Question: Hello Miriam, I was wondering about my children. Myself and my boyfriend recently have taken on a girlfriend, so we have formed a triad. My question is how do I explain to my young children that this is not a normal lifestyle choice and that it is not expected out of them when they grow older? My mother has expressed concern to me about this because she thinks that me having not only a boyfriend or a girlfriend but having both could be damaging to my children’s mental health. I do not desire to harm my children in any way so I am asking for advice on this subject.
Answer: I asked Elisabeth Sheff, the author of The Polyamorists Next Door: Inside Multiple-Partner Relationships and Families, to weigh in on this because I’m less familiar with issues regarding children. She responded with the following:
The short answer is: Yes, polyamorous families can be healthy. Just like other families, the way having poly parents affects children depends in large part on how the adults conduct themselves in their relationships. There is nothing inherently pathological about polyamorous families, and they are not destined to damage the children who grow up in them. Polyamorous families can create healthy, stable, loving environments for children when the adults provide that kind of environment. Poly families are not perfect, and their kids experience some of the same problems common in other blended families. For those poly folks who can find the right balance in their relationships, however, multiple-adult families can be extremely advantageous for children and adults.
The medium answer includes: Multiple adults provide lots of attention, greater life experience, copious support, and abundant role models for children. Pooling their resources also allows adults to have more personal time, work more flexible hours, and get more sleep because there are multiple people around to take care of the children. Poly parents said that they felt more patient and had more energy for their children when they were well rested and had sufficient income – all of which benefitted their children.
The long answer is also that: It depends a lot on how the adults talk to the kids and how old the kids are. How poly parents talk to their kids about it makes a big difference to how the kids will think or feel about the parents’ poly relationships. For kids of all ages, the best strategy seems to be an age-appropriate and honest response to kids’ questions. Divorce is so common today that almost all children know peers with multiple parents already – dad and his new wife, mom and her new girlfriend – so the presence of additional adults is not nearly as socially outlandish as it would have been 50 years ago. It also makes it very easy for kids from poly families to blend in with kids from divorced families, so the poly family kids hardly ever have to explain their families to teachers, coaches, or casual acquaintances.
How old the children are also makes a big difference in what they think of the adults in their environments. Small kids eight or under generally do not have a sophisticated understanding of adult romantic relationships, and so might not need an explanation at all. Little kids take their family form for granted because it is all they know, and until they learn that other peoples’ families are different they will not think that their family is unusual. Parents’ partners are likely to blend in with all of the other caring adults in kids’ lives, and there is no need for parents to make a big deal out of what happens after the kids are in bed.
Tweens from nine to 12 have a more sophisticated understanding of adults’ relationships and might notice looks or touches between adults the way their younger siblings do not. When kids notice something happening and appear uncomfortable about it, they might be concerned that the parents are cheating and the kid knows a terrible secret that will hurt the other parent. In those cases, it is important for parents to let kids know that the parents are being honest with each other, it is not a secret from the other parent, and the kids can ask whatever questions they have. Kids in these settings often do not want detailed explanation of the romantic side, and using phrases like “hanging out” or “spending special time together” can be honest answers appropriate to smaller children.
As kids grow up, their understandings of adult interactions become more sophisticated and they have more points of reference to compare their families to their peers’ families. Generally they will become aware that their family is unconventional by the time they are late in elementary school, at which point they might begin wondering more about the adults in their lives. Creating a family atmosphere where children feel confident their questions will be met with thoughtful, honest answers allows kids to take the lead and ask questions not only about their family dynamics, but everything else too. Poly parents report that free ability to think and talk helps the children trust them and creates emotional intimacy for the whole family.
Finally, just because you are polyamorous does not mean your children will be polyamorous when they grow up. Kids in my study had a range of attitudes towards polyamory: some would under no circumstances consider doing it themselves, and others could see no other way to live a free and authentic life. Most of them, however, were not sure, and were still trying to figure out how to kiss or who they liked. They were going to leave any decision about polyamory to the future when they were older and it was more germane to their lives. Not one single child in my study said that they would be polyamorous because their parents were, and instead all of them thought about their own boundaries and considered their options.
I want to say thank you to Elisabeth for such a thoughtful answer and I will provide my own 2 cents. As each generation passes, many people are becoming more and more progressive. I think that people around my age and younger either accept polyamory or don’t really care how people choose to conduct their relationships. The person who wrote in said that their mother thought poly would harm the mental health of the children; that could very well be a generational belief. I always thought that my parents would understand poly more because of the free love ethos of the late 60s and early 70s. On the contrary, that ethos often got a bad name and polyamory is much different. I would advise the person who wrote in to say to their kids, depending on their ages, in simple language that the all of the adults care for each other and that they will always be there for the kids. I think that’s mainly what the kids want to know. I myself have been involved with people who had children. In one case, I was introduced as a friend. I didn’t mind that too much because the kids were so young and as Elisabeth said, they probably wouldn’t have understood. This situation is different because the adults are living in a triad. Personally, I think that no matter how old the kids are, they will know at least a bit about what’s going on, but they may not understand it. I think it’s better to explain things to the kids sooner rather than later.
On a personal note, many of my readers know that my dad is gay. He came out when I was 6. I’m pretty sure I told some people at school about it and I was made fun of. There may be some concern in this case about telling kids at school that their parents have an unusual relationship. I would have an honest discussion with the children and see if they are concerned about this issue. There may be a local PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) chapter that could help, if you are seeking it, as they may be able to provide some support. As Elisabeth said, many children have parents who are divorced and they may live in blended families; knowing that a classmate has 3 parents isn’t really a stretch. I would also agree that polyamory is not harmful to children’s mental health. Imagine living in a house where at least 1 parent is always available and everyone is committed to each other – that sounds pretty ideal to me.
For more of Elisabeth Sheff’s writings, check out http://elisabethsheff.com/