Listening To Adult Adoptees: A Lesson For Adoptive Parents

Adoptive parents are familiar with the difficulties of fielding intrusive comments, so why have they begun challenging adopted adults?

Lydia sits down next to me and begins talking with an adoptive mother. Both Lydia and the woman’s 11 year-old daughter are adopted from Korea. “What about the guys you date?” The mother asks, looking over the tops of her reading glasses. She raises her eyebrows. “Do you go out with Asians?” Lydia freezes. Then she sighs and shrugs her shoulders, her expression so dramatic changes across her face like sunlight slipping behind a cloud.

The carpet beneath my feet seems to press upward, and I wish I could become part of the wall. It’s unintentional, of course, this mother thinks she is only asking appropriate questions, and that it’s OK to expect an adult adoptee to open up her life for her examination.

I'm older than dirt. Over the years, as the mother of Korean born-children, I’ve met my share of noisy questions, but now the tables are turned. Instead of the insensitive comments from strangers that trailed me when my kids were growing up, today the rude remarks and probing questions I hear asked, slip from the mouths of adoptive parents, and are directed towards adopted adults.

Adoptive parents both create and reflect adoptive parenting attitudes and social values. We are familiar with the difficulties of fielding intrusive comments, so why have so many begun to criticize and challenge adopted adults?

We can shrug it off. After all, those parents mean well. Their children are the center of their lives, desperately important to them, deeply loved, and they are only wanting to talk with someone who has walked the adoptee path, to shed a little light on the adult journey their kids will someday embark on.

We may have good intentions, but we aren’t doing our best job of remembering.

From experience we know the burden of educating others is oppressive. When my children first joined our family the job of educating the world about adoption fell largely to us, their parents. I'm from the generation of adoptive parents who twenty years ago worked towards setting the bounds of privacy while empowering our children to face bothersome questions. We formed an adoption community committed to teaching our kids to insist on the right of privacy early on, to know that what feels private can legitimately be kept private.

An interracial adoptive family attracts a certain amount of attention. When our kids are babies there are days when we can’t get through the supermarket without being stopped by a stranger or two, being chased down the isle by someone who wants to ask us nosy adoption questions. If we are wise we take cues from our kids. At first we might enjoy the notice, but usually our children do not. From practice we learn that fielding too many questions, criticism, and too much attention — wears on our spirit.

In parenting we worry about doing our best to help our children deal with the expectations others may have of them as they get older. So by the time most adult adoptees begin facing nosy questions on their own, they’ve had years of watching their parents model empowering answers, with a mind set that lets them know they have the right to choose whether and how to respond to intrusive questions.

“In the best interest of the child” is a concept that consistently is embraced as a core principle of adoption. Those children whose best interest we want to protect grow up to be adults who hold their own rights to privacy. We’re fortunate in today’s paradigm we have transracially adopted adults who are willing to be interpreters of the adult adoptee perspective and are prepared to share personal information. Yet it’s important to remember that not all adoptees enjoy being the object of curiosity. While being open all along with our children is key, we do not have the right to expect that same level of openness with adults we barely know, just because they happen to have been adopted.

Adopted adults should not be singled out and queried unless they have volunteered themselves as a bridge — and even then there are boundaries that must be respected. There are hundreds of studies showing that how parents talk with their children, whether with an empathic understanding, or with criticism and indifference, has deep and lasting consequences on a child’s emotional life, and that effect shapes their adulthood.

If you are the parent of a child, picture yourself 20 years from now. What kind of relationship do you hope to have with your kids? As your children reach adulthood, you will need to keep some of your comments to yourself. Begin practicing now. When adopted adults offer to answer your questions, listen with a benevolent ear, empower them with security, and self-confidence. Be kind. Showing respect to another adoptive parent’s adult son or daughter is probably the most important thing we can do.

First published Adoption Today, reprinted in numerous other venues. 
© 2004 Terra Trevor. All rights reserved.
  • - Terra Trevor’s ‘Pushing up the Sky’ is a revelation of the struggles and triumphs packed into the hyphens between Korean and Native American and American....
  • Writing, Reading and Living - For me, writing is a way of reaching out to others, to people I don't know. I sit alone, in silence, but all that time I’m out there, connecting with whoe...
  • - Terra Trevor is an essayist, memoirist and nonfiction writer of a diverse body of work. Her stories illuminate our humanity, remind us to be open, to...