For most of my life, foster care and adoption were foreign concepts to me, though I was incredibly fascinated with both of them. At a very early age I was aware of the kids who looked nothing like their parents or who suddenly showed up in a friend's home at random and became her new “brother,” and I found myself curious about their backgrounds. I often struggled to find the appropriate words to use while asking the numerous questions I had, and though most people were very understanding and patient with me, hindsight has definitely taught me that many of my questions were fairly inappropriate.
Over the years, the more people I've talked to, the more people I've found have adoption stories they are willing to share with me. Now that my family has a foster/adoption story all our own, I'm grateful for the opportunity I now have to share my story and be an example to those who are in a position I was once in. Of course, setting that example can sometimes be difficult when inappropriate questions are asked of me on a daily basis. So what is appropriate? What can a person ask without being offensive?
The very first thing to do when you come across a person with foster or adoptive children is ask yourself [silently, please!] how well you know this person. If the person is a close friend, ask away! Your friend is probably itching to share their journey with you. But be respectful in your phrasing, always considering the feelings of the child, especially if they are around. If the person is more of an acquaintance or a stranger, proceed with caution. Enter into conversation with a friendly ice-breaker like, “Your family has grown since the last time I saw you,” or “What a beautiful family you have!” Be positive about it and allow them to offer information rather than ask about personal things.
If you have a specific question about the foster care or adoptive process, say that! Remember that it is never your prerogative to know anything about the background of the child, but you most definitely should be educated on the foster care and adoption process itself. Don't be offended if the foster or adoptive parent doesn't offer specific information about their child. A foster parent is legally obligated to maintain confidentiality, and are not allowed to share intimate details with parties not privy to their case. Besides, would you want your story shouted out to the world?
Possibly one of the most important things to remember is to never refer to a child as a “foster” kid or “adopted” kid. Labels like this can be harsh to a child and make them feel like they don't belong. They're kids. Period. We must always have their best interest in mind, and it is never in their best interest to feel more different than they already feel. Remember, most of these children come from difficult backgrounds and every day is a challenge for them to cope with the adult-sized feelings they have. Be respectful and sensitive to their needs.
Another important topic to avoid with a foster or adoptive parents is the birth family, especially in the presence of the children involved. Every child's story is different, and some of them include positive relationships with birth family members. But for others, simply mentioning their birth family can cause extreme anxiety. In my experience, it has always been better to wait until information was offered before asking questions. Also, never speak ill of a birth family, even if the foster or adoptive parents say something unbecoming about them. This information if often overheard by the children and can cause them to feel more conflicted about who they are and where they came from. Don't forget that these are real people's stories we are dealing with, so choose your words wisely.
Respect will go a long way. If you have questions for a foster/adoptive family and are afraid you might not be able to fit them into appropriate words, just warn them first with a simple phrase like, “I'm not quite sure how to word this but I have a question about (blank).” Chances are, you aren't the first to ask and your approach will be much better received if you just tell us you're curious but not educated on the proper “lingo.” Most foster and adoptive families are open to share pieces of their stories because we want others to consider fostering and adopting. I like to believe that curiosity is the first step in creating good foster parents! So get yourself educated. Ask questions. But always remember to do one thing first, which is probably the best advice I can give: when faced with questions for an foster/adoptive parent, always ask yourself before opening your mouth if your question is one you would want to answer if you were in their shoes.
Carrie is a stay-at-home mom of five who is blogging about her foster care experiences for MetroFamily. Learn more about her and our other bloggers here and check out all our foster care resources here.