Just Another Kind of Family

For adopted kids, especially those who look different from their parents, comments from other kids — and adults — can hurt

“That can’t be your Mom. She doesn’t look like you!” or “Why did your real parents give you away?” Those are comments that my 7-year-old daughter, Maya, has heard many times since arriving from Guatemala six years ago. Kids are naturally curious when they see our family, and it’s normal for them to ask questions.

Of course, that doesn’t mean the words don’t hurt. The first time a child said, “That’s not your Mommy” to Maya, the wounded look on her face made my heart sink. But dealing with such comments is part of being an adoptive family, especially an interracial one. My husband and I have learned to respond in age-appropriate ways, telling young children, “Families are made in all different ways, and ours was made through adoption; we are Maya’s real Mommy and Daddy forever.”

Now that school has begun, Maya has already dealt with questions from new classmates. She knows that it’s up to her to tell her story or choose not to. We’ve given her the tools to answer in ways that are most comfortable to her.

What makes a normal situation uncomfortable, however, is when teachers and other adults don’t know how to respond to the issues surrounding adoption. A few years ago, when I told Maya’s kindergarten teacher to expect these kinds of questions, her reply reflected her misunderstanding: “Oh, these are good kids, they’d never do that.”

Good kids do say things (and grown-ups, too). A little preparation is all that’s needed to make these encounters positive and educational.

Questions offer a chance to educate

East Northport parents Charlie and Jerrilyn Rothenberg are accustomed to questions about their family, which includes two biological sons from Jerrilyn’s first marriage, Ryan Bales, 17, and Dylan Bales, 14; a biological daughter from Charlie’s first marriage, Lauren, 14; 7-year-old Emei Li, whom they adopted from China as an infant; and their new addition, 3- year-old Jeremy, also from China.

“We get a lot of looks,” says Jerrilyn. “Kids look at Emei Li, and then at us, to see if we ‘match.’ Grown-ups do, too.”

But it’s not curious glances that bother Jerrilyn. “It’s amazing what people have said right in front of Emei Li,” she says. “Some have asked how much she cost. Others have told her how lucky she is, because parents in China throw their baby girls away and don’t love them. That’s garbage, and it’s so hurtful to Emei Li.”

Cathy Danowski, director of social services at New Beginnings Family & Children’s Services, an adoption agency in Mineola, has four grown children: three adopted from Korea, and one biological. “When my kids were little, people sometimes pointed at my biological child and said, ‘She must be yours.’ I knew what they meant, but didn’t they realize how that would make my other kids feel?” Danowski’s typical reply: “I’d say, ‘They’re all mine.'”

Despite such inappropriate comments, most questions — especially when they come from children — reflect innocent curiosity. “I always see questions as an opening to teach them, in a loving way,” says Elva Ann Orlandini, an East Meadow single mother who has four kids (two biological, one adopted from Nigeria and one adopted from Haiti) and is in the process of adopting two sisters from Ethiopia. “It’s an opportunity to be an advocate for adoption.”

Heather Wareing, a single mom from Farmingville, takes a similar approach when people inquire about her daughter, Emma, who was adopted from China. With adults, “I usually want to know why they asked, and tell them I’d be happy to put them in touch with my agency,” she says. “Sometimes, people ask because they’re thinking about adopting.”

Educating the educators

With more and more families being formed through adoption, schools can play an important role. “Teachers want to do well for all families,” says Adam Pertman, author of “Adoption Nation” and executive director of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, a research and policy organization with offices in Manhattan and Boston. “But very few schools are proactively educating staff and the community about adoption issues.”

Sirka Louca, a clinical social worker who specializes in adoption and infertility issues, and an adoptive parent herself, approached two Long Island school districts offering to give free staff workshops and presentations to children and the PTA. “I was turned down by everyone, with one principal saying it would ‘open a Pandora’s box’ and create a problem that wasn’t there,” says Louca, whose practice is in Setauket. “I know that teachers and parents of nonadoptive kids want to know how to say the right thing, but they can’t if they don’t have the education.”

The fact that the principal used the phrase “Pandora’s box” reflects a misunderstanding of adoption, Pertman notes. “It’s not a Pandora’s box unless you think there’s something bad inside,” he says. “Schools have become sensitive to issues like step-parenting, divorce and diversity. They need to take those lessons and apply them to adoption.”

At Amityville’s St. Martin of Tours school, kindergarten teacher Annmarie Zimmerman saw the adoption of one of her students as an opening to talk about adoption — and to celebrate. When Regina Vazquez was officially able to adopt her foster daughter, Lena, in 2006, Zimmerman sent a note home to all the parents and threw a class party. “Our daughter was thrilled to be given her own special adoption party at school,” Vazquez says. “Lena will never forget it.”

“Children are coming with varied backgrounds, and, as a teacher, you want to be aware of the child’s history,” Zimmerman says. “The family was so open and positive about their experience, and we wanted to celebrate the uniqueness of every child.”

Certain school assignments can be loaded topics for adopted kids. Family trees present obvious difficulties; even simple “All About Me” projects often request a baby photo — potentially problematic for a child who was adopted after the baby stage.

Last year, Karen Wasserman was taken by surprise by a book assigned to her son Max’s fourth-grade class. The Newbery Honor book, “The Great Gilly Hopkins,” included some bad language, so the teacher informed the parents of that fact ahead of time.

. “I had no problem with Max reading it,” says Wasserman, who adopted Max domestically as an infant. “But when I found out that the plot involved a kid who acts out because she’s been in foster homes her whole life and who longs to be with her birthmother, I was totally shocked. I don’t mind that the class read the book; it’s just that the teacher didn’t realize that the story would have a different impact on Max than the other kids.”

Wasserman wrote a note to the school principal, expressing her wish that she had been told of the book’s contents. “I would’ve been prepared to discuss it with Max. And it would have been a great opportunity for the class to learn about foster care and adoption, but it was never discussed. Such insensitivity from a teacher who was otherwise so sensitive made me realize how uneducated people are on these topics.”

According to Danowski of New Beginnings, schools are beginning to recognize that not all families are built in the so-called “traditional” way, but that far more needs to be done.  “All people need to be sensitized to adoption issues, and the schools have a great opportunity to be a source of information,” she says.

Her suggestion: Create a parent advisory committee to encourage dialogue among teachers, administrators and the entire community. “Adoption experts and adoptive parents can educate teachers about the issues that are likely to arise and the best way to respond,” she says. “There are so many wonderful books that can be in school libraries and classrooms. And the PTA can be a great conduit for adoptive families to connect with each other and form support groups.” 

The PTA newsletter can also be an educational tool. “Write about the kinds of questions your adopted child gets asked, and give non-adoptive parents advice on how to answer their child’s questions,” says Danowski. “Very few people ever realize that when they talk about ‘real families’ as being different than adopted families, they’ve completed negated us. If they learn to tell their child that adoption is just another way of forming a family, no better or worse than any other, it will make a world of difference.”