Imagine you’re in a room full of people, having a good time—until someone makes a troubling comment about adoption. Even though the rest of the party keeps going, for you everything stops. It’s as if the projectionist just switched off the film, brought up the house lights, and asked you what you’re going to do next. Will you smile tolerantly? Will you seize this teachable moment? How will people feel about you—and, more importantly, how will you feel about yourself—after everything is over? 

My most recent experience of this kind actually took place in complete seclusion. I was reading the New York Times online, engrossed in the “Modern Love” essay of the week, until I was jolted by a reference to gay men’s options for fatherhood as “purchasing a baby.” Taking adoption to be one of the main possibilities, I felt sucker-punched. The essay, like everything I’ve read in “Modern Love,” thoughtfully explored human connectedness, and yet it was (in its own small way) sabotaging connectedness through adoption. Governments regularly shut down adoption programs due to fears of corruption and human trafficking—fears, in other words, that their clients are purchasing babies. That kind of throw-away comment in a paper that’s respected worldwide seemed like a pointless obstacle flung into the path of children needing families. 

When I posted a comment objecting to the phrase, the only response another reader linked to it accused me of being self-righteous and humor-impaired. I had to stop and think hard about that. Self-righteousness and a lack of humor impede relationship, which is the goal of adoption. When we bring children into our families, we build relationships with them that become foundational to their ability to form their own relationships later in life. I don’t want to defend adoption in a way that alienates people—that would be antithetical to the spirit of adoption.  

So the question I pondered was how to respond to hurtful remarks about adoption in a positive way. My musings led me to three guidelines:  

1) Consider the person. An offensive statement I hear or read may inspire a cutting retort in my mind, but in most cases I shouldn’t say it out loud or share it on the internet. I want my response to inspire reflection, not simply to boost my ego. 

For instance, while I was preparing to adopt, a Ugandan translator on short-term assignment to the U.S. suggested I adopt a girl and marry her to one of my sons by birth. When I answered, “That would be illegal,” the translator repeated her suggestion more slowly. I guess she thought I’d misunderstood her words. But when I continued to insist that her plan was against U. S. law, she shrugged at our absurd legal system, then advised, “Don’t tell them one is adopted. That way they can feel like brothers.” 

“They will be brothers,” I replied, and got a baffled look. Apparently the views on adoption in our two countries were so different that we would have needed a lot of groundwork just to understand each other. 

Knowing the translator was from Uganda made it easier to have patience with her, of course. If I’d heard the same proposals from an American, I might have lashed out. Most of the time, though, comments that seem insensitive or even monstrous spring from unexamined assumptions that people will discard if we can gently prompt them to reflect. 

2) Consider the intent. Most people who disconcert me with their comments on adoption don’t realize the harm their words may do. If I correct them, the shock and humiliation may drown out the message I’m trying to convey and prevent us from communicating in the future. On the other hand, in those rare moments when people are intentionally being unkind, I want them to know that I’m not pleased. In the second category; I had a relative congratulate me on giving birth because, in her words, “This family needs children.” At the mention of an inlaw who’d adopted, my relative objected, “Those aren’t her real children.” When I contended that they were her real children, the relative snapped, “I’m sorry I brought it up.” It felt important to me to reject praise that disparaged another family. 

But there are other compliments I find more puzzling, especially gratitude from first-generation Korean Americans toward me for adopting a Korean child. I’ve received tearful thanks at church and in the grocery store. The first time it happened, I tried to explain my own gratitude at having another child in my family, but that response appeared to mystify the thanks-giver. Since then, I’ve resorted to smiling and nodding, which feels both disingenuous and inadequate. It’s disingenuous because I don’t agree that I deserve gratitude for parenting my children. Compassionate parenting is the right due to every child. It’s inadequate because it has left my sons asking, “Why is that lady thanking you?” and I’ve had no answer to give except, “Because she’s nice.”  

The highest stakes of these conversations is how children learn to think about themselves. When my children observe this repeated giving and receiving of thanks, they may conclude that the youngest of them is in some way the property of the Korean people, for whom I’m performing a service. From my individualistic American perspective, this is wrong. My son belongs to himself, and I’m bound to raise him as it seems best to me, not as his nation of origin would prefer. The people who thank me might approve of his enrollment in Korean school, but at least some of them very likely would condemn the openness I’m teaching him to take toward different sexual orientations. Such tensions between cultures are one of the central difficulties of transnational and transracial adoption. At the same time, they are one of its gifts, impelling us to find peaceful resolutions as individuals to the conflicts that divide our global society. 

3) Consider the context. When a negative communication takes place in private, a one-on-one response may be most appropriate. When it’s public, the response should aim to reach everyone the first communication touched—especially children, who are the most vulnerable. 

When I first brought my thirteen-month-old home from Korea, one of my friends saw him gobbling snacks and told him, “That’s it: go for the sumo look. If you can’t be taller than your brothers, you can always outweigh them.” My son then ran at her, swerving away at the last minute, and my friend remarked, “You can’t tell what his intentions are. That could be a problem when he’s older.”    

Hearing my Asian toddler characterized as a Japanese wrestler and an inscrutable Oriental in close succession left me, for the moment, unable to think anything clearly except that I was grateful for the limits of my son’s week-long acquaintance with English. Although I said nothing at the time, I’ve seen that friend regularly for five years without hearing another stereotyping comment. Perhaps my spontaneous look of alarm was all she needed to help her reconsider. In the intimate context of my living room, at that early stage in my son’s childhood, no words were necessary to set the situation right. 

By contrast, people with a global audience may have far-reaching effects that can’t easily be reversed. The journalists who referred to adopted children as South Korea’s main export during the 1988 Seoul Olympics provoked a shift in South Korea’s adoption policy that slowed the placing of thousands of children with parents. A personal change of heart in the reporters couldn’t undo that damage. What was needed then is what is still being laboriously constructed today: an international commitment to children that nurtures them in their birth and adoptive families, free from the distortions caused by stigma, profit or blame. 

So what’s said about adoption matters on all levels, from family and friendships to the worldwide community. I want to speak up in the right way at the right time, with consideration for everyone involved, to protect my children and build a society that benefits us all.  

Biographical note: Laura Berol lives in Falls Church, Virginia, where she and her husband are raising their three sons by adoption and birth.