When Our Kids Face Discrimination for Our Relationships

In an ideal world, no one would hurt our kids because of our choices. As we’ve noted before, the world is far from ideal. If we are open about our relationships (and sometimes even if we aren’t) people’s ignorant reactions to polyamory can cause problems for our children. We need to be ready to help them cope with this discrimination, and to respond ourselves when appropriate.

Discrimination from Peers

Being different is hard for kids. That’s true at any age. I remember in 2nd grade a teacher taught my class about adoption. I ended up singled out as the only adopted kid in my class. For about a week, I fielded rude, ignorant questions and curiosity.

In 5th grade, a girl from India joined our (all white) class. I don’t know how much her being alone on the playground was just being the new girl, and how much was being different. But I distinctly remember when she and I became friends, my mother warning me it wasn’t good to become close to her. It would just separate me further from the rest of my class, she said.

And being different as a teenager is just plain hell, any way you slice it.

Our children may face rude or nasty questions about their family. They may be ostracized. They may have people pretend to be their friends only to turn around and make fun of them later.

There isn’t much we can do to protect our children from their peers. In some cases, opening your home can help. Letting their peers come visit and become familiar with their family will make our children stand out less. In these situations “contempt” for the familiar has its advantages.

Depending on what kind of discrimination they face, we can give our children tools to deal with it. Ways to respond to rude questions, taking the time to help them connect with peer groups that don’t ostracize them. They have no friends at school? Get them involved in community service groups, after school activities, 4-H, or whatever.

If at all possible, one of the best things we can do is help them connect with other children in polyamorous families. Let them see that they are not alone, that there are other kids like them, and let them share coping strategies with each other. It goes a long way!

Discrimination from Adults

The most immediately hurtful discrimination our kids face will likely be from peers. But while other children tend to be down on anyone who is different, adults are more likely to be driven by active prejudice and bigotry. (Note: I say more likely—some adults will still just be idiots, and some kids will be bigots).

Adults in a kid’s world tend to be authority figures. This means minor interactions and decisions they make can have a much larger impact on our kids lives. What kind of impact depends on the adult’s relationship with our kids.

Relatives: Discrimination from relatives is most likely to come in the form of nasty comments and gossip, refusal to acknowledge your significant others, and refusal to allow your significant others in their home. We have more leverage over relatives than most adults– “Your talk about my SO has been hurting Dave. I really don’t care what you think about my relationships, but if you can’t stop the nasty comments and gossip, I will not allow Dave to visit anymore.”

While most relatives are decent enough not to use it, in many places your relatives also have a very scary bit of leverage to use on you. Custody battles. If you think your relatives might try taking your children b/c of your relationships, check local laws in your area before putting your foot down.

Family therapy can also be a helpful option in getting relatives to back off if you can find a poly-friendly therapist. In hindsight, my mother’s refusal to try family therapy was a clue that we would never have a healthy relationship. I eventually got a court order for family therapy, but the reality is it wasn’t going to help any when she wasn’t willing to be there.

Authority Figures: Teachers, coaches, religious figures and other adults often have authority over our kids. When these authority figures are bigots, or just ignorant and ill-informed, they can cause problems. Some problems can be bureaucratic—Jean wants Mama Dawn to pick her up after school, but the school requires pick up by legal guardians only. Some problems are social—teachers whose approach to teaching about family is normative and excludes non-nuclear families. This will not only hurt our children in the classroom, but set them up for more problems with their classmates. One solution: approach the teach (or go over their head to the school) about a diverse family day. Chances are that at least one (and possibly several) kids in your child’s classroom have divorced parents, blended families, are being raised by another relative, or have two moms or two dads. You might arrange with the school for non-nuclear families to discuss how their family works.

Religious figures are potentially the most damaging, but also the easiest to avoid. If the local pastor, rabbi, or whatever doesn’t approve and makes their disapproval known in a way that harms your kids, you can switch to a different religious community. Depending on where you live, this choice may lead to social challenges with relatives or neighbors. You’ll need to decide if the disapproval of your relatives for switching churches is worth getting your kids away from a discriminatory pastor. Whether or not it is worth it will largely depend on just how discriminatory the pastor is.