love curling up on the couch on a rainy Saturday afternoon for a “Lifetime” movie marathon, you have no doubt seen Hollywood’s portrayal of adoption in the early and mid Twentieth Century. These dramas each have unique twists and turns, but share one central theme: secrecy.
Many families touched by adoption prior to the 1970’s kept their adoption experiences a secret. It was not uncommon for an adopted child to discover that he was adopted after his parents passed away while he was sorting through legal papers to make their final arrangements. Imagine, if you will, the flood of emotions experienced at such a moment. So many unanswered questions, so many losses, so many secrets… Some adopted children found out they were adopted by accident. Even though the adoption was a secret to the child, it was not uncommon for other adult family members to know this information. When adults talk, children listen. Too many children of this era were told they were adopted as a result of picking a fight with a cousin or winning one too many basketball games. The bested youngster would “even the score” by blurting out a very unsympathetic “You aren’t even a Johnson, you are adopted”. Now, the parent’s worst fears had come true. Their child, who they had done their best to protect, was hurt and felt betrayed.
What the adoptive parents did not know back then, that we know now, is that it was the secret that hurt the child, not being told he was adopted. As parents, children look to us for everything. We provide their food and shelter, their nurturing and love. We protect them from harm and provide the moral compass and spiritual foundations they will need to navigate into adulthood. Because our relationship as parents must be built on truth, we must share our child’s adoption story with him from the beginning. This simple truth builds the foundation of trust so essential to the most sacred of relationships: that of parent and child.
A very wise woman once told me to gauge my words and deeds by truth and love. Using these principles as parents will not be the easiest path but what worthwhile in life ever is.