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Should ‘Adopt’ Be Used for Anything Other Than Child Adoption?

We all know the saying.
Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.
We also all know that it’s not true at all. Words can hurt. They cut deep — much deeper than the bruises from sticks and stones. The way we speak matters.
Adoptive parents are intimately acquainted with the power of words in a unique way. There are all kinds of things you have probably been asked that hurt, even if the intentions behind those questions aren’t bad.
What about their real parents?
Don’t you want to have kids of your own?
Questions like these cut deep. But there’s a debate about another word that we’ve noticed online recently. It’s a divisive issue right at the heart of adoption.
It’s the word “adopt.”
Should “adopt” be reserved exclusively for use in situations referring to child adoption? Is it an overreaction to think that it’s harmful to use “adopt” when referring to pets? What about service projects, when a Girl Scout troop “adopts” a highway?
We’ll take a look at both side of this debate and leave it up to you to decide where to stand. The important thing is to engage respectfully with these important conversations. The way we speak has consequences, and any honest debate about language is worth our attention.

‘Adopt’ Should Only Refer to Child Adoption

Adopting a child is an amazing and life-changing journey. It’s true that there is nothing else like it. No other type of “adoption” compares. That’s the base of this argument. The adoption of a child is so radically different from any other process or action that uses the term “adoption.” Therefore, those other things should come up with a different term.
Supporters of this argument tend to have a personal story that is genuinely offensive, such as a stranger noticing their transracial family and deciding that their cat adoption would be a good thing to talk about.
After an experience like that, it’s no wonder that many come to the conclusion that we need to come up with a different term for any “adoption” that isn’t child adoption.
The process of adopting a child is extensive and exhausting. From the home study to the wait for an adoption opportunity to the emotional roller coaster of placement and finalization, it is a challenging (but rewarding) process.
Other “adoption” processes, such as adopting a pet or “adopting” a family in need during the holiday season, cannot compare, this argument says. The differences are so stark that using the same word for both makes no sense. It would be like calling both what you do at the office and what you do on a beach “work.” How can two things that are so different fall under the same term?
As one adoptive mother wrote, “When we take the sacredness of adoption and throw it around to gain attention and positivity vibes, it’s too far.”
In order to protect adoptive families and correctly distinguish what is happening, this argument concludes that the word “adopt” should only be used to refer to child adoption.

‘Adopt’ Can Refer to Many Things, and That Is Okay

Now, let’s take a look at the other side. This side acknowledges the damaging effect of comparing the adoption of a child to other “types of adoption,” but holds that it is still okay to use the term “adopt” for a wide array of actions.
To use the same metaphor as above — manufacturing automobiles on a factory line, cutting the grass and making a grocery run are all “work,” in one form or another. The actions are totally different, and you could easily argue that one is much more difficult than the others. Still, they are all work.
Similarly, all forms of adoption can be called adoption, even though all of these different things are not actually comparable or equal. Rather than attempt to rebrand something like pet adoption, we should focus our energy on educating the general public and helping them to understand that making any comparison between pet adoption and the adoption of a child is hurtful.
There’s no comparison between the importance of child adoption and any other form of “adoption,” but, according to this position, that doesn’t have to create offense. Language is a funny thing, and it’s okay to acknowledge that the same word holds very different value in different contexts.

What Do You Think?

These two arguments present an opportunity to have an important discussion. We’re not here to tell you which side is right. Rather, we want to encourage kind, compassionate discussion around issues like this. The more we talk about adoption, the better understand our broader society will have of it.