Not much changed here on the main topic, but original version was pretty heterocentric. I’ve tried to correct that and be more inclusive of single-parent families. Revised 3/26/17
Children who are born into a polyamorous relationship do not need anyone to explain their parents’ relationships, any more than children born into a monogamous relationship. Because they grow up with it, they understand it. It’s normal to them.
Children whose parent(s) become polyamorous after the children are born may have difficulty understanding change in their parents’ relationships. If you choose to be open about your lifestyle choices, it’s important to present them in a way that leaves your children secure in knowing that their family will not be hurt by the changes you are making.
Discussing Polyamory with Young Children
Young children are still learning the societal norms. They need things simple, and in terms they can understand, with a focus on how it affects them. They certainly don’t need a long explanation of what polyamory is, why it is ethically ok, etc.
For some children, and some relationships, you won’t need to discuss anything. Just say at dinner ‘Mommy’s going out on a date, so I’m putting you to bed tonight.’ If you’d like, make it something of a treat for them ‘Mommy’s going out on a date, so you kids and I will be having a special movie night.’ Handling it this way tells them 1) that their Mom is dating someone, 2) that their other parent is cool with this, and 3) that this is something that is normal and they don’t need to worry about it. This goes equally for single parents with several polyam relationships and families with a parent and step parent. ‘Boyfriend will be baby-sitting while Mommy goes on a date with Girlfriend’ works just as well as ‘Daddy/Mommy/Step-Parent is putting you kids to bed tonight’.
If the kids ask questions, answer them without long explanations. Best advice I ever got about explaining things to little kids – answer the exact question they ask in the simplest terms possible, and then shut up. If they want more information, they’ll keep asking.
Some children will need more explanation, or reassurance, than others. If their friend’s parents just divorced because ‘Linda’s mommy was going on dates with another man, and her daddy left them,’ you will definitely need to do some reassuring. In general, treat your relationships as normal, answer questions, and make it clear with how you behave and act that there is nothing for the children to worry about, their world won’t be changing because their parents are in several relationships.
Discussing Polyamory with Older Children/Teenagers
Older children and teenagers will definitely be fully aware of the social norms against polyamory. They may or may not have heard of open relationships and polyam from their friends and acquaintances (if they haven’t yet, they will eventually). They are also probably old enough and enough on their dignity to need and deserve a more formal approach to your decision to enter into polyamory.
I would suggest sitting down with your child or teenager (together!) and explain that you have decided you are going to start dating again, that you still love each other and have no intention of splitting up, and that you are telling them this so that they know what is going on, and don’t get surprised later.
Depending on the child the reaction can range from ‘You’re talking about polyamory? That’s cool,’ to ‘ok, whatever,’ to ‘OMG HOW CAN YOU DO THIS TO ME!!!!’ (Yes, at this age it is all about them. Expect it and accept it. I honestly don’t see much difference between this and the way many adults act, but people seem to think it’s a big deal that teenagers do this. Meh.)
Listen to them (communication is just as important with children as it is with adult relationships). Give them a chance to flip out, ask questions, shrug it off or whatever their deal is. Answer any questions, be clear that it is your lives and your choice, but that you respect them enough to tell them yourselves about this decision. If they don’t see anything to talk about, let it be.
The most important thing about discussing it this way is it lets them know the floor is open. Whatever their reaction, they know that you are okay with them knowing about your relationships, and are willing to discuss it with them. Near equal in importance if you are married is they know that you are both in agreement on this, and no one is sneaking around or cheating.
In general, as long as they see that their lives and their relationships with you aren’t changing in a massive way, older children and teenagers will move on to something else to be worked up and angry about eventually, no matter how badly they react.
Not Discussing Polyamory with your Children
There is, always, the option to keep your lifestyle hidden from your children. Pros and cons of this one can be argued all over the map. I’m not going to get into it here. If you choose not to discuss and inform your children of your lifestyle, be prepared for them to know about it eventually. As self-centered as they are, kids are very attuned to anything that threatens their lives and families. You having other relationships will be seen as a threat, simply because they have been taught that this is a betrayal of their other parent, and may lead to divorce.
Hopefully if they become aware of your relationships without you saying anything, they will come to you to ask about it. In that case it is simple enough to say ‘yes, your other parent knows and approves, beyond that it is private.’ I suggest getting the other parent in the room so they know you are telling the truth.
This post is part of the Raising Children in a Polyamorous Family blog series.