Monday 5 July 2010

The 'O' Word

There is a word I would like to ban in adoption discourse. I suspect I'm not the only one. That word is 'orphan'.

A lot of these 'orphans' have families, actually. They have families already. Their parents are not dead, or at least both of their parents are not dead.

I think that when we read the word 'orphan', or think about 'orphan care' or 'orphan ministry' we isolate the children - the sweet, lovable, photogenic, mostly brown-skinned children with huge, sad eyes - from their parents. Who, as I said, are often not actually dead. From their older siblings. From the society they are living in. There is no doubt that many of these children are in need. But the needy children are just one symptom of whole societies suffering. And those we classify as 'orphans' do not have a monopoly on that suffering. I don't think that's what James 1:27 means.

In this post-Oliver-Twist world, the word orphan has unavoidable 'save me, kind lady' overtones. There is no doubt that many of the children so classified need compassion, and practical help. But I think that concentrating our compassion on 'orphans' can be a way of sentimentalising a brutal reality. Of packaging up the AIDS crisis into something that we can stomach. To be even more cynical - of marketing it. All those adults are giving each other HIV, oh dear, never mind, here's a photo of a sweet two year old. Don't you just want to take him home?

Because worst of all, the word orphan has a connotation of availability.

So can we not use it any more, please, unless we are talking about a specific child who really has lost both of his parents to death? If we mean needy children, let's say needy children. If we mean children in poverty, let's say children in poverty. And if what we actually mean is 'child available for adoption' then let's be honest with ourselves and say that, too.


  1. I get what you are saying... but I'm not sure how I think about it. I think that society has it wrong.. NO DOUBT! Visions of little orphan annie- and somehow- with IA people somehow think that both parents are dead- when they would rarely consider that in domestic adoptions. But is changing the real definition the answer when society is uneducated or is education the answer. Certainly changing the definition would be easier but...

    I was an infant whose parent died, and the remaining parent certainly was not the sole or perhaps ideal caregiver. Had we been in a different country with less resources and more pressure I too may have been available for adoption. Although I was not 'available for adoption' that does not eliminate the fact that I was, in fact, orphaned. The same could be said of my son. hmmm. You've given me something to chew on

  2. I get what you are saying and what Shannon says she needs to chew on. It is a conversation I have in my work life a lot. Orphan is a classification. Double or single narrows it down. But we often use the word orphan to characterize children which is just sad. Because orphan has become a very pejorative word. And children are SO MUCH MORE than orphans. It is not a word we should be using to describe a child in casual conversation or in our church ministries. (In my opinion.)Categorize for statistics, ok. But to DESCRIBE? Just sad.
    Children are children and to label them with the term orphan in order to fundraise, promote adoption, whatever is just wrong in my book. We need to look at larger categories of need - children in need, children at risk, children living in poverty, children waiting for adoption, children without access to school, etc. These are categories that give us room to intervene or provide assistance. All "orphan" does is promote the building of orphanages (not even remotely good solution) or make children sound "available" for adoption as the only possible type of assistance. Rambly comment I know. But thanks for pointing out this very important issue. I wish more Christians would think/talk this way so we could really be looking at children in a more holistic way.

  3. It's "orphanage" that bugs me, I cringe every time I say it as part of Elfe's adoption story.

  4. I agree with you! It rubs me the wrong way especially when used for adoption fundraising. When they do not even know the face of the child they are adopting let alone the child's birth family status. I also have a seriously hard time with rescue being used with adoption and especially adoption fundraising. It seems so condescending. Like you have no love for your future child(ren)s county, culture or birth family.
    Thank you Shannon for your input. It gives me a lot to think about.

    Also I did get you taken off Ethiopian Adoption Blogs. Thanks so much for the great post!

  5. awww, man... I came back today, expecting a bevy of comments on this post, to give me more food for thought. it was just that good.

    I appreciated this post. I've been having issues since switching to a Christian agency with this concept. Everyone is like "we're just trying to love one out of the 143 million orphans..." and for some reason it's always rubbed me wrong.

    now I know why.

  6. Perspective, perspective, perspective - and a need for economy of words - and a very destructive desire to oversimplify complicated issues are all responsible for us not having the right language.
    I haven't heard a term used yet that I think describes the average child adopted or waiting to be adopted from Ethiopia. I think "child available for adoption" is absolutly correct and I think the "normal" next question is "Why? Why is the kid available for adoption?" And I think the answer when it is your own kid and you are talking to a virtual stranger is "none of your damn business." But sometimes it is also tempting to say, "Well, you see there is a really crappy government in Ethiopia, and really unequal distribution of wealth around the world, and cultural traditions that include... and hey, don't you know there are kids that need homes in every country in the world..."
    Hard to respond to this post without writing an equally long comment.
    While I do not use the word Orphan I do sometimes still use the word Orphanage when I am talking to someone not familiar with Ethiopian Adoption. I will try to eliminate that word from my vocabulary.

  7. Such an interesting post. When we were in the middle of the shitstorm of Abe's adoption, during that awful period when I wasn't sure if we'd get to be his parents or not, someone in our church referred to him as an "orphan," and I nearly lost it. I actually sort of *did* lose it. I started crying and reprimanded her, telling her never to use that word because he's not an orphan, that *I* am his mother and Ted is his father and we would go to the ends of the earth to be with him. So. I get it.


Over to you!