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Let's Play Adoption

Fantasy play can be a comfortable way to explore adoption with your child. by Susan Tompkins

I smiled and listened closely as I overheard my daughter, Lillianna, and her friend, Rachael, playing with their dolls the other day. Lilli said, "Let’s play orphanage." There was no hesitation. Rachael picked up the theme in a heartbeat and said, "I’ll be a mom coming to take my baby home." And thus began an hour of play between these two adopted seven-year-olds and their dolls.

Adoptive parents have made it a practice to talk with our children about their adoption stories. We retell them, discuss them from time to time, and add facts and information when it seems appropriate.

We find that younger children freely ask questions or bring up details about their adoption stories. As they grow older, we know they continue to think about adoption-related issues. But, ironically, as their thinking becomes more concrete, they tend to ask fewer questions and engage less in discussion about adoption. And, for our part, the pressures of parenting may cause us to forget about keeping up the conversation.

How We Play
We asked AF readers to describe their children’s imaginative explorations of the way their families were formed. You said:

Our daughter, age five, has been "giving birth" to her numerous stuffed animals for the last year. She will carry them around under her shirt until they are "born," and then my husband and I comment about her being their "birthmother." At other times, she will "adopt" animals. Both games have resulted in some great conversations about her birth family and adoption experience.
—Kim Dillen, North Carolina

But, as Lilli and Rachael teach us, there is another way for children to work out their feelings about adoption, and that is through play. Playing is easy, natural, and more fun than talking. And, lucky for us, parents can be a big part of it.

Barbie’s Homestudy

This realization came to me one day when Lilli asked me to play Barbie with her. I had never been a big fan of Barbie and her friends (although I admit that they now come in plenty of great colors). On this day, I decided to put my own agenda into the mix to make it interesting for me. Accordingly, I suggested to Lilli that Barbie and Ken wanted to adopt a baby from China. Usually, Lilli doesn’t care for my imposing on her fantasies of dress-up, princesses, and the like. However, on that day she took my suggestion.

We played for quite awhile. Lilli took the lead in the dialogue between Barbie and Ken about adoption. I proposed that the social worker come to Ken and Barbie’s house for a homestudy, so we could be sure they were suitable parents. (I played the social worker.) Barbie and Ken did well in the interview and seemed to have a perfect marriage. The happy couple then flew to China in the pink convertible that is so popular with Barbies. They went to an orphanage and came home with a beautiful baby.

More Reader Stories
When my son was about three, we went through six months of playing "Baby in the Orphanage" almost daily. He would lie in his bed and be the baby, then I would "fly" to the "orphanage." I would have to beg the "director" to let me see my baby, then pledge to care for Ethan, and to take him to Chuck E. Cheese (the pledges changed frequently). I loved this time and am sad he has grown out of it.
—Judy Dodgen, California

So when I heard Lilli say to Rachael, "Let’s play orphanage," it was music to my ears. Hearing her suggest this on her own meant that my daughter was comfortable enough to share her feelings and beliefs about adoption with her friend. It probably helped that her playmate had a similar adoption story. The playing gave Lilli and Rachael another way to work out their feelings. It has helped Lilli to understand and accept her past.

Playing adoption gives me a gentle and effective way to provide my daughter with more information. Lilli knows that families have to pass a social worker’s scrutiny to adopt. Later, I will add more bits about the adoption process and her own story.

Many Ways to Play

I like everything about playing adoption. It is a positive way for my daughter to explore her own beginnings. You can play about adoption in general, or you can reenact and explore parts of the child’s own adoption story.

More Reader Stories
When she was three, Payton began exploring the idea of adoption with Barbie, Ken, and her Happy Family Midge doll (the doll has a magnetic tummy with a baby in it). She would say: "Birthmommy has the baby, and then Mommy and Daddy go to meet her. Everybody is so happy." We must have played this nightly for six months, and I never tired of watching or participating.
—Paula Schuck, Ontario Canada

You can also use playtime to probe your child’s feelings. Explore how it must have felt to be in a new place, to come home to a new family, and ask how it feels now. There are many levels to the play. You and your child can decide what you want to do. When you ask questions or suggest scenarios, the child can go with it, if she wishes. If she feels threatened by the direction the play is taking, she can end it or change the story line. You’ll know what is working when you see it.

Not Just for Girls

Dolls are perfect tools for playing out scenarios. So, what about our boys, who may not want to play with dolls, G.I. Joe or otherwise? Do boys prefer to sublimate their feelings rather than discuss them? I decided to try other strategies with Tino, my son, who is 11 and does not care to discuss his adoption story very much. Legos are my son’s "thing." He plays out stories constantly as he builds and rebuilds. Star Wars, rescue missions, World War II battles, and current events are his realms. I entered this world one evening by asking, "Can I play Legos with you?" He was surprised, since I do not venture into this arena often. "What would you want to play?" he asked. "I was thinking of building your orphanage," I replied. A barrage of questions ensued. How many stories would it have, did we have any baby Lego people, and what about a crib? Tino was delighted to play with me.

More Reader Stories
When my daughter was three, she invented a game that we played after her baths. She would sit on my lap and poke her face out from her towel, and I would say, "What a beautiful little baby!" The game gradually became more involved, with scripted lines. When she was five, she added a surprise ending—when I started to peel away the towel, she’d burst out, and I’d exclaim, "My goodness! You’re not a baby, you’re a BIG girl!" Now that she’s 10, and really a big girl, the game has faded away. From time to time, though, she’ll bring it up fondly, with lots of giggling.
—Mary Hammele, New York

Our play was part reality, as I recounted details of the day I met him, and part fantasy, as we played out a rescue mission with a Lego car that turned into an airplane. Tino had built it specially for this event. During our time together, I shared new details about his story. These were minor things, but every one became important to him. At the end of our play, Tino said, "I’m just so happy I got to come home to this family."

Our children need to accept the past so they can grow and become emotionally healthy adults. Playing adoption with them can help get them there.

Susan Tompkins is the executive director of Journeys of the Heart Adoption Services. She lives with her family in Oregon.

Talking Matters

As your child explores her world through fantasy play, you’ll find plenty of opportunities to weave in parts of her story.

Playing adoption one-on-one with your child can help him process his feelings and start talking, while bringing you closer—and providing hours of fun. If your child hasn’t wanted to discuss adoption in the past, or has recently stopped asking questions, playing might be the way to get him to open up. Use dolls or puppets and some simple dialogue to act out parts of your child’s story and explore different family members’ roles. Let the games begin!

Susan Saidman, program director at Adoptions Together, in Silver Spring, Maryland, advises parents that talking to preschool-aged children about their adoptions is important because children this age need: know they were wanted and loved—and that nothing they did or didn’t do led to their being placed for adoption. know that we are here for them. As they grapple with what adoption means, help them understand that they can bring any question to you. know that adoption is forever. They will not be un-adopted if they don’t behave well. hear that adoption is not shameful or secret. This is just one of the ways families are formed. normalize adoption as a way to build a family. Even though most children are not adopted into their families, adoption has been around since human beings first formed communities. Children are remarkably clear about relationships, and accept as normal what we present as normal. hear our respect and compassion for their birthparents. Even if we know troubling information about their birthparents, we should send the message that they did their best. Our children need to feel that they were born to good and loving people, and to know that they have two families. hear our acceptance of their ambivalence or sadness about having been adopted. Sad feelings don’t compromise our family’s closeness. Talking about them brings us closer. hear positive adoption language. They were not "given up," "put up," or "given away." Their birthparents made a plan so that they could be cared for. When we hear adoption concepts stated in a negative way, by other people, or even by our children, we can rephrase what they say in positive terms. be assured of our willingness to keep discussing adoption, even as they grow, and the questions and feelings become more complex and difficult to express.

Common Questions
Here are some questions that might come up during play scenarios that involve adoption or different types of families, along with suggested responses:
  • "Why wasn’t I born in your tummy?"
    "Your dad and I couldn’t make a baby but we wanted a baby to love and take care of very much. You were born from your birthmother’s tummy, and then Daddy and I adopted you. I wish you’d been born in my tummy, too."
  • "Why did you adopt me?"
    "We wanted a child to love and take care of."
  • "Why didn’t my first mother keep me?"
    "Sometimes a man and a woman give birth to a baby, but they can’t take care of any child right then. It’s not because of anything about the child. It’s for grown-up reasons. So they find another family who can take care of the child."
  • "What does my first mother look like?"
    "You are wondering what your birthmother looks like." If you know what she looks like, describe her after you’ve acknowledged the question. If you don’t know, you might say something like, "She must be very beautiful if she looks like you." Together, imagine what she might look like, or invite your child to draw a picture.

  • Say It Simply
  • "Every baby is born to a man and a woman." (A key concept for three- to five-year-olds to understand.)
  • "Families form in two ways: Babies can live with the family they were born in, or they can live with the family that adopts them."
  • "Sometimes a woman can’t grow a baby, so she adopts a baby."
  • "Sometimes a mom and dad can’t take care of a baby who is born to them, so they find another family to raise their child."
  • "Sometimes families adopt children from far away."
  • Back To Home Page

    ©2014 Adoptive Families. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part is prohibited.


    I see this is an old question and I hope you've resolved by now but maybe my response can help someone else. My opinion is that you have to tell your son he's adopted. It will only get more difficult as he ages. I can't imagine how difficult it would be to tell an older child. I wasn't sure how to start the adoption talk with my daughter. I bought adoption story books but she would never want to listen to them. I'd try reading them but she always lost interest before we could get anywhere. Then, one day we were watching one of her kid shows and the mother was pregnant. I pointed out to my daughter, then 3, that the mom was pregnant and was going to have a baby. I told her that all babies start in a woman's tummy. I said, "Michael was in my tummy and you were in Cindy's tummy." Then the questions came but it was pure curiosity and they were easy to answer truthfully. In terms a 3 yr old could understand, we talked about how Cindy loved her and wanted Grace to have everything a baby needs but couldn't provide that. Through God's guidance, Cindy picked us to be her mommy and daddy. Ultimately, it was God's plan all along (it helps that we are religious since the bible talks about us being "adopted" into God's family and the story of Moses, too). She started asking questions like, "was Caitlin in her mommy's tummy?" and I would say "probably but I don't know." I made it a point to tell her about the people in our lives who are adopted (our pastor, a handful of the children in the church, a neighbor, etc.) and to point out the people on TV and in movies who are. Examples are all over the place (PBS, Disney Channel, Hollywood movies, etc.) It just became so "normal" to my 3 yr old. All babies come from tummies; some stay with birthmoms, some don't.

    Posted by: Vicky at 5:43am Dec 12

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