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Signposts: How to Talk to Children About Their Adoption Story

In this episode of Signposts I reflect on how parents can talk to their adopted children about their story, and what adoption stories should teach us about our own adoption into the family of Christ.

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Below is an edited transcript of the audio

I had a listener who asked me how I told our children that they were adopted. At first I was reluctant to take that question because I assumed it’s just a very narrow niche of people for whom this would even be an issue: people who have adopted children and people for whom those children are still at home or still young. But the more that I think about it, the more I think that actually applies to all of us in the body of Christ to some degree or other because all of us are dealing with our adoption into the family of God, and all of us are trying to reckon with who we were before our adoption into Christ. So I think there are some things that we can all learn about that and then also about the way that we can minister to families who have adopted children and who are working through that sort of question.

Here’s what I would say. The question assumes something that didn’t happen. What the question assumes is that we sat our children down and revealed to them that they were adopted. We have five sons; the first two are the ones that we adopted. I was speaking one time at an event and I had my fourth son, Jonah, a biological son, with me, and the person who was introducing me said, “Russell Moore and his wife have five sons, all of whom were adopted.” Normally, people say things and get little facts wrong in introductions all the time, and I do that too, but this time I stood up and said, “You know I don’t normally correct that, but I really feel like I need to right now because Jonah is sitting on the front row and he’s probably thinking, nobody told me that I was adopted.”

So with the first two children what sometimes people will think is that you sit them down and you say, okay, we are about to have a very difficult conversation with you, here it is, and you were adopted. That’s not the way that we did it, and that’s not the way that I would recommend anyone do it. Instead what we did was to from the very beginning–our kids were a year old when we adopted them, the two that we adopted–and from the very beginning we were telling them their story. “This is what happened when we went to Russia, and here are the pictures of when we saw you for the first time, and here’s the day in court when you became our children,” and we did that all along as they were growing up. Even when they weren’t particularly interested in it because you know when you’re three or four years old, you kind of assume everybody was adopted. You think people just sort of sprung up somewhere and you don’t really get the dynamics of biological connectedness except at the intuitive level, anyway. And so we are telling that to them even when they don’t care—for one main reason, and the main reason is we don’t want them to think that coming into our family by adoption means that there is something wrong with them or that this is something to be ashamed of; we don’t think that.

So, we would tell them their story about the adoption process in the same way that with our sons who came along biologically we will point out whenever we go to Louisville, we will point out the hospital and say, that’s the hospital where you were born. Sometimes we have stories that go along: “Jonah, you came along three and a half weeks early and a bunch of people had to come over to the house and watch the other kids and your dad was in Nashville at a meeting at the time and had to rush back home and then they sent us home and we had to go back at three in the morning”– all of those sorts of things, that’s just part of his back story and it is nothing that we are ashamed of, that’s just how you came into our family. We try to do the exact same thing with our children who came into our family by adoption.

Now, what happens though is that because in every situation with adoption, there is always some tragic back story, somebody died, somebody left, something happened, and so as you are moving on with your children, you are often going to have more and more difficult questions that are going to come up. In my experience in dealing with families that have adopted, I have found that more often girls are the ones who raise those issues earlier, the kind of questions like, “Why did my birth mother place me for adoption?” And sometimes, “Was there something wrong with me?” That kind of identity question can come along with that. I don’t think that it’s because girls care more about that. I think it’s because girls are, at least in our culture, more verbal about their emotions than sometimes boys are and just because a young man is not asking those questions doesn’t mean that it’s not weighing on him.

So sometimes you are going to have tough questions and my counsel on that is to treat it exactly the way that you would a conversation about human reproduction. There was a time when the typical thing to do was to just sit the children down and say, here’s what sex is and here’s how babies are conceived and here’s where babies come from; it’s just kind of out of the blue. I think the better way to handle that is to answer honestly but age appropriately all of those questions as they are coming along, so when your three year old says, where do babies come from? On the one hand you don’t want to say, “Why are you asking me that question? Wait till you are older and I’ll answer that question.” Nor do you want to say, “Okay, here’s a chart of how this happens”—you are going to traumatize a three or four year old if you do that. I think a similar thing is true when you are talking about adoption. I think you realize what at this age can this child handle and speak honestly but in a way that discloses details at times that you think your child can handle it. So, you may have a situation where you have a birth family where there is substance abuse. I know of one situation where a young man found out that his birth mother had been a prostitute and he was really shaken by that. His parents didn’t want to talk about that when he was ten years old but it is part of his story and they want to be honest with him about that later on in the fullness of time. So, unfold that in an age-appropriate way but don’t ever act as though you are threatened by having the question. When that child is coming to you asking what their birth mother was like, what the birth father was like, why did they do these things, don’t take that personally as some sort of repudiation of you. This is a child who is trying to answer the question that all of us have to answer: Where did I come from? What are all the factors that made me me and how do I explain the narrative of my life? We are all grappling with that in various ways.

Now, here’s why this is important for everybody. It’s important for everybody again as I said before, because we all have to deal with that. We all have a tragic back story, we were all, Ephesians 2, previously those who were in a different family and now we are in the family of God. Something happened to move us into this new family that is happening by adoption and we all have things that have gone wrong in our lives. I think the same thing is true there, when we are dealing with that, we need to have a sense of honesty about where we came from. You can’t go back and fix it. You can’t go back and make it some other way, so we deal with that honestly and, yet, at the same time, we say, “I’m here in the body of Christ, I’m here in the family of God and I’m not here accidentally.” That’s what the doctrine of adoption is seeking to teach and that’s why in Ephesians and in Romans and in Galatians the doctrine of adoption is tied into with the doctrine of predestination election. Now whatever you think about predestination and election and how that relates to human freedom really doesn’t matter at this point. What matters is that we know that we are here and we didn’t kind of accidently get here. The shepherd came looking for that one lost sheep and brought us back out of the wilderness and so we are welcome, we are wanted here, and that is something we have to work through all of our lives.

Sometimes we are going to look back and we are going to say why did God allow me to go in my own direction for so long? Or why did God allow those awful things to happen to me back there in my past? And sometimes we don’t have an answer to that, often, I think maybe even most times we don’t have an answer to that. God just doesn’t give us decoder rings to be able to figure out why everything that’s happened in providence has happened to us. But what we do know though is that God has been at work in our lives from not only before we were born, but throughout all of cosmic history and working all things together for the good for us that we would be conformed into the image of Christ that He might be the first born among many brothers and He knew that we would be in his family, He wanted us in his family, He has actively brought us into his family, and in some way those back stories that we all have, all have some meaning and purpose. There’s a reason why Jacob is walking with a limp after wrestling with God at the river side. There’s a reason why Joseph is thrown into that pit and ends up being a ruler in Egypt who is able to provide the grain that the Israelites will need, and the other eleven brothers and their tribes would need in order to survive in the land of Canaan in order that through them would come the Christ. In all of those things we don’t know what their meaning is, we don’t know why God permitted those things to happen, but we know that God is Father and we know that God is good and we know that God is sovereign and we know that we are welcome when we are here in Jesus Christ.

So, I think we need to remind each other of that. We need to teach each other that. We, when things start to go wrong or things start to be dark, say “Hey, remember who you are,” just like that family has to do with that kid who was adopted and says “Hey, where’s my birth mom?” and you say, “I don’t know. I don’t know why that happened to you, but here’s what I know: you are my son, you are my daughter, I’m glad you’re here and I’m never going to leave you, I’m never going to forsake you, you are always going to be part of our family.” We need to hear the same thing for those of us who have been adopted into the family of God.

Only when we see how lost we are, we can find our way again. Only when we bury what’s dead can we experience life again. Only when we lose our religion can we be amazed by grace again.


About Russell Moore

Russell Moore is Editor in Chief of Christianity Today and is the author of the forthcoming book Losing Our Religion: An Altar Call for Evangelical America (Penguin Random House).