Positive Adoption Language

Alisha Wolf, MSW, MPH
Education and Training Director
Adoptions Together

   I was leading an adoptive parent training recently, and we began discussing Positive Adoption Language (PAL).  Many parents in the training knew about it and stressed the importance of its use. One dad raised his hand and said, “I think lots of adoptive families know about positive adoption language, but I wish more people outside of the adoption world knew how to use it.” 

                We couldn’t agree more. The words that we use say a lot about the way we think and what we value.  Many words that have traditionally been used to describe adoption carry negative connotations.  For example, describing the person who gave birth to an adopted child as the “natural parent” signifies that there is something unnatural about an adoptive parent and an adoptive family.  See the chart below identifying negative terms and their preferred terms.

Negative Terms

Preferred Terms

Gave up her child for adoption

Placed her child for adoption

Real parent; natural parent

Birth parent, biological parent

Adoptive parent


His adopted child

His child


Born to unmarried parents

To keep

To parent

Adoptable child; available child

Waiting child

Foreign adoption

International adoption

Track down parents


Unwanted child

Child placed for adoption

“How can we teach Positive Adoption Language to the people we interact with?”

Many adoptive families wonder how they can share PAL with the people around them.  While there are many different ways to do this, I’ve found modeling to be quite effective.  Most people outside of the adoption world are simply unfamiliar with adoption and adoption language.  I’ve seen many people tentatively try to ask about a child’s birth mother, but simply don’t know how to refer to her.  I like to meet the person in that moment, saying, “It’s hard to know the right words for all of this, huh?  We call the woman who gave birth to an adopted child his birth mother.”  Showing an openness to talk about PAL can invite more questions and initiate a larger discussion about the way we talk about adoptive families. Like so many adoption-related matters, each family has to find the method of sharing PAL that’s right for them.

How do you share positive adoption language with the people in your life?

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