A valuable lesson from my five-year-old son

Recently, I was talking to my son about the book I am writing about “my story” (as my kids call it) and some things I will be doing related to that project.

My son is five years old and quite smart. He is the youngest of my three children so he has picked up on a lot of things much earlier than my other two children. He taught himself to read long before he started preschool (the first word he could spell was ‘poop’ thanks to his older brother and sister), he’s already able to do math problems well beyond preschool or kindergarten, and he’s a whiz with all things techy. He has a very outgoing personality and an amazing sense of humor–he never misses a thing. Right now he says he wants to be a “pro skateboarder” when he grows up, but we’ll see how that goes…

As we continued our conversation about the book and my story, he asked me a question that stopped me in my tracks.

“What story mommy?”

I thought he must be joking. Surely he hasn’t missed two years’ worth of questions and comments from practically everyone we’ve socialized with since 2017?

“What story? Mommy’s story, of course!” I responded with a little chuckle and a hint of sarcasm as he looked back at me with a blank stare. He genuinely had no idea what I was talking about. 

Until that afternoon a few weeks ago, it never really occurred to me that my youngest child has no real concept of what happened to me in September 2017.

My son was almost three years old at the time of my adoption discovery and unlike my two older children, my biological family is the only family of mine he has ever known. He has no memory of our life before September 2017, or the people we no longer associate with as a result of everything. In his world, my immediate family has only ever consisted of my mom, my dad, my three sisters & their husbands, and his cousins. Period.

So I told him, in very simple and positive terms that I am adopted and I’m writing a book about it. How exciting, right?! I expected his usual cheery response, but there was complete unexpected silence.

I wish you could have seen the look on my five-year-old child’s face at that moment. In a matter of seconds, he went from having a fairly neutral expression to one of complete horror and sadness. He began to cry the most distressing tears I’ve ever seen–I was completely unprepared for this reaction.

I quickly pulled myself together and asked him why he was so upset. His response absolutely broke my heart and opened my eyes.

He told me, with tears pouring down his sweet little face, “If you’re adopted that means none of us are connected for real! We’re not family!” 

At five years old, this child was experiencing pure and legitimate grief because he believed I had just told him that he was adopted. (I figured this out a few moments later and clarified everything with him, of course.) But in those few moments, my son felt that his entire world and everything he believed was being taken away from him–all because he thought he just found out he was adopted.

So why am I writing about this now? 

There has been a debate for decades about what age a person should be told they are adopted.

Today, it is universally accepted that adoptees should be told about their adoption starting from day one, even if they are too young to understand what it means. Still, there is a small group of people who believe it is completely acceptable to wait until a child is 10, 13, or even 18+ years old before telling them they are adopted. Some adoptive parents, like mine, never do.

I can’t even imagine trying to explain away ten years of lies and deception to my daughter if she were adopted (she is not.) Our relationship would suffer, but even worse, she would lose trust in me as her parent. I asked her how she thinks she would feel if she were to find out now, at age ten, that she is actually adopted. Her immediate response was spot-on, as was her disgusted facial expression (she gets that from me, lol!) 

“Why would anyone even lie to a kid about that?” 

Exactly.

My son had the most genuine eye-opening response to what he believed I was telling him. After only five short years of life, this child felt his security and his place in the world being taken away from him. For those few moments, he felt terrified and shattered–a feeling I know very well. If a child at age five can understand the greater implications of being adopted and feel completely shattered by that discovery after only five years worth of bonding, how can anyone possibly justify waiting until a child is much older to make that disclosure? There is no justification.

“All adoptive parents have a moral obligation to be open and honest with the adoptee about their genetic origins. To intentionally withhold this information from an adoptee of any age is selfish and unethical.”

While my adoption scenario is obviously quite extreme, I cannot express enough the feelings of mistrust, betrayal, and deception that you will likely create deep within a child by not being honest with them about their genetic origins beyond their earliest years. It’s understandable to not share sensitive or upsetting details about their biological family until they are age-appropriate, (and ideally with the support of a licensed therapist) but the fact that a person is adopted should never be withheld under any circumstances. If you’re an adoptive parent on the fence, use my adoption experience as the ultimate guide for “what not to do” as an adoptive parent and for what could happen to your relationship if you choose to be dishonest. It’s just not worth it.

If you’ve already adopted a child but have not yet started the conversation, please start now–the sooner the better. I ask you not just as a parent, but as an adoptee whose adoptive parents were not honest with me, to be open and honest with your child about their origins. Be open to meaningful life-long conversations about adoption and your child’s unique story.

This is an excellent article from Psychology Today for adoptive parents about how to speak with your child about adoption: How & When to Discuss Adoption With Your Child

Some additional resources: | Talking About Adoption | How & When to Tell Your Child They’re Adopted | Talking With Kids About Adoption | Robert Hafetz Therapy |

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