Changed to be inclusive of a wider variety of relationship styles and less heteronormative. Also fixed some typos. Updated June 7, 2017.
Step-parent, aunt, Jennie, Pop, Ma’am, Mr. Smith . . .
Basic rule of thumb: kids need a label for the adults in their lives. A box to put the adult in so they can know what their relationship with the adult is. Any time your kids ask what to call your SO, what they usually mean is, ‘What is this person to me?’
So before worrying about what your kids should call your SOs, take a minute to think about this: Just what is the relationship between your SOs and your kids? Are you raising you children from birth in a group marriage and all the spice are parents? Are you going to be introducing your teenage son to your girlfriend for the first time?
Group marriages who are raising children together tend to take one of two approaches to what I call ‘parent names’. Sometimes the non-biological parents choose terms that mean “Mother,” “Father” or “Parent” (Mama, Papa, Mad for English variants or use other languages—Ima is Hebrew for mom, Padre or Papa from Spanish, etc). Other times the non-biological parents are Aunt or Uncle or just their names. In these polycules, only the bio parents are called anything related to ‘mother’ or ‘father’.
You don’t need to discuss parent names with kids when you are raising them in a polyam relationship from a young age. The same as you never sit down with your toddler and say “I am your mother and you can call me ‘mom’.” You just walk into the room saying “Hi baby, mommy’s here!” and eventually baby learns that ‘mommy’ means you.
If you are introducing an older child to an SO for the first time, you probably want your kid and your SO to get along, but unless the SO is moving in with you or something, they don’t need to interact. So don’t make it complicated. As long as your SO agrees, you child(ren) can call them by their first name. No reason to make a big deal out of it.
Sometimes a previously unentwined or lightly entwined link becomes highly entwined, such as when moving in together. In these cases, advice given for helping kids adjust to having a new step-parent may be helpful. The short version is: let you kids know you want them and your SO to have a good relationship, but that relationship is up to them. They can start out calling your SO by their first name, and if later they decide they would like to call your SO aunt, uncle, Pop or something else, that is up to them. The message you want to give your child here is that they get to choose the label. The relationship they’ll have with your SO is up to them, and they won’t be forced into a relationship they aren’t comfortable with.
This blog post is past of the Raising Children in a Polyamorous Family blog series.