Tonight, in our adoption and foster care support group, we talked about adoption terminology. I have wanted to share on this topic for a while now, but I also know myself and my foster and adoptive friends. We carry a lot of emotion when it comes to caring for children from hard places. We hug them and feed them and bathe them. We love them with all of our being and then some. We know what we mean with our words. We would never use words with the intention of hurting a child. And most of the time, we find enough good in our hearts to not want to hurt the family they had before ours either.

But love and good intentions are not enough. Words matter.

I learned from my friend, Mikeale Campbell that intention and impact are two very different things. He said, “When you step on someone’s toe accidentally, what do you do? You apologize! You never meant to step on their toe. Even though your intention was not to hurt them, the impact hurt all the same!”

As an adoptive parent, it is easy to say whatever and do whatever we want and use the excuse that we had the best intentions. Or instead we can focus on what truly matters, the impact our words have on our children and their biological families.Image-1(1)

POSITIVE TERM: Expectant Mother, Expectant Father, Expectant Parents

When a mother chooses to make an adoption plan, she is not a birth mother. When she chooses your family to raise her child, she is not a birth mother. When she gives birth to her child, she is not a birth mother. She becomes a birth mother when she signs over her rights and the child becomes legally yours. Until that time, she is an expectant mother. That matters to us because we want all expectant mothers to make a decision for their child without influencing that decision. It should go without saying that during that time the child is not “yours.” We must be careful with our words.

POSITIVE TERM: Birth mother, Birth Father, Birth Parents

There is no “real” mother or “natural” mother, because who wants to be known as the “unreal” or “unnatural mother?” Adoption may look different than some families, but we are by no means a “fake” family.

Along with this, it is best to say “my son’s birth mother” or “my daughter’s birth family,” not “our birth mother.” We also use the term “first mother.” I am not threatened by this. I love the fact that he was loved by his first mother. It in no way diminishes my love for him. Sometimes, we simply use her name. Why? Because, she’s a human. Let’s not de-humanize our child’s beginning.

POSITIVE TERM: Parent, Mom, Dad

This seems to be easy for adoptive parents. We want to be known as mom and dad. We want our child to know us as mom and dad. We don’t need the adjective of adoptive mom or adoptive dad. Let that sink in as we take a look at the next one.

POSITIVE TERM: Child, Son, Daughter

My child was adopted. He is not my adopted child. I love what Russell Moore said about this.

“The greatest challenge is confronting the idea that there’s somehow a difference between adopted children and biological children in terms of affection, in terms of the structure of the family, which is not true. There’s no such thing as adopted children. There are only children who were adopted. In a biblical understanding, “adopted” is a past-tense verb, not an adjective. So once someone has been adopted into the family, that person is part of the family with everything that that means.”

Do you see the difference in when we make adoption the past-tense verb and not an adjective? On this note, I seldom identify my child in terms of adoption. If I am speaking at an event that relates to adoption I will say, “I have three children, one of which joined our family through adoption.” If the conversation or event has no ties to adoption, I simply have three children. Period.

He is my son.

POSITIVE TERM: Chose to Parent

Expectant parents have the right to parent their children unless a governing power much higher than me determines otherwise. The negative term is “choosing to keep the child.” Let’s not make the child an object someone keeps or passes on.

POSITIVE TERM: Placed a Child for Adoption

One common saying I hear quite often is “put them up for adoption.” I recently learned of a time in our history called the orphan train era. During this time, it is estimated that close to 200,000 children were orphaned or abandoned and stuck on trains to be sent to homes looking for children who were “able-bodied” to work on their farms. They were “put up” on platforms for families to get a good look. Surely we can understand that “put up” carries a connotation we wouldn’t want our kids to carry.

Another common phrase is “given up for adoption.” I don’t know about you, but I don’t give up things that are good for me. We say someone gave up something negative. “They gave up smoking.” “They gave up gambling.” “They gave up coffee.”

Just kidding. I’d never give up coffee.

But you get the picture. What does our child hear when we say they were “given up?” Does it give them a sense of pride or insecurity?

This is the last one on this topic, but I feel passionately about it so hang with me.

I am pro-life. I want adoption to be an option. I want expectant families to make a plan they feel comfortable with. I want to praise them in the adoption plan if that is the one that is made. So the second that paper is signed, what message are my words sending when I roll my eyes and tell my friends and family she gave up her child? I want to be pro-life, pro-baby, pro-mother, pro-father, pro-love, and pro-support from beginning to end, not just beginning to legally ours.

POSITIVE TERM: Adoption through Foster Care

This is a newer change that’s been gaining some attention. I’ve heard “foster to adopt” for years and never thought much of it until reading later from adoptees that we “foster to adopt” pets. We take a pet home, see if we like it, and take it back if we don’t. Why would I put a child in that same category?

P.S. My foster friends are brave people. One of the things I love most is that they have a heart for reunification when possible. Adoption is not plan A in foster care. Something to consider before signing up for “foster to adopt.” Instead, you may consider adoption through foster care when reunification isn’t an option.

Here’s just a few more terms…


CHILD WITH SPECIAL NEEDS not Special-needs child

FAILED PLACEMENT not Failed Adoption


BORN TO UNMARRIED PARENTS not Illegitimate Child

TO PARENT HER CHILD not To Keep Her Child

COURT TERMINATION not Child Taken Away

I am sure there are more. I learn something new all the time. The reason I continue to read thoughts from adult adoptees and biological parents is because I realize that my voice is only one side of the adoption triad. Even though it stings when I hear from another that my words caused an impact that I did not intend to give, it is my job to educate myself to do better. My husband likes to say, “You don’t know what you don’t know.”

When I mess up, I feel the sting, learn from my mistake, and show myself some grace. But let’s not use that as an excuse to stay put. Let us continue to educate ourselves so that our impact matches our intent because…words matter.

Brumley 364-Edit




5 Replies to “When Words Matter”

  1. This is *such* an informative post- I thank you for writing it because I don’t think I would have known the preferred terminology to use! I will absolutely remember this. Also, your family is just beautiful ❤


  2. This is excellent. My 5 year old daughter is trying to understand (as much as a 5 year old can) the distinction between her birth mom and me – her adopted mom.
    She asked me the other day if I was her “fake” mom.
    I said no- I am your real mom.
    Are you my “step” mom?
    No, I am your real mom.
    She asked Then what about Mommy K (what we call her birth mom) – I said she is your real mom too. You were in her tummy but God allowed you to be ours too. She was content with that answer for now. I pray for the right words at the right time as she is continuing to try to understand. I also give her and myself a lot of grace- I’m 37 and it’s hard emotionally sometimes- I can only imagine for a 5 year old!


    1. Oh thank you so much for sharing this! Our youngest is two and he has a very limited understanding. We show pictures of momma Katie (or birth mommy as we also call her) but I often wonder what it will look like at 5,15, 25 and so on. I pray God gives me the words I need when I need them. And yes to grace. For all of us!


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