What to say to an adopted child about biological parents
Question: What should you tell an adopted child about his biological parents in “closed” adoption situations? How do you answer his tough questions about why he wasn’t wanted, etc.?
Dobson: I’ll give you an answer written by Dr. Milton Levine in a vintage parenting book titled “Your Child From 2 to 5,” and then I’ll comment on his recommendation. Dr. Levine was associate professor of pediatrics at New York Hospital at the time. He listed three possible ways to tell an adopted child about his origin, as follows:
1. Tell the child his biological parents are dead.
2. State plainly that the biological parents were unable to care for him themselves.
3. Tell the child nothing is known about the biological parents, but that he was secured from an agency dedicated to finding good homes for babies.
Dr. Levine preferred the first approach: “The child who is told that his biological parents are dead is free to love the mother and father he lives with. He won’t be tormented by a haunting obligation to search for his biological parents when he’s grown.”
He continued: “Since the possibility of losing one’s parents is one of childhood’s greatest fears, it is true that the youngster who is told that his biological parents are dead may feel that all parents including his second set are pretty impermanent. Never- theless, I feel that in the long run the child will find it easier to adjust to death than to abandonment. To tell a youngster that his parents gave him up because they were unable to take care for him is to present him with a complete rejection. He cannot comprehend the circumstances which might lead to such an act. But an unwholesome view of himself as an unwanted object, not worth fighting to keep, might be established.”
I disagree with Dr. Levine at this point. I am unwilling to lie to my child about anything and would not tell him that his natural parents were dead if that were not true. Sooner or later, he will learn that he has been misled, which could undermine our relationship and bring the entire adoption story under suspicion.
Instead, I would be inclined to tell the child that very little is known about his biological parents. Several inoffensive and vague possibilities could be offered to him: “We can only guess at the reasons the man and woman could not raise you. They may have been extremely poor and were unable to give you the care you needed; or maybe the woman was sick; or she may not have had a home. We just don’t know. But there is one thing we do know. She must have loved you very, very much — enough to give you life and to make sure you were raised in a loving home where you would be taken care of. We’re so thankful that the Lord led her to let us raise you.”
Question: I understand your emphasis on a child being taught to respect the authority of his or her parents, but doesn’t that coin have two sides? Don’t parents have an equal responsibility to show respect for their children?
Dobson: They certainly do. The self- concept of a child is extremely fragile and must be handled with great care. A youngster should live in complete safety at home, never being belittled or embarrassed deliberately, never punished in front of friends, never ridiculed in a way that is hurtful. His strong feelings and requests, even if foolish, should be considered and responded to politely. He should feel that his parents “ really do care about me.”
My point is that respect is the critical ingredient in all human relationships, and just as parents should insist on receiving it from their children, they are obligated to model it in return.