Honest Adoption Language vs. Positive Adoption Language

Let's talk about the two types of language people to use to discuss adoption.

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As the adoption “industry” boomed in the 1960s due to many forced adoptions, people affected by adoption realized that there were challenges to how people discussed adoption.

Over time, two types of language were used to describe adoption-related topics: positive adoption language and honest adoption language.

You can read ahead to learn why language matters in adoption-related discourse and the differences between honest adoption language and positive adoption language.

Why Adoption-Related Language Matters

While you might not think of adoptees as an underrepresented or marginalized group, the truth is that adoptees experience loss nearly upon birth or during childhood. As a result, adoptees have a higher likelihood of dealing with trauma-related symptoms.

Adoption and Microaggressions

Adoption is often viewed through a binary lens—either the adoptive parents are labeled as "rescuers," or the adoption process is deemed an inferior way to have a child (when compared to conceiving a child with a partner). As a result, adoptees may receive some damaging messages.

Some of the types of microaggressions adoptees face:

  • Hearing "biology is best"
  • Being characterized as a "bad seed"
  • Being told "you should be grateful"
  • Messaging that "adoption is win-win"
  • Secrecy around their origins or even the fact that they are adopted
  • Invalidation of heritage 

Lesli Johnson, LMFT

Words like 'chosen,' 'lucky,' 'special,' 'meant to be,' etc., often leave adoptees who have an array of feelings, including grief, loss, and anger, feeling marginalized and unseen. 

— Lesli Johnson, LMFT

These microagressions, also known as "positive adoption language" can be very difficult for adoptees to navigate and embrace, says Lesli Johnson, LMFT, a therapist specializing in adoption.

Now that you know some of the ways that language can affect adoptees, read on to learn about two very different schools of thought around adoption language.

What Is Positive Adoption Language?

Years ago, the language surrounding the adoptive process was very stigmatizing. In response, social worker Marietta Spencer introduced Positive Adoption Language in 1979 in her article titled, "The Terminology of Adoption."

Positive Adoption Language

Positive adoption language aims to correct previously-used negative adoption language. 

What Is Honest Adoption Language?

Some people believed that positive adoption language was too positive to the point where adoptees felt that it glazed over some of the more painful and emotional aspects of adoption (like grief and loss).

To paint a more accurate picture of adoption of the adoption process, honest adoption language was created.

Honest Adoption Language

Honest adoption language aims to recognize that being adopted is an identity that affects adoptees for a lifetime.

Critics of honest adoption language believe that calling birth mothers “natural mothers” implies that adoptive parents are “unnatural.” Moreover, critics argue that honest adoption language erases the early work of those who fought to bring positive adoption language to the forefront.

Inclusive Adoption Language

There are people who take issue with both positive and honest adoption language. So, some people advocate for more neutral language known as inclusive adoption language.

Inclusive Adoption Language

This type of language allows individuals to determine which language choices resonate with them the most.

Positive Adoption Language vs. Honest Adoption Language

Below is a chart that compares positive and honest adoption language.

Positive Adoption Langauge
  • Birthparents

  • Parents

  • Placed for adoption

  • Birth child

  • Child*

  • Was adopted

  • Adoption Triad/Triangle

  • Meeting

Honest Adoption Language
  • Natural parents

  • Adoptive parents

  • Taken for adoption

  • Natural child

  • Adopted child

  • Is adopted

  • Adoption Transaction

  • Reuniting


*When referring to the adoptive family

Positive and Honest Adoption Language Terms Explained

Now that you're familiar with both types of adoption language and aware of some examples, here is an explanation of the terms listed above.

Birthparents vs. Natural Parents

Language Type Term Explanation
Positive Birthparent The positive adoption language version is either birth parent/mother/father or “first mother,” as a reaction to negative adoption language. 
Honest Natural parent According to honest adoption language, this characterizes the original mother by defining her only as a “breeder”—defining her only by her status of having conceived and carried a child. The honest language perspective on this is that since adoption is a life-long status, so are parents, whether an adoptee lives with them or not.

Parents vs. Adoptive Parents/Adopters/People Who Have Adopted 

Language Type Term Explanation
Positive Parents The positive adoption language typically favors those who are adopting, so for an adoptive parent to use solely “parent” may make others in the family affected by adoption feel left out.
Honest Adoptive Parents/Adopters Those who believe in honest adoption language believe that the correct terms for those who do the adopting is Adoptive Parents/Adopters/People Who Have Adopted. They believe it is important to not erase the reality of being adopted.

Placed for Adoption/Relinquished vs. Surrendered, Lost to/Taken for Adoption

Language Type Term Explanation
Positive Placed/relinquished
for adoption
The placed for adoption/relinquished for adoption language is meant to replace previous, more negative language such as “put up” for adoption. This phrase comes from the 1800s Orphan Train days when children were "put up" at auctions for adoption.
Honest Surrendered/lost to adoption Proponents of honest adoption language prefer "surrendered/lost" because they believe these phrases justify the impact of the loss that adoption causes.

Birth Son/Daughter/Child vs. Son/Daughter/Child or Lost Son/Daughter/Child

Language Type Term Explanation
Positive Birth son/daughter/child Birth son/daughter/child is thought to be an improvement from the negative adoption language used in the past (e.g., “abandoned child” or “unwanted child.)" 
Honest Son/daughter/child or Lost son/daughter/child Honest language prefers "child" or "lost child" because calling someone a birth son/daughter/child likens them to a product—that they are only identified by who they were when they were surrendered.

Son/Daughter/Child vs. Adopted Son/Daughter/Child (in adopted families)

Language Type Term Explanation
Positive Son/daughter/child In an adopted family, this is meant to denote that the adopted child is no different from the family’s “own” or biological child
Honest Adopted son/daughter/child The idea of using solely son/daughter/child in an adopted family is not viewed favorably by proponents of honest adoption language. They believe that the adoption “industry” wants all mentions of being adopted removed from the media to paint a false picture that the person who was adopted was actually born to the adopters.

Was Adopted vs. Is Adopted

Language Type Term Explanation
Positive Was adopted Uses the phrase “was adopted” since they see adoption as a one-time process that is over once the legal transaction is over. They believe that being adopted shouldn’t be someone’s identity. In this view, adoption refers to how someone joins a family.
Honest Is adopted As long as someone has not been adopted back by their first parents or terminated their adoption, they are legally adopted forever.

Adoption Triad vs. Adoption Transaction

Language Type Term Explanation
Positive Adoption Triad The term "adoption triad" symbolizes the importance of each member (first parents/adoptee/adoptive parents) in the triad and that each side made the adoption process possible.
Honest Adoption Transaction Proponents of honest adoption language believe that the use of the phrase “adoption triad” obscures the power differential of adoption in favor of attempting to equalize a relationship they believe is very much not equal.

Meeting/Making Contact vs. In Reunion

Language Type Term Explanation
Positive Meeting/Making contact Uses “meeting” or “making contact” to signify a finite event and assumption that it will not be an ongoing relationship.
Honest In reunion/reuniting The phrase “in reunion” signifies a phase of life or a relationship status, not a one-time event.

A Word From Verywell

Some of these phrases and beliefs may be contradictory. If you are an adoptee, use the language you prefer. You can speak to a mental health professional if you're having any difficulties related to adoption.

3 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. White EE, Baden AL, Ferguson AL, Smith L. The intersection of race and adoption: Experiences of transracial and international adoptees with microaggressions. Journal of Family Psychology. 2022;36(8):1318-1328. DOI: 10.1037/fam0000922

  2. Spencer, M. E. (1979). The Terminology of AdoptionChild Welfare58(7), 451–459.

  3. Warren A. The Orphan TrainThe Washington Post.

By Theodora Blanchfield, AMFT
Theodora Blanchfield is an Associate Marriage and Family Therapist and mental health writer.