I went to a concert about a year ago. It was a “Christian” concert and I guess as is customary, there was a sales pitch in the middle for a child sponsorship organization. The guy who gave the pitch was an adoptive father. He wanted to talk about the desperate situations of children who need help all over the world. In order to describe the problem, he talked about the situations of his children.
He used pictures of his children. He gave their medical information, including a diagnosis that carries a certain social stigma, even if it shouldn’t. He gave detailed and heart-wrenching descriptions of the circumstances around their arrivals at the orphanage.
I was furious.
All I could think about was my kids. My kids who have difficult stories that belong to them. I imagined someone putting their faces on the giant screen and then giving details about their lives. I thought about how humiliated my kids would feel. I thought about what I’ve learned as I’ve listened to them express how it feels to have somebody talk about you like a charity case, to have someone tell stories about your most private and heartbreaking moments.
These details—these extremely private details—don’t belong to us to share. These are the stories of our children. They are intimate. They may feel shameful to our kids, even if they don’t carry that same emotional weight to us. They shouldn’t be used to try and create an emotional response in strangers in order to get them to give money. Until those kids are old enough to give consent, those details shouldn’t be shared at all.
As angry as I was, I think it was an anger that came from my own shame. There was a time when I thought I owned my children’s stories. I thought I could use them as I wanted. There was a time before my kids could express their feelings about their stories. I know better now.
I have compassion on that dad up there, oversharing about his children. I fully believe his heart was in the right place. I also fully believe he will likely regret that decision another decade from now.
What good is it to gain the whole world, but lose your soul? What good is it to gain sponsors, readers, donors but lose the trust of your child? When I honor my child’s story, I honor him. When I treat it with care, with privacy, with dignity, I teach my child that she is more than her history. I teach her that not everyone has earned the right to have intimate knowledge of her. She is not a sales tool, a compelling narrative. She is a beloved daughter. He is an adored son.
We don’t ignore our children’s histories or pretend they don’t matter. Far from it. By giving our kids the space to work through their own complicated emotions about their relinquishments, their backstory, their medical history, our hope is that they can make peace with who they are and where they’ve come from. That’s a personal journey, not a public process.
I work for a foster care agency, coordinating some of their social media. I feel this tension— the knowledge that we have amazing stories within our organization. Stories of healing and redemption. When you rely on donor funding, there’s a desire to want to tell those stories so people know about the good work you’re doing. But the center of everything we do has to be the kids and families we serve. If we harm them in the process, we’ve missed the point.
For organizations that work with our most vulnerable populations, we have to value their privacy and give dignity to their stories even when it seems they don’t. In a culture that is forever seeking those fifteen minutes of fame at whatever cost, we have to be the guardians of their history. Sometimes those families and children are so used to being exploited, they don’t value their own privacy the way they should, or they don’t feel they have a choice. If we provide a service for them, do they feel obligated to give us what we’re asking for? We have to ask ourselves the hard questions: How will this child feel about their story being public once they’re in junior high? As an adult? When they go to get a job? Or a date? When we put their lowest moments out there for public consumption (even if our goal is to tell a heartwarming story), we open them up to pain years down the road we may not even anticipate.
It would be great if parents always made the best decisions for their children. We often trust parents to give consent and if they do, then what else matters? But sometimes those parents don’t have the benefit of the years of experience they need knowing their child and knowing how they feel about their story. They don’t know what they don’t know.
Maybe this child will be totally comfortable sharing those details with strangers. Maybe they will feel proud of their history and their personal story of redemption. If they do, that’s great!
I think organizations need to come to depend on the testimonials of adult adoptees, the adults who were sponsored children, the adults who would have benefited from those kinds of interventions. We need to give kids the space to process their stories before using them as examples. I think there are ways for adoptive parents, foster parents, parents who have placed children for adoption to share their own stories without giving the private information of their children. We need to encourage that kind of sharing, while protecting the kids. When we have panel discussions about adoption, let’s stop asking the most newly adoptive family to share their experience. While they may have the most current story, they may also not understand the complexity of the adopted life that is to come.
When adults ask questions about my kids now, I hedge. I’m vague. When they ask questions in front of my kids, I defer to my kids. I ask them if they’d feel comfortable sharing about that, or if they’d like me to share about it. Sometimes they answer for themselves, sometimes they ask me to answer and sometimes they just say, “no thanks” and I tell the adult we’d rather not talk about it. Being adopted doesn’t automatically mean my kids owe anybody answers.
Being an adoptive parent has been a learning process for me. I’ve learned to listen to the voices of adoptees—my adopted friends, the writings of adoptees and the voices of my favorite adoptees- my kids. Their views on these issues are the ones that matter most to me. I will fight to protect their right to privacy and to process their story within the safety of their own family. I have come to see that as my job because no matter what happened before I met them, I am their mother.