Insensitive Adoption Questions

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Dear Miss Manners:

We are a very noticeable family, as our children are black and my husband and I are white. As such, we draw an inordinate amount of attention.

While this was manageable when the girls were infants and couldn't really understand what was being said, now that they are getting older and are acquiring language, we are trying our best to learn how to field some of the questions that we get. While we are very happy with how we formed our family through adoption and are always happy to discuss our experience, preferably out of the girls' earshot, what leaves us stammering are questions such as "Where'd you get them?" "How much did they cost?" "Are they real siblings?" "Is their family dead?" "What'd they die of, AIDS?" "Couldn't you have your own children?"

I've tried asking with the slightest of remonstrance "Excuse me?" but, of course, that just led them to believe that I couldn't hear what was being asked, and the question was repeated even more loudly.

We want to equip our children with the tools to deal with these sorts of people, as they will be encountering them throughout their lives. And this is their story, their personal information being asked. I would never think to ask someone with a newborn, "So, how much was the hospital bill?" or "Do they all have the same father?" And, for the record, these are my own children.

On the other side of the coin are the generally very well-meaning people who say, "God bless you for saving those children," or, "They'll have such a better life now."

We merely wanted a family, we didn't adopt to "save" anyone, and I can't say that they will have a better life. Yes, there are things that we can provide that their family couldn't. But they also lost their family, their country, their language and their culture. Their life will be different, but I can't say that it will be better, and I don't ever want to dismiss what they have lost.

I also never, ever want them to feel indebted to us. They owe us nothing, or, at least, no more than any other child owes a parent, and I feel that these questions could easily make them feel like they should be grateful or thankful for being adopted.

What is the gracious way to handle these questions so that we can model for our children the appropriate responses?

Nosy people have already proven themselves to be rude, so you should hardly expect them to make tactful remarks. The important thing is to cut them off at the first question. The only explanation necessary is, "That's personal."

But you must also teach your daughters not to fall for two common arguments: that curiosity is natural and that people who don't disclose personal information must be ashamed of it. Dignified people value their privacy, and being curious is no excuse for demanding that it be satisfied. Under such pressure, they should merely smile and repeat "That's personal" as often as necessary.

Dear Miss Manners:

Because my job is to embrace cultural differences, I try to keep an open mind -- especially when it comes to food. However, I had a host who was preparing a food I know very well (it was not exactly a specialty of the region I was touring) and asked if I like it, which I most certainly do not. Because she was already well into her preparations, I didn't want her to feel obligated to make me something different, so I panicked and said that I didn't know it, and only took a small portion at dinner, reacting neutrally to it. For the rest of the week, she continued to serve me this food.

What would have been the polite thing to say in order to avoid this uncomfortable situation?

Was she preparing it in a pot the size of an oil drum?

The first time you were stuck, Miss Manners agrees. Perhaps even the second time, because you could hardly have expected a second dose. But surely that was the time to say, "Please allow me to take you out to dinner tomorrow. I'd like to try some of the regional specialties."

Feeling incorrect? E-mail your etiquette questions to Miss Manners (who is distraught that she cannot reply personally) at MissManners@unitedmedia.com or mail to United Media, 200 Madison Ave., New York, N.Y. 10016.

2009 Judith Martin


© 2009 The Washington Post Company