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Talking to Young Children About Adoption

By Nancy Jessup

I work as a school counselor in a pre-K through first grade elementary school in western Massachusetts.  I am also an adoptive mother.  I have had many occasions to talk to the children in my school about adoption and to observe what questions, concerns and thoughts come up for these children concerning the subject of adoption.  Very young children, toddlers and preschoolers, don't fully comprehend the concept of adoption.  If they have been adopted themselves, they may love to hear the story of their own adoption, but may not "get" that it's really all that different from being born into a family.  Developmentally, preschoolers are not at a place where they can grasp that concept. When told about adoption,  young children may be matter of fact and accepting, it will not be until they are 5 or 6 that they start to differentiate between being born into a family and being adopted.

In January of 1999 I got the call, at very short notice, to go to Vietnam to bring home my daughter Phoebe.  My plan was to take the rest of the year off from my job so I wanted a chance to say good-bye to the children I had been working with.  I visited all of the classes to tell the children that I would be leaving for the rest of the school year and I told them why.  I showed them on a globe where Vietnam is and talked about how long it would take me to get there.  I showed them Phoebe's picture.  I talked in very simple terms about adoption,  telling them that I wanted a daughter very much and that there was a little girl whose family couldn't take care of her so I was going to be her mom.  As I recall, the children were all very accepting of that, focusing more on the fact that I would have a baby, wanting me to come back and visit them with her, wanting to know what her name was and how to spell it (neither her Vietnamese middle name, Ngoan, nor her first name, Phoebe, make a lot of sense to first graders learning how to read and write!).  One of the kindergarten classes presented me with a book they had made about how to take care of babies.  One of the directives was: "You have to hold your baby right", showing a picture of the wrong way to hold a baby: by its foot!

A few weeks after I returned home with Phoebe, in late March, I went to visit my school, as promised.  I went several times that spring and took Phoebe with me to visit all  the classes so the children could meet her. In one of the classes someone asked if they could "pass her around".  I declined.  Most of the questions the children asked were about what Phoebe could do and what she liked to do.  The children were pretty matter of fact about adoption, they were more entranced by Phoebe herself.

I returned to my job at the school in September of '99 and have brought Phoebe to visit several times.  Once visit was when a student teacher was doing a unit on families and asked me to bring Phoebe to her class and talk about adoption.  I told the children the story of going to get Phoebe and, as before, shared the vary basics about adoption.  It seemed that, again, most of the children's questions were about what Phoebe could do.  They all wanted to see her walk and hear her talk.  Phoebe was sitting very quietly, and somewhat shyly, on my lap.  One child proposed that they close the door so she wouldn't "escape" and then I could put her down!

When I told the children that I had come to talk about how I came to be Phoebe's mom, one boy said, "I already know.  She grew inside your tummy."  What better opening could I have had?  I said, no, actually, I couldn't have a child in my own tummy, but Phoebe grew in another woman's tummy.  That woman couldn't take care of Phoebe so she and her husband wanted to find someone who could be a mother for Phoebe, who could love her and take care of her. I really wanted a little girl and so I went to get Phoebe so I could be her mom.

Several children wanted to know why her birth parents couldn't keep her.  I explained that they were very poor and her mother was sick and couldn't take care of her.  One child asked why I didn't bring them home to live with me too!  The question was so unexpected, I'm not sure that I answered it adequately.  What I might have said was that my house wasn't big enough for all of them.  That question, coming from the simple and innocent altruism of a child, has all kinds of ramifications that adults, perhaps, avoid thinking about.  Another time I brought Phoebe to school when one of the first grade teachers asked me if I would bring her  and read a book to her class. Phoebe, who was about 17 months at the time, sat on my lap as I read one of her favorite books, Jan Bret's The Mitten.  The children listened raptly to the story, as did Phoebe.  When we were done with the story, the teacher asked if the children could ask me questions.  She could see that they were dying to.  One little girl (who was adopted from China) asked if Phoebe was from China.  I explained that she was from Vietnam, which is very near to China.  Someone else asked, "How can she be your daughter if she's from Vietnam?" Again, a perfect opening.   I explained about adoption, reiterating the rationale that I wanted a little girl very badly and that her birth parents couldn't take care of her so I became her mom, and will be her mom forever.

My favorite question didn't have to do with adoption but illustrates young children's understanding of the world.  One little boy asked, "Why didn't you bring your other daughter?"  I said, "What other daughter?"  He said, "You know, the one you brought last year!" !!!

In talking to young children about adoption, I have found that they are very open minded and accepting, perhaps, in part, because they don't fully grasp the concept.  I tell them that there are lots of ways to make a family.  Having a child grow in its mother's tummy is one, adopting a child is another.  It is best to be straightforward and open and to make explanations in simple, concrete terms.  I have learned that there are questions you can't prepare for.  You can always say, "I don't know", "I never thought about that", or "I'll have to think about that and get back to you".

An excellent resource for grownups that discusses children's understanding of adoption at different developmental stages (among other things) is "Being Adopted; The Lifelong Search for Self"  by David Brodzinsky, Marshall Schechter, and Robin Henig. There are some wonderful books written for young children about adoption that can make great adjuncts to talking about adoption. Some of these directly discuss adoption:  "Tell Me Again About the Night I was Born" by Jamie Lee Curtis, "Over the Moon; an adoption tale" by Karen Katz, and "The Day We Met You" by Phoebe Koehler. There are others  that are more metaphorical, in which an animal is looking for its mother and ends up being taken in by a kindly figure.  "A Mother for Choco" by Keiko Kasza is one of these.  Another, Phoebe's (and my) favorite, is "Little Miss Spider" (of  "Miss Spider's Tea Party" fame) by David Kirk.  This story is about a little spider who hatches out of her egg and goes looking for her mother.  Betty the beetle offers to help her and ends up suggesting that maybe she could be her mother.  The last line, a winner, is "For finding your mother there's one certain test, just look for the creature who loves you the best."

(Editor's note: See the children's book reviews in the Adoption Book section, for recommendations on these and other wonderful resources for your child.)

Copyright Nancy Jessup

Nancy Jessup adopted her daughter Phoebe in 1999. She can be reached at <>.
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