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Why my 6-year-old son’s friend couldn’t believe he was adopted

Stacie Buckley

My son had an unusual request for me last night. He asked me to text the mom of one of his friends. In his words, he requested that I ask her— “in the kindest way possible, so he won’t get in trouble,” to tell him that my son is, in fact, adopted.

This took me by surprise. I mean, we as a family certainly talk about adoption a bit. And he and this boy have been really good friends for a couple of years. These days, they even sit side by side each morning when their school day starts. I wondered what was going on.

I actually had a mild panic reaction. Was the problem that my son’s friend (and perhaps others at his school?) thought he was less, or odd or “not normal” because he was adopted? He’s in first grade! Could this be happening already?

Nope. It wasn’t. I was completely wrong. But it opened my eyes wide.

What I learned was that his friend couldn’t possibly believe that there could be something quite so important about my son that he didn’t know; after all, they are such good friends. In his mind, there’s no way that could be true and his friend not know. They are too close.

Except he didn’t know.

And so I started to reflect on that. Why didn’t he know? And I realized that while we are certainly open about adoption’s role in forming our family, and our son knows his (and his sister’s) adoption stories, we certainly don’t frame every part of our lives in that context. Our family was formed by adoption; it is not, however, defined by adoption. Or at least, not in its entirety. Again, we don’t hide it, not at all. We honor our children’s birth parents and the choices they made. We celebrate how lucky we are to have been brought together as a family. But we don’t open every new encounter with our adoption story.

When our son first started to become friends with this boy, he didn’t bring adoption up, because it’s not his most defining characteristic. They bonded instead over Star Wars, and Minecraft, and baseball and whatever else 6-year-old boys think is cool. And as their friendship grew, it never occurred to our son to say, “Hey, by the way… ” And then, yesterday, something happened where it felt natural for our son to mention his adoption and his friend couldn’t believe it, because it seemed impossible that he wouldn’t already know that. It all makes sense to me how this played out.

While that makes sense, I’m now confused. Because I thought we were doing the right thing about making our children’s adoption stories something so natural to them. We didn’t want it to be the first thing they think about; after all, we don’t think of them as our adopted children, we just think of them as our children. Which they are. We didn’t want adoption to be either something we were obsessed with as the only thing we talk about, nor did we want it to be this big secret we never discussed. And up until yesterday I felt pretty good about the balance we struck.

That being said, I feel like this scenario will play out again. Friendships form slowly, and I get that my son doesn’t open with “Hi, nice to meet you, I’m adopted.” But now there’s work to do to help him figure out the best way to let his friends know when he’s ready. Because maybe next time, I won’t actually know the friend’s parent like I did this time. And really, it’s not my story, it’s his. As his parent, I have to help him find his voice.

In many ways, I’m glad this happened. It opened my eyes to something we need to work on. But most important, I love that my son felt it was so important for one of his closest friends to get the straight scoop. That makes me think we are doing more of this right than not. Or at least that’s what I hope. But there’s still work to do.

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