When Should You Tell Your Child He Was Adopted?

by Laura Christianson

We adopted our sons when they were newborns, and adoption has always been a normal part of the vocabulary around our home.

When Ben was 6 years old and Josh was 3, we went to the hospital to meet one of their newborn cousins. The boys looked around in wonderment. Babies were born in hospitals!

“I thought all babies came from the adoption agency,” remarked Ben.

We have never led our sons to believe that all babies originate at the adoption agency; that was just their assumption. To them, adoption is the normal way to join one’s family; they thought it odd that babies appear on the scene in any other way.

When Should You Tell Your Child Who His Birth Parents Are?

Recently, I spoke with an adoptive mom who shares an open adoption with her oldest daughter’s birth mother. Her daughter, age 4 ½, has always known her birth mother. However, she doesn’t know that the woman is her
birth mother – she thinks she’s just a good friend of the family.

I recommended that the parents and birth mom reveal the identity of the birth mother sooner, rather than later. I believe that the girl will be less apt to resent her parents and her birth mother for keeping secrets, which will save everyone potential heartache in the long run.

Children are so resilient…if the girl learns who her birth mother is now, at age 4, in a couple of years, it will seem as if she’s always known who her birth mother is.

There are two viewpoints about when to discuss adoption with your children.

Theory #1 recommends postponing the discussion of adoption until the child is between the ages of 5 and 7. At that age, say some psychologists, the child will have the inner strength to incorporate and cope with the information.

Theory #2 recommends discussing adoption from the moment the child comes into the family.

I adhere to Theory #2. We have shown our sons photos of their birth parents since they were infants, and we have identified them as their birth parents since day one. We display pictures of their birth families on our fridge (including siblings, grandparents, cousins, etc.) along with the rest of our extended family. I’m hopeful that our sons are growing up with a healthy view of both adoption and of their birth parents.

Yes, I realize that our sons silently grieve over what is often referred to as “the primal wound.” I realize that they wonder why their birth parents made an adoption plan for them. I realize that they may struggle with attachment issues and with rejection issues, even if they aren’t able to articulate them. And I do my best to make sure they feel loved, accepted and welcomed, by both their birth and adoptive parents.

Jeanne Stevenson-Moessner says it well in her book, The Spirit of Adoption: At Home in God’s Family:

“It is essential that adopted children be helped to understand that relinquishment can be tenderly undertaken. Hopefully, the pain of being given up, which connotes abandonment, can be ameliorated with the understanding that an adopted child is given to a welcoming family, a phrase implying loving intent. When possible, it is beneficial to tell adopted children how lovingly the plans for adoption were made. It is of utmost importance that adopted children be told of how expectantly they were awaited, how they grew to life in the hearts of their adoptive parents.”

{ 38 comments… read them below or add one }

Jen R. May 10, 2010 at 6:07 AM

I was eighteen hours when I was adopted. My parents told me so young I can’t even pinpoint it. I had books on adoption and how it made me special. I think the reason it’s never been such a big deal to me or my family it we didn’t treat it as anything special. Because the reason I was given up was something a child shouldn’t hear (I was the product of an affair.) they waited and told me why when I was nearly ten because by then it didn’t matter. A lot of people make it more complicated by waiting. The younger a child is the less of a negative impact it is. When you’re older you’re pretty much set in your ways and finding that out is a huge blow after all if you can’t trust your family how can you trust anyone? Another thing don’t be worry about questions about they’re biological parents it doesn’t mean they want to leave you they just want to know. One of the only things I regret about my adoption is it was a closed one. The records are sealed and I know nothing about my genetic background let alone any half-siblings. Closed adoptions do more than just keep out the biological parents it hurts the child.

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Juno Mcfinney May 10, 2010 at 6:27 AM

I think you should tell your child that they are adopted. But you should start telling them when they are like 4 or 5 years old. That way they can handle it better than if you wait till they are 7.

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dorene grider May 10, 2010 at 7:42 AM

I`m a mother of an adopted daughter.She`ll be 21 in March and has no idea as far as I know thats she`s adopted.Her dad and I took her straight from the hospital because her birthmom was heading to prison for abusing her sister. Her birthfather is dead and I don`t know where her birthmom lives at this time. My exhusband doesn`t want me to tell her she`s adopted he say`s she doesn`t need to know,I think she has a right to know where she came from,she has medical problems I haven`t explain to her because they were caused by her birthmom.What do I do or how to I go about telling her without making her hate me?

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Jennifer May 10, 2010 at 7:51 AM

I’m not sure if there is a right or wrong way to tell your adopted child about how they came to be in your family. My husband and I are expecting to adopt soon ourselves. We have spent a lot of time thinking about what would be best for us. I’ve read many books and I’ve read of various situations and experiences from various perspectives. I even have a brother and sister in law who were adopted in a closed adoption, but they have always known they were adopted.
What my husband and I plan to do is make a scrapbook with pictures of the birth family and explain that these are the people who created you for us and God led them to us because we wanted you so much. We will explain that he/she grew in this lady’s tummy just like all babies grow in girl’s tummies. Then we will let the baby know from the time they can sit up and look at the pictures that their birth family loved them very much and wanted them to have the best parents, opportunities and more love than any other child and that is how they came to live with us. Every mother gets to decide if she thinks she would be the best mom or if someone else would be a better mom and your mom thought that she wasn’t able to be the best mom for you because of xyz.

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leah November 10, 2010 at 9:36 PM

I think that is a great idea. I am adopted and believe that there is an innate and profound loss. Infants are aware, more aware than we believe, and the bond of 9 months, plus the genetic heritage that that an adoptee has are always there. If you put off telling your children, everything before that point would have been a lie. Believe me, it is the ethical thing to do and you have chosen well to tell your baby earlier! And to answer all those questions about “who do you look like” and “what are you: italian, german…my mom’s german, my dad from Uruguay…what are your parents?” by making such a scrapbook is a Fantastic idea. It is hard, but there may come a time when your baby says “you are not my real parents”. My sister and I used that one during our teen years…on my mom, bless her soul! Yet so did my friends who’s mothers labored 27 hours to push them into the world and raise them. Try to be secure, and not too senstive: YOU are the baby’s parents, and they need to know that you know that. Shove down the jealousy when at all possible, and know that God has put you in this position for the best. Godspeed. -Leah

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Rebecca February 7, 2011 at 10:26 AM

It wasn’t that we wanted the “best parents”, that’s pretty arrogant of you to say. You adoptive parents can provide more financially, but not more love. I was the best parent by choosing adoption, you don’t have to love sacrificially to adopt, anyone can do that. Better tell them the truth, get yourself off of your pedestal.

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Leah February 9, 2011 at 9:30 AM

Rebecca,
I am an adoptee. You are the BEST parent for giving your child that chance in life. That is, by far, the ultimate sacrifice. Unlike the adoptive parents who wanted desperately (meaning they had their own personal desires and needs) to be parents-and thought of THEIR desires, you had to bravely abandon that aching draw to keep your baby because you knew it was right, because you knew it was best for the baby’s future. That is the most selfless love there is. Try to deal with that insecurity you might face..and know that when your child becomes a teenager, and especially an adult, they will know what you did and they will realize–fully–that they were not loved less by you. There are so many parents that adopt that do know they are not necessarily ‘the best’, only their situation is better, that’s all. They are forever and forever indebted to this beautiful life that is an inextricable part of you!

Julie May 10, 2010 at 8:12 AM

I’m so pleased to find this article. I was also an adopted child, and recently posted an something on my own blog making exactly this point. The truth is what we have to deal with eventually. It is much easier when it is always there, and not some huge change in our self-definition at a later age.http://celera.eponym.blog

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Edd May 10, 2010 at 9:38 AM

Im a young adopted person of 18, i was told about being adopted when i was 11 but from 17 upwards things have gotten alot more serious, i have met, talked and spent a day or soo with my sister and birth mum, but things are starting to go sour, my adopted mother and father are getting jelouse, jelouse that im now talking to my birth mum and my sister.
I would have realy wanted support on this matter but there trying there hardest to stop this from going any further, im Emotionally and Mentaly drained from all of the arguing and shouting, i hate hurting peoples feeling but no mater what i do, i seem to hurt people, i dont know what to do, im a quite lad and i bottle things up, although i havent spoke or lived with my birth mother or sister for over 17 years once theye were back in my life feeling have started to emerge for them, im begining to become protective of my sister and i think abut them every day.
A few moths ago they came up from Luton, where they live to where i live Newcastle and i have to say, it was the best weekend of my life, but like most things, once tried you want more of the same, and i cant, so what im really saying is,
I think i need help coping with all of this, i was wondering is there a site or a service i can use to talk to someone, i wont check back here so if anyone can help email me or add my msn, im always on, Vertigo_90@hotmail.co.uk thanx for your time and yeah… Cheers

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Laura Christianson May 10, 2010 at 10:00 AM

Edd,
I would suggest contacting an adoption agency in your area to see if they can refer you to a counselor who specializes in adoption issues. Having someone to talk with who’s trained in the types of things you’re experiencing will really help.

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kelli May 10, 2010 at 10:43 AM

my adoptive parents started to tell me i saw adopted before i could understand because they wanted me to know so i have known for about 20 years and it helps to eas the pain.

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Velinda V. Apalit May 10, 2010 at 11:13 AM

My elder sister adopted a baby girl at birth. The adopted baby girl is now 8 years old. My sister is planning to tell her adopted daughter that she is adopted. My sister is seeking for my help on how to tell her adopted daughter that she is adopted in a way that she will not be hurt.
In this manner, please enlgihten me on how to help my sister with her plans and situation. Also, what is the right age to tell an adopted child that he or she is adopted?
I would appreciate any help you could extend me and my sister through e-mail.
Thanks a lot.

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KELLY JUSTISS May 10, 2010 at 12:25 PM

MY DAUGHTER IS 5 AND I HAVEN’T TOLD HER YET..I AM SO AFRAID TO….I GET TOO EMOTIONAL JUST THINKING ABOUT IT..

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RK March 9, 2011 at 11:08 AM

Me too! I have a 5 year old and I don’t want to tell her. I don’t want her to think she is different from her siblings.

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Erik Purins May 10, 2010 at 1:21 PM

I am an adopted child who has grown into a well rounded man of forty years. I have always known that I was adopted and have had great life so far. Three years ago I decided to contact my birth mother. I have always known her name and the circumstances to my adoption so my repose for contact were to thank her for the personal sacrifice she made for me. The relationship we have is wonderful. My adopted parents were ok with my contact, out of respect I asked if it was ok to find her.
Adoption is a wonderful thing. My parent would have never had a family if not for adoption and I would have never had so many people to love me. I will one day adopt too. It is just wonderful doing the right thing.

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something to think about May 10, 2010 at 5:18 PM

If my dad were not my biological father, I would not want to know. My loyalty would be to the father that raised me anyway. Why complicate an uncomplicated life and fill my head with thoughts that I don’t need? I just wouldn’t want to know. If nothing’s broke, why try to fix it?

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cayo May 10, 2010 at 5:49 PM

My husband and I adopted our sweet boy in September. I was there when he was born and we brought him home from the hospital at 2 days old. We already talk to him about being adopted. We look at pictures of his other Mama and talk about her. My 2.5 year old daughter knows that her brother is adopted and when you ask her what that means she says “Brother grows in his mama’s body and then he comes to our family. He is adopted.” Frequently she will tell me that she is adopted. We talk about all the ways that people join families and that no way is any better than another. Don’t underestimate your childs ability to work through complicated things. You don’t have to give them all the information at once. Like any other delicate subject you introduce little bits and let your children direct the conversation as questions come up. We believe that feelings of hurt and uncertainty will only increase if your child feels that they have been lied to for their whole lives.

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Nicole May 10, 2010 at 7:50 PM

My husband is not the biological father of my daughter. Her biological father and I seperated on bad terms shortly after conception and I have had very little contact with him but I know he didnt want to be a part of her life or have contact. HI have been with my husband since I was pregnant and he is her Dad so far as she knows, we also have a son together. Everyone in all families know but I feel like its a big secret and dont want it to end badly one day. I feel I have to respect my husbands wishes not to tell her yet as he is the one who stands to lose something. She is a smart 6 year old and I think she needs to be told soon before she is old enough to resent not being told sooner and before it gets too hard to broach the subject. How can I convince my hisband?

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Reena December 20, 2010 at 10:40 AM

Nicole,

you said that everyone in all families know that your DH is not your daughter’s biological father– everyone knows excpet for her.

At some point, someone is going to tell her or let it slip. Would you rather her hear it from you and DH or be caught off guard by it by someone else who may not care as much about her feelings?

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T ROBBINS May 10, 2010 at 8:15 PM

MY WIFE & I ARE SOON TO BE ADOPTING OUR NEPHEW (MY WIFE’S SISTER’S SON). HE IS THREE YEARS OLD AND HE LOVES HIS MOTHER. HE IS NOT ABUSED OR MISTREATED IN ANYWAY. THE MOTHER JUST DOESN’T WANT THE CHILD. WE WOULD LOVE TO HAVE HIM EVEN THOUGH WE HAVE RAISED THREE GREAT KIDS. I GUESS MY QUESTION IS WHAT DO YOU TELL THIS CHILD WHEN THE ADOPTION COMES AND SHOULD THE MOTHER STAY AWAY A PERIOD OF TIME IN ORDER FOR THE BONDING TO MY WIFE AND I TO TAKE PLACE. WE ONLY WANT WHAT IS BEST FOR HIM!!!

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Diann Ford May 11, 2010 at 11:13 AM

My grandson will be 5 next month. He has not yet been told he is adopted. He loves his family sooo much and we all love him sooo much also. He is such a sweet and tender little guy..and we are afraid he will be hurt when he is told. How do we begin to tell him and how do we ensure he is not hurt by anything and that we say the right words so he will understand? And that he will continue to feel all the love we have for him after he is told?
Thank you.

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paula schuck June 11, 2010 at 12:55 PM

Are you the ones who adopted him or is it your son or daughter? Either way I often start with a book that is age appropriate and intriduce the idea of growing in another person’s tummy.

WE have a list here at http://www.canadiancoalitionofadoptivefamilies.ca
paula schuck´s last [type] ..Father’s Day Friday Finds and Giveaways

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Linda May 11, 2010 at 11:33 AM

Hi! I am an aunt of three brothers
who were adopted by a family 5 years ago. My son and I, along with the rest of our family, really miss them. I dream of them
from time to time. I tried myself
to adopt them, but the adoption
specialist wouldn’t give me the
time of day. I then realized she
was helping this other family with
adopting them. It hurts everyday
that we don’t get to be a part of
their lives. I would love a chance
with having an open adoption with
their new family. If there is any
way someone can talk to them and
let them know that there is a birth relative who would love to be a part of my three nephews new
life. Whether it is by e-mail,
over the phone, through letters,
or in person. Their cousin, my son, ask about them from time to
time. He is 2 months younger than
the oldest. They enjoyed being
together when they were younger.
My son will soon be 10. His cousins that were adopted will be
8,9, and 10 this year. If there
is any way anyone could help I
would be forever thankful, and
blessed.
Sincerely,
Linda N.

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Jennifer Graham May 11, 2010 at 2:56 PM

My daughter has been with another family since she was two,she is 10 now, and they had given me a verbal agreement that they would tell her at 5 years old; we have an idea that she has not yet told her. How do I address the matter? Right now I’m working on a letter to the people I have given her up for adoption.

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Joy May 11, 2010 at 7:35 PM

I am also adopted, but I didn’t find out till the week before Mother’s Day when I confronted my parents about it. Back in 04 I also asked them and they denied it.
I will be 29 years old in a few weeks and they never thought to tell me – thinking that I would love my birth mother more (but they don’t even know who she is).
At this time, I don’t know whether I am going to search for her or not, but I am so glad it is out in the open now.
Also, I am planning to adopt soon – by the end of the year I should have a newborn in my home.
I believe that a child should know from the very begining

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paula schuck June 11, 2010 at 12:53 PM

Congratulations Joy. I think a lot of adoptees go on to adopt and they bring a special understanding to that relationship.

Paula
paula schuck´s last [type] ..Father’s Day Friday Finds and Giveaways

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tabatha May 11, 2010 at 7:46 PM

I am my sons birth mother. My husband adopted my son. This was at his fathers request! When do you tell him he was adopted? He was only 2 when the adoption was final.

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paula schuck June 11, 2010 at 12:51 PM

Hi. I am a freelance journalist and a mother of two adopted children. I write about adoption and often speak at conferences and cofacilitate a post-adoption support group here. As well I blog about adoption over at thriftymommastips. I know it can be difficult to open the discussion, but we also subsribe to the theory that adoption should be part of your language from day one. It is simple enough when they are babies to read one of the cute adoption books with your child _ Tell Me Again About The Night I was Born by Jamie Lee Curtis – or some other book, and just get used to saying the words. That is the piece that adoptive parents have to work on to be comfortable. I believe the strongest relationships are based on honesty and we cannot keep secrets from our children. We started almost right away with our babies and it was a simple thing holding them and hugging them and telling them :I am so glad we adopted you. We are the luckiest parents on earth. As our two have grown we have answered their questions as they come with honesty and at an age appropriate level. The child does, on an instinctive level, know they are different. They carry it with them. It’s a parent’s job to help them understand and walk through grief, sadness, happiness – all of it.
paula schuck´s last [type] ..Father’s Day Friday Finds and Giveaways

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Mike Thomas August 21, 2010 at 5:18 AM

I am writing to ask for your permission to include your posts on
AdoptionExperiences.com and include a link to your blog in our
directory. We would
include a link back to your blog fully crediting you for your work
along with a profile about you listed on AdoptionExperiences.com .
Please let us
know as soon as possible.

Mike@adoptionexperiences.com

Mike Thomas
Editor-in-Chief
AdoptionExperiences.com
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Linda December 19, 2010 at 5:07 PM

Shame on any adopter who does not tell their adoptive child about his adoption. Adoptees have 4 REAL parents, and no matter how much an adopter doesn’t wish to admit it, adoption changes your name…it does NOT change DNA. If my ap’s had kept this from me, I would have severed ties with them immediately. My adoption is MY story. How dare anyone keep that from me or any other adoptee. Furthermore, any reunion an adoptee has with their first family is really none of the adopter’s business.
Linda´s last [type] ..Toys galorescattered on the floor

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Angelle December 19, 2010 at 6:28 PM

Linda -

Thanks for being the voice of reason here. Some of the comment that invalidate and dismiss the adoption experience from the adoptees point of view are downright horrifying.

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Lisa J February 22, 2011 at 10:13 AM

We have adopted our GRandson, he has always lived with us since he was born. OUr daughter hid her pregnancy due health and emotional issues. Approx 6 months after our grandsonw as born our daughter decided she didnt want to be a mom( not that she ever really was to start with, no maternal bonding happened) So we kicked in 100%. She moved out of the house a few months later and now our grandson is 4 1/2 and we have adopted him. He still calls her mom but also says…”this is my mom, she is my sister” ADn he switches between nanna and mom with me. I want to start explaining to him what happened but dont know where or how…..any suggestions?

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RK March 9, 2011 at 11:23 AM

This is my situation as well. I have an adopted child of my child. Mine doesn’t know that his sister is really his birth mother. In your case, you don’t have to do anything. Your son will ask when he wants to know. At least he knows she gave birth to him. I have a bad situation because my daughter is involved with drugs and I don’t what my adopted child to know he is a child of hers. Seeing the bad that she does might make him think he is bad too. At least that is what counselors say. What do you say?

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Lisa J March 10, 2011 at 7:57 AM

Thanks for posting RK,
We hav always told our grandson that he is special. I am not sure that I agree with the point your Counselors say about your grandson might think he is bad. In our situation, our daughter had/has mental and heathly issues and is not so stable. We just keep telling our grandson that he is special cause he has sooo many people that love him, and we have decided that when he starts to question more about having 2 moms, that the approach we are going to take is that his birth mom was sick and loved him so much and new that she couldnt provide for him or help him grow that she wanted us to bring him up.
I am straight up kind of person who believes that there may be some pain or questions in the beginning years but in the end as he grows older and understands more he will be appreciative knowing all that has transpired. His birth father has never seen him and has never told his parents about him having fathered a child. He to is into drugs and unstable, and we will once again take the approach that he knew he couldnt be a playful happy loving parent to our son and that he wanted nothng but the best for him….

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pat April 5, 2011 at 9:02 PM

My youngest came home at 15 months. My oldest 3 are bio kids. The oldest have always loved hearing the stories of their birth, so to our youngest we have always told the long and wonderful tale of her journey home. It starts with our knowing in our hearts our ‘forever daughter’ was out there and the paperwork and home visits and obstacles, includes the story of a young pregnant woman who couldn’t parent but wanted this special baby to find just the right family, and her courageous decision to give that incredible gift. we talk about that moment we first saw her and said “There she is! That’s our baby!” At 8, she still loves the story, and pops in with details. She proudly tells people that, although her siblings came from Mommy’s tummy, she came from both our hearts.

Of course there will always be a place of sadness and conflict for her. Let’s be honest, it can suck. But everyone has some kind of baggage; some people have one leg, some people have crappy parents, some people have diabetes, some people have parents who are too young, or too old, some people are homeless, some people are raised by nannies and never see their parents. You have the ability to put that baggage on the table and air it out. The key is to love one another and not be afraid of that truth that was born in love. It is the adoptee’s story. Give it to them not with fear or sadness, but with honesty and love and joy.

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Lisa J April 6, 2011 at 7:57 AM

Pat…..Beautifully said…Thank you

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sheliah anderson September 27, 2011 at 9:40 AM

My husband and I adopted our son when he was a newborn. We tried to to have kids of our own and never could, I had 5 miscarriages and tried for 23 years. He is bi-racial and is always asking about his colorer. We tell him thats just the way God made him.Now he is 8 years old and starting to ask questions. How should we tell him?

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Laura Christianson September 27, 2011 at 10:27 AM

Yes. In my opinion, you should have started talking about it 8 years ago, so he doesn’t wonder what’s so terrible about the way he arrived in your family that you feel you must keep it from him. Start sharing his adoption story with him in age-appropriate ways today.

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