Are they REAL brothers? Dealing with the 'real' question

Well, he had only been our son all of two weeks and we got the question.

Are they REAL brothers?

Many an adoptive parent has lamented hearing that question. I guess we'll hear it many more times throughout the boys lives.

The hurtful part of inquiring if something is 'real' is that it also implies the opposite---it is not 'real' it's false.

Something less than a true brother. A true mother. A true father.

At least, that's how a child will interpret it with their black & white logic.

Since we've been a family I've been asked the "what do you know about his 'real' parents" question several times. It hasn't bothered me much. That question is generally asked by people with no education about adoption and don't think about what their words actually imply.

I know that I'm the mommy in Little Man's life. I know he is my 'real' son. I know we are a 'real' family.

Whey other people say 'real', they mean "genetically connected". When I say 'real', I mean we are emotionally connected and tied together for a lifetime, without relying on genetics to define who our family is.


My family is a good example of 'real'.  They are my 'real' parents, although genetically speaking, I'm only tied to one of them. As a child, I was often asked the "where's your 'real' dad" question as a kid. Kind of rude, but it didn't matter much to me. I usually found that type of thought process funny---as in funny odd.

My real dad was right there with me, every day, going to my boring band concerts, putting up with my stupid teenage crap, and helping shape me as a person. And he was there beaming as he walked me down the aisle at my wedding, and crying as he found out we had received another referral.

For me, there has never been a question about who my real dad was.

All of this is background to say....I've forgotten that everyone doesn't think like this.

A few weeks after we accepted our referral, I met with Little Man's new preschool teacher. I mentioned that we are trying to prepare him for his new brother, who would be coming from Korea. She was excited and one of her first questions was "are they 'real' brothers?"

I was totally unprepared for this. The usual casualness I've felt about the 'real' question was replaced with a visceral reaction.

Wham. Outta left field. With Little Man standing there looking at me, I gaped like a fish. This time, the question hurt and stung. I couldn't figure out why.


After a few weeks of thinking on it, I guess what bothered me was knowing that Little Man might have to answer this repeatedly. I have a younger sibling that I'm incredibly close to, but we aren't asked routinely if we are real sisters or not. And I have another sister that I am not genetically related to. No one asks if we are real sisters or not either.

But with adopted kids, people seem compelled to ask that question.

For us, we have already shown, quite obviously, that we don't feel genetics define a family, nor quantify who can be your family member. But this question will likely continue to arise and the boys will be compared.

I have to admit, before we adopted, I'd see adoptive families (thank goodness I never asked one!) and search for likenesses between the children. Was that the same nose? Were they too close in age? The same smile? I also do that when I see kids of the same age in a family. Are they twins? Who is older? Do they favor the parents?

I guess it's part of how we categorize people. We want to know how their particular puzzle fits together. How the pieces are connected. So I'll try to understand when people wonder about our family too.

But for goodness sake, learn to be sensitive people! Think before you talk!

So the first time that question---are they 'real' brothers---popped up. I wasn't prepared. I wanted to protect Little Man from hearing the 'real' question and all the painful things that the word real might imply--that he isn't a 'real' son, a 'real' brother, or we aren't the 'real' parents.

I stumbled.

But next time I'll be prepared.

I'm ready to pass on the lessons I learned as a kid. To teach Little Man that we have the power to redefine the word 'real'. We have the power to create our own unique family, that is not limited or defined by genetic connections.

We have created our own 'real'. 

So the next time we are asked, "Are they real brothers?" it will be easy to answer.


***Here's a great article from Adoptive Families on "real" siblings: http://www.adoptivefamilies.com/articles.php?aid=1185


  1. This is probably the most frequent question we get. Like, pretty much every time we're out. Usually they ask, "Are they siblings?" and I say, "Yes!" and then they feel the need to follow up with, "No, I mean are they REAL siblings?". And I know what they mean...biological....but like you I define the word "real" differently, so it's hard! I hate this question and I still don't know how to handle it well. I try to be gracious, and the kids know they come from different birth families and that we're a forever family now, but....it's still hard to navigate. I appreciated this post because it reflects so many of my own feelings about it!

    1. Hi Rachel! If you haven't seen JBH's comment on this, check it out. Trying to think of an insightful way to make people stop and think. Perhaps responding "and just how do YOU define real?" when they ask if they are real siblings. When the rephase the question asking if they are biological siblings, I might just respond that biological ties aren't the only factors in being a family and leave it vague. I think it's up to our boys to have control over their personal information and when they are old enough, they can choose to answer or not.

  2. People are so weird. And kind of lazy. Of course they mean biological and I'm sure they don't mean to offend, but why can't they choose their words more precisely? Does it work to ask "Do you mean biological? Because 'real' and 'biological' are completely different concepts..." Or does that open a whole new can of worms you don't care to discuss?

    My kids look different. One is asian and one is caucasian, and not one person has yet to ask if they are 'real' siblings or not. Maybe because Seattleites are too politically correct to ask a question even remotely related to race, or maybe because it is just that obvious that my kids are not biologically related.

    Anyway, sorry you're getting some funny attention about your kids and that the "R" word reared its ugly head. This is one of those questions that I hope you revisit in a couple of years so that we can see what works for you.

    1. Hi Sarah. Thanks for reading and commenting. My guess is that because your children have obvious differences, they won't be asked if they are real siblings. It's very obvious. I was never asked if my caucasian sister was my real sister either. People just assumed we were. But for some reason, when the children are the same race, which is different than the parent's race, that elicits questions. Who knows if this is a midwest sort of thing, where racial differences are still more obvious? Thanks for the reminder to talk about this again when we are farther down the road!

  3. Keep up the courage to redefine "real." Pose the questions that will raise their consciousness. Don't give up. And when you need strengthening, draw energy from the adoptive community who understands. And then we'll all go out and keep educating...

    1. JBH, thanks for reading and commenting! I love the thought about posing questions that raise consciousness. A great way to make someone stop and think without being confrontational. Now to think up some great questions. Thanks for the inspiring comment!

  4. Yes. I just simply answer yes. Are they siblings? Yes. Are they real siblings? Yes. Are they from the same town. No. Let them figure it out...or not. Because you will hear this again and again and again and when you are trying to just through the check out line at the store, it just feels intrusive to have to answer this question again. So, yes. And move on. But I still mourn a bit that my kids have to hear this. Tanks for your post...lots of good thoughts. Hugs to you.

    1. Thanks, Y! Good reminder that sometimes we don't need a lot of words to make a point! Hope to hug you in person soon!


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