Children and Polyamory: The Kids Are Alright

Back in 1981, as a freshman at Cornell, I remember many late nights with friends, eating pizza and smoking pot in each other’s dorm rooms, discussing how we wanted to live our lives after we graduated and (presumably) got married and had kids. Perhaps it was our youthful idealism, but we kept coming back to the idea of raising our children together in community.  It just felt right. For me, the idea stuck.

In 1989, to collect data for my doctoral thesis on children in community, my girlfriend Guin and I crisscrossed North America in a Westfalia camper van searching for utopia while visiting over 30 communes. It was great!  We discovered the many uses of soybeans, I got the hang of wearing a skirt, and I learned more the first DAY I stepped foot in an actual community than the two previous years I spent studying and surveying them. Guin and I were married in 1991 and in 1992 we moved to Findhorn, a new-age community in northern Scotland.  A week after our arrival, we began opening our marriage, a difficult process I describe in this post.  It was another seven years before we became parents ourselves. Our daughters, Piper and Sage, are now 12 and 16.  So we’ve thought quite a bit about this topic. 

In our quest to understand communities, we learned that one of the most salient features of utopian writers and practitioners throughout history is their experimentation with the concept of the family. For example, in Plato’s Republic, marriage was forbidden, wives were “communalized,” and children were separated from their parents and considered orphans of the state. In Utopia, Thomas More suggested that children be redistributed among families so that none have too many or too few.  And from the 1920s to 1997, many Israeli kibbutzim experimented with children’s houses where children lived and learned apart from their parents.  The communal scholar, Rosabeth Moss Kanter, described all these new family forms as indications of a cultural shift toward what she called the “postbiological family”.

So, what impacts do postbiological and, more specifically, polyamorous families have on children?  It turns out, despite widespread fears that such families will lead to instability, confusion, unhealthy emotional development, attachment issues, and the erosion of “family values”, there is absolutely no evidence that children are harmed by healthy polyamorous relationships.

On the contrary, having multiple, caring adults in children’s lives — whether due to polyamory, communal lifestyles, or extended families — offer many benefits and generally means more available resources, such as experience, money, time, etc.  For example…

  • Through witnessing the love and joy (as well as the arguments, tears, and social faux pas) of multiple adult relationships, the grown-up world becomes more demystified and real for children. And since polyamorists tend to value emotional literacy and good communication, children in these families often have higher self-confidence, self-reliance, and interpersonal skills.
  • More specifically, these children are often exposed to a lot of “social critique” and learn how to deconstruct and question cultural narratives — often from Disney movies — such as “Someday, my prince will come” and “Was it really okay that the Evil Queen tried to kill Snow White simply because she was younger and prettier?”
  • In cohabiting polyamorous households where finances are pooled, there is typically more income which means kids can be better provided for.
  • In non-cohabiting households, partners who live outside of the home provide their lover’s child(ren) with other environments and experiences that can stimulate their cultural awareness and development. For example, child(ren) may find friends among the lover’s children, sample different cuisines and entertainment, and have a different environment in which to explore their identities. The benefits are similar to having grandparents or other relatives that children can visit and develop relationships with.
  • In cohabiting polyamorous households, lovers can act as additional caregivers who can step in whether it is help with homework or shuttling kids to soccer practice. This allows parents to take more breaks so they can take better care of their children.
  • In non-cohabiting polyamorous households, lovers provide much needed diversion, solace, and adult company for parents. Even very devoted parents need and enjoy occasional evenings out of the home with their friends (with benefits) or vacations away from their child(ren) (and spouse).
  • Additional partners provide additional perspectives and sources of advice, consolation, and experiences that benefit parents.
  • Children have access to a wider variety of role models and generally know who to confide in, who to ask for advice, and who will make them pancakes with chocolate chips and extra syrup for breakfast.
  • On the other side, childless adults in polyamorous households with kids have opportunities to develop meaningful relationships with these children, which is otherwise difficult unless these adults are teachers or have close relatives or friends with children.

It’s not all puppies and sunshine, however.  There are also potential downsides of such relationships.

  • Polyamorous parents with non-cohabiting partners may be away from home more often than they would be otherwise. If one partner is out having fun with their lover while the other one is at home, it may cause guilt in the former and resentment in the latter.
  • The process of finding additional partners and maintaining additional relationships may drain financial resources that would otherwise remain with the family.
  • It is often unclear how much authority biological parents are willing to give up and how much authority non-biological parents are willing to take on, which can lead to a lot of confusion, miscommunication, and heartache.
  • Children are more likely to experience the double bind of being told to do something by one adult, only to discover it has been forbidden by another.  At other times, more than one adult may reprimand a child for the same violation of a rule or norm.
  • In closeted families, children may struggle with keeping their secret.  Depending on the type of community they live in, children may experience criticism, ostracism, or even their polyamorous parent losing a custody battle, if they are “outed.”
  • If the parents’ relationship is unstable, introducing a poly partner can add more chaos, especially for children.
  • In shared households, some teenagers complain that having multiple adults around hinders their ability to sneak out of the house or maintain a coherent lie.  Of course, this can be seen as a benefit for the adults in the household… 😉

Okay.  Having said all that, what are some things to keep in mind if you find yourself in a polyamorous family?  While writing this post, I interviewed both my daughters and will offer a few stories and advice in response to some common questions:

When should I tell my child(ren) I am polyamorous?

  • In general, if a child is old enough to understand monogamy and the concept of cheating, he or she is probably old enough to learn about polyamory.  Kids are smart and will generally suss it out before you say anything.  This happened with Piper, who was nine when it clicked that mom had a boyfriend.  She assumed we were going to divorce because “that’s how it works on TV.”  It also happened for me around the age of seven, when I first knew my father had a girlfriend.  I never brought it up and didn’t understand my parents were experimenting with polyamory until I was close to 30!

How can I tell my child(ren) without freaking them out?

  • When Piper finally asked Guin about her boyfriend, Guin reassured her that she and I love each other very much and we have no intention of divorcing.  She also said she feels lucky in that she has more people she gets to love.  It took Piper a while to adjust (she resonates a lot with 50’s culture), but eventually realized “it’s not that big a deal.”  She said, “I got used to Lance being a family member and stopped being mortified when friends realized my mom has a boyfriend.” Children are generally more interested in their own affairs and are pretty adaptable to situations that may seem challenging to adults.

How should I respond to my child(ren)’s questions about polyamory?

  • As with most questions from children, it is generally best to keep it simple and respond to their exact question and then shut up.  It can be tempting to emotionally caretake them or launch into a philosophical monologue, but that’s often when the trouble starts.  They’ll ask if they want more information and if it isn’t going to have a big impact on their lives, they likely won’t care.

What should I ask my child(ren) to call my partner(s)?

  • Why not let them decide?  It allows them some choice in a situation that can often feel out of their control.

How should I introduce my partners to my child(ren)?

  • In general, there is no need to make a big deal of introducing our partners to our kids and it is best to act like we would when introducing a family friend or co-worker.  Having said that, we did give Piper a lot of control over how to first meet Lance who had been in a long-distance relationship with Guin for several months.  It was interesting how Piper, at first wanted to orchestrate the whole event, but then became more relaxed with each new “plan” and finally decided we should all meet for bubble tea and see how it goes.

Should my child(ren) keep my polyamory a secret?

  • It depends a lot on the community that you live in. Among wealthy, well educated, and progressive communities being out may not be a big deal. In more conservative communities being out could attract discrimination and criticism. In general we avoid the topic with acquaintances unless there is a need for them to know. That said, It’s really not fair to ask younger kids (say under 10) to keep any secret and, if you do, don’t be too shocked when you are outed.  With older kids, it is important that they understand who knows and who doesn’t so they can act appropriately.  This was a problem recently when our daughters were visiting a relative, Adam, who didn’t know about our polyamory and Sage didn’t know he didn’t know.  She mentioned Lance casually in a conversation and had a mini-panic attack when Adam asked, “Who’s Lance?”  She dealt with it fine, but I felt awful that I put her in that awkward situation.

Any suggestions on how to deal with grandparents?

  • Every grandparent is different so it is hard to generalize, but I can tell you our story.  Years ago, my mother and mother-in-law were both planning to visit us while Guin had a live-in boyfriend, Jack, and neither grandmother knew we were poly.  After a lot of debate, we decided to tell them and believed they would be accepting as they both were in slightly-out-of-the-mainstream relationships — my mother with someone 20 years her younger and my caucasian mother-in-law with a 6’5” African American.  We were so wrong.  They were so upset they refused to allow Jack in the house!  And they kept lamenting, “What about the children?!”  What really sucked is that our daughters were fine with Jack prior to our parents visit, but they picked up on the tension in the house and started to fulfill their grandparents expectations by being uncomfortable with the situation.  Eventually, we had to tell our mothers that, while we love them deeply and want them to feel comfortable, in the end, this is OUR home and OUR lives to live as we see fit.  So their choice is not whether Jack can be in the house, but whether they choose to visit.  I am sorry to say, this is still not an easy topic with them even 10 years later.  If you have advice for us, please leave it in the comments.

What about my child(ren)’s friends?

  • Sage and Piper both decide which of their friends to tell and what to say to them.   Sage told me some of her friends are initially taken aback, but after a few minutes of explanation, they generally accept the idea and even find it quite interesting.  This may be because we have a lot of progressive friends, but I find that we all tend to overthink other’s reactions with regards to polyamory. It’s also okay to coach your kids in saying things like, “I’d rather not talk about my parent’s personal lives.” or “That’s private.” in response to prying questions.  

Should all adults co-parent or should we leave it to the biological parents?

  • Of course, this depends greatly on the situation.  Are the non-biologically-related adults living in the same house as the child(ren)?  Are they inclined to develop a close relationship with the child(ren)?  If so, it is very important to discuss issues such as how much authority parents are really willing to give up, what are considered appropriate and inappropriate behaviors for children and who should discipline children if/when they get out of line.

How do I deal with teachers, doctors, and other professionals who care for my child(ren)?

  • There is a good post in Polyamory on Purpose on this topic, which says, “Start the conversation simply and frankly. Dancing around the topic is not helpful, and may irritate some people. [You might try saying,] “Our family includes three parental figures, myself, my child’s father, and [third parent]. [Third parent] will sometimes be bringing in Child in to their appointments. What paperwork do I need to fill out so you can talk about our child’s health care with [third parent].”

How do I support my child(ren) when a partner leaves?

  • It can help to give them some advance warning and reassure them that it won’t change your relationship with them.  Give them space to express their feelings and/or ask questions and, if possible, some control around whether or how they can stay in contact with your soon-to-be-ex-partner, if they choose.

How will polyamory affect children’s later relationships?

  • Time will tell, but if you will allow me to kvell for a moment, I really enjoyed two things Sage said when I asked her this question.  First she said she is currently experimenting with serial monogamy (with both male and female partners) and that “it’s just simpler and “sort of like putting on training wheels” with regards to developing romantic relationships.  I thought this was quite wise.  And second, she said it is all about creating relationships that work for you and your partner(s) rather than relying on labels and cultural rules and norms.  In fact, she and her BFF have talked about living together platonically, but having other romantic relationships.  I later learned this was actually common in the 19th and early 20th centuries and was called a “Boston Marriage.”  What I love is that Sage intends to consciously create her relationships!

Do you encourage your children to develop bonds with your lovers? How?

  • Of course!  My daughters especially enjoy connecting with Morgaine and Lance over mealtimes — cooking, eating, and even cleaning up together.  They both bring diverse cuisines, skills, and interests that bring spice to all our lives.  We always invite our lovers to spend time with our family — movies, camping, picnics, long walks with the dogs — as it gives our lovers opportunities to get to know our children (and us) better and it gives our children opportunities to have more adults in their lives and to feel comfortable with our polyamorous lifestyle.  

Children can add a lot of complexity in polyamorous relationships, but they also add a lot of meaning and opportunities to create new “stories” for ourselves and, hopefully, future generations.  For me, polyamory is about breaking down barriers to intimacy and recognizing our fundamental interbeingness with each other and all life.  If children within polyamorous households grow up with an expanded sense of family and love, then I think we are helping the world move towards greater abundance and compassion.

Featured is a drawing that Piper did of our polyamorous family in December of 2015.   (from left to right: Morgaine, Lance, Art, Guin, Piper, Sage)

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