I recently had someone ask me the following on facebook, and I thought it was a good question that I would share here as well:
Is it ok to ask if someone adopted, if it appears to be the case? ( example: redhead, fair skinned mom with a black little boy at the dentist the other day.) If so, is it ok to ask questions like where they are from?
I am a total question asker by nature.. I love to ask questions. AND I'm interested in adoption personally. So there are times that I'd like to ask these questions. But I don't want to be that person that asks an annoying or even rude question.
So, are there questions that it is ok even welcomed to ask, or is it more considerate to not bring it up at all?
I think this is a really good question. I regularly hear adoptive parents, especially from transracial families, complain about the questions they have to field on a daily basis, and I think that sometimes leaves people wondering what they are allowed to say at all. I will answering for myself, but maybe some other adoptive parents can chime in down in the comment section.
For me, the answer would be that it's fine, but not in front of the kids. Let me repeat:
Do not ask me if my kids are adopted in front of them.
It’s a personal question, and I think it puts kids on the spot unnecessarily. I think some kids may not mind, but other children are more sensitive, and may not want their parents talking about their personal narrative to a stranger. I guess I would compare that question to seeing someone with children, who is alone and not wearing a wedding ring, if they are divorced. A fine question for someone you know, but perhaps not passing chatter for the checkout line in Target. It’s important to bear in mind that adoption stories are often complex, so what may seem like a benign questions could be digging in to serious and traumatic territory very quickly. I especially don’t appreciate questions like, “Where are they from?” in front of my children. They are from foster care and a Haitian orphanage. One had both his parents die, the other was removed from their care by social services. That is not a conversation for a stop-and-chat with a stranger. Especially in front of them. When I am asked that question in front of them, I usually say that our family is from Orange County, with a look that lets them know I’d like the line of conversation to end.
If you can somehow isolate the adult, I think it’s acceptable to ask a mom if her children are adopted. I know other adoptive parents don't care for it but it never bothers me away from the kids. I think it also helps if you articulate why you want to know. If you preface it by saying, "I'm personally interested in adoption, so I was wondering if your child is adopted?", that frames it as a personal interest. I've had people ask where I can tell it was coming from interest, and then there have been others who I just feel like are prying (or think we are some cultural curiosity). The context helps. Just last week, I literally had an adult male ask me loudly as I was browsing for pajamas with Jafta, “So what’s the deal, they’re adopted?” So not cool.
Also, a word of advice? One really nice way of acknowledging or affirming a transracial family’s adoption status without gushing about adoption in front of the kids is to simply say, “you have a really beautiful family.” When people say that to me, I usually get a sense that they are trying to acknowledge the way our family was formed without blurting it out. This is also a good way to satisfy your own curiosity, because if they let you know that half the kids are friends from school, you no longer need to ask if their children are all “theirs”. If they say thank you, you’ve confirmed that the kids were likely adopted, and it can be a catalyst for them to share more if they want to.
I also think this will vary by personality. I’m an introvert, which means I have an internal subconscious rulebook that says you don’t speak to people you don’t know unless their hair is on fire, and even then, only if you are the only person available. Mark, on the other hand, strikes up a conversation with anyone and everyone. He is on a first-name basis with every sandwich artist at our local Subway. He’s a fan of the stop-and-chat. I am not. So while I think the question is okay, if the children are not within earshot, sometimes I just don’t feel like divulging the whole story with a stranger. In that case, I try to change the subject.
I will admit that whenever I see other transracial families, I have a huge urge to go up and meet them, that is at violent odds with my introverted nature. If the kids are with me, we might give each other the
secret handshake silent nod of acknowledgement, but if they aren’t I might say something like, “Your family looks similar to mine” as a way to strike up a conversation without putting the kids on the spot. But I do think it is important for adults to be sensitive to adopted children, and to understand that fielding questions from strangers (or hearing their mother field questions from strangers) may make them feel self-conscious and “othered”. I don’t think satisfying a curiosity is ever worth making a child feel uncomfortable.