When Should an Adopted Child Know?

Sunday night Danielle and I watched October Baby for the first time. When the movie was released in early 2012, our foster son had been with us for about nine months. At that time, we didn’t know whether he would return to his biological family.

The movie deals with two intertwined themes—abortion and adoption. Hannah, the main character, finds out at the age of 19 that she is adopted. Not only adopted but also the result of a failed abortion.

The rest of the movie Hannah struggles to find out who she is and her birth mom’s identity. This story strengthened our resolve to let our son know at an early age that we adopted him. He was eight months old when CPS placed him with us. He is now 2 1/2 years old.

When should a child know they are adopted?

Here are some reasons why we decided to tell our son while he is young:

  • Advice from adults adopted as young children. Many told me that they preferred knowing at an early age. My sister-in-law was adopted as a newborn baby. When her mother told her around age seven, she responded that she already knew. Her parents talked about it freely around her for as long as my sister-in-law could remember. To her it seemed perfectly normal. She has never struggled with being adopted.
  • We want our son to always know that we chose him. Our son can understand this at some level even now at his age. We communicate how he is a gift from God to us.
  • Better to give him years to process. I realize that our son still might struggle with the idea of his adoption. But we can process it together while he lives with us instead of waiting until he is a young adult about to enter the world on his own.
  • Gives us the opportunity to build trust. He will know the truth at an age he can comprehend it. He will grow into that understanding as well. He will always know that we were truthful with him. He might struggle with why his biological parents could not keep him, but at least he will not wonder why we did not tell him about them.
  • Everyone deserves to know who they are. Even if the story is difficult to hear, doesn’t everyone deserve to know who they are? We will have time to talk about what he might say to his mom and dad when he meets them one day. I want to help our son ponder what life might have been like.
  • Give our son time to forgive. Our son might harbor resentment or bitterness toward his biological parents. We want to teach him that because God forgives us we can forgive others. I want our son to live free of shame and anger.

It is tempting to think that I can protect my adopted son from future pain and disappointment. I choose to trust that God will protect and comfort him as his perfect Father. The failures of birth parents should not and do not need to define the destiny of a child.

A scene at the end of the movie is one that I hope to experience one day. Hannah’s parents are helping her move into her college dorm. They say their goodbyes, and she walks away. Then she stops, turns, and runs back to her dad saying, “thank you” while hugging him. Her dad asks why she said thank you. “Thank you for wanting me.” was her reply.

Yes, we want our adopted son.

When do you think a child should know they are adopted?

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I am a longtime Austinite. Married my beautiful wife over 25 years ago. Adopted our son September 2012. Currently a writer and loving it. Previous jobs and careers include project management, missionary, and pastor. I enjoy sports (both watching and playing), traveling, reading, digging in dirt and hanging with my friends and family.

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14 thoughts on “When Should an Adopted Child Know?

  1. Our kids have always been told that they were wanted – we chose them to be in our family. Just as our Heavenly Father adopted us into His family, they were adopted into ours. We let them know our family picture would not be complete without them…

    • Hi Ray! As a children from hard places, it is good to know that they belong and have a place in a family. Thank you for how you and Donna have loved on so many at-risk children over the years.

  2. I’m glsd you considered your own desires as well as the best interest fornyour sweet boy in this. Each thought listed seems very purposeful. Further, adoption has so many parallels to Christ that you can show his place as a child in your family, and the family of God. To answer your question. I think 8-10 years accomodates a child who can start thinking a little more abstractly, further hives them guidance to identity BEFORE it becomes a huge part of their life (as opposed to altering it as a preteen).
    This is a useful tool for many to lock away in their hearts and minds.

    • I completely agree with the article above – adult adoptees say over and over again that the “chosen” terminology can be very damaging and impossible to live up to – it also stirs up fear and doubt…”what if they had not chosen me, what was it that made them chose me, what if i dont have that anymore” etc. – I recently read the book Telling Your Adoptive and Foster Children The Turth. GREAT READ!!! it has helped me realize how important birth families are to our children, and how the economy of language really is important when it comes to talking to our children about their story.

      • Rachel, thank you for chiming in on this topic. Our son is now four and we continue to learn how to communicate to him about his life story. I look forward to reading the book you recommend here.
        Bottom line is that our adopted and foster children need to know the truth of who they are including as much of their biological family history that is possible to pass on to them.
        Learning the appropriate “economy of language”—Yes I agree this is really important.

        • I am getting that feedback a lot from adoptees. One adoptee responded here that children should know they are adopted. My sister-in-law also appreciated that she “always” knew that she was adopted. Of course, how a child is told and at what age matters a lot.
          I appreciate your perspective and insight not only about this but other aspects of adoption.

          • Rebecca, thanks for clarifying. When I first read Gabriela’s post, I read it to mean that when a child is a part of a nurturing family it does not matter if they are adopted or biological. After your question, I can see how “natural” might not be the most accurate way of describing it. I would say that the most “natural” thing for a child is to be with their biological parents in a nurturing home.

  3. absolutely yes, they need to know they have been adopted. I was told when I was 9 that the father I knew all my life was actually not my biological father. It was a defining moment in my life, and not necessarily a positive one. I think if it hadn’t been a “secret” for so long it wouldn’t have taken me so long to process what it all meant. Details about my bio father were either not shared or shared from a very negative point of view whenever I had questions after that. Age appropriate honest discussions from a young age would have facilitated a greater trust after that.