Olympic gold medalist Simone Biles was adopted by her grandparents, whom she refers to as her parents and calls Mom and Dad. During coverage of the Rio de Janeiro games, however, NBC analyst Al Trautwig did not see eye to eye.
Earlier this week, he repeatedly referred to Ron and Nellie Biles has the star gymnast's grandparents. When a viewer tweeted at him, asking him to call the couple her parents, he responded by saying "They may be mom and dad but they are NOT her parents."
Mr. Trautwig later issued an apology for his comments. For many gymnastics fans, however, the incident brings to light the biases that adopted families face when others question the legitimacy of non-biological parenthood.
Prejudice and uninformed comments are “extremely common, more than you can possibly imagine,” Susan Caughman, the publisher and editor of Adoptive Families Magazine, tells The Christian Science Monitor.
She said comments typically come from the adopted child's peers in school who are curious about families that look different from their own. They ask questions like "Where is your real mother?" and "Is that your real sister?" – questions young children often don't know how to answer for themselves, much less someone else. But when adults make similar comments, it is more about a lack of understanding, she says.
"I think people don't really understand adoption," Ms. Caughman tells the Monitor. "They don't really understand its permanence. They think of it as some sort of fostering or taking in rather than understanding that a parent is legally family. It is permanent and forever."
Biles' early years with her biological parents were turbulent. Her father left the family when she was very young, while her mother struggled with drug addiction that frequently made her incapable of caring for Biles and her three siblings.
She bounced around between foster homes and her mother’s home until her maternal grandparents, Ron and Nellie Biles, adopted six-year-old Simone and younger sister Adria.
Biles always called her adopted parents Grandpa and Grandma, until one day they gave her the opportunity to call them mom and dad.
“She said, ‘It’s up to you guys. If you want to, you can call us Mom and Dad,’ ” Biles told the Texas Monthly in July. “I went upstairs and tried practicing it in the mirror – ‘Mom, Dad, Mom, Dad.’ Then I went downstairs, and she was in the kitchen. I looked up at her and I was like, ‘Mom?’ She said, ‘Yes!’ ”
It was her new parents who introduced her to gymnastics when she was six, allowed her to leave public high school and rely on tutoring while she trained full time in 2010, and encouraged her to go pro in 2015.
“It was a very long and hard decision,” Biles told Texas Monthly of her decision to turn down a full scholarship to the University of California, Los Angeles. “My dad kept telling me, ‘You can always go to college, but you can’t always go pro.’ That made sense to me. And also, if you have an opportunity to set yourself up [financially] in life, why not take it? So I was like, ‘Let’s get this going.’ ”
It is very common for relatives to adopt nieces, nephews or grandchildren when the biological parent cannot take care of the children themselves.
“A lot of relatives adopt family members, either formally through the foster care system or informally through what is called kinship care,” Joan Jaeger, the head of communication for adoption support websites The Cradle and Adoptive Learning Partners, told the Monitor. “That is actually the number one most popular way children find their way into other homes rather than their biological mother or father.”
Organizations like Adoptive Learning Partners and Adoptive Families provide a variety of resources and seminars to inform parents and children of adoptive families and those considering adoption, to help prepare them to answer questions and face challenges that will arise in the future.
"We help train and educate families across the country and globally about what it means to adopt a child, what adoption is and what it isn't," Ms. Jaeger tells the Monitor. "One of the key things we have are courses on adoption ... helping parents anticipate and therefore appropriately respond to comments and questions, not just for the parent but also for the child. Because when you are answering the question in front of your child, they are hearing things and therefore internalizing what they think about growing up in your family."