Several additional years of experience has only strengthened my original opinion–so no major changes here. I haven’t gotten around to updating it yet, but for those interested here is a post on how to tell your kids about polyamory. Revised 3/19/17. Sorry for the late post.
Probably one of the hardest choices polyam parents face is whether or not to tell their children about their relationships and lifestyle.
When it comes to older children, I firmly believe they should know age-appropriate information about their parents’ relationship choices. They are exploring relationships for themselves and figuring out how they want to live their lives. Your kids (and if they know you, your partners’ kids) will see you as an example of how to live. Not being honest about your experiences and relationships is like sending them out in a rowboat with only one oar. They may decide to take a different path from you, but they deserve your help, support, and advice. And kids are smart – they will know if you are hiding something, and they are not going to be honest with you if you are not honest with them.
Following up on ’kids are damn smart,’ if you are in a relationship with your kid’s other parent, you do not want your kid to think you are cheating. (And they likely will if they discover you are hiding other relationships.) I can’t begin to list all the reasons that would be a BAD THING, but let’s just mention them feeling forced to choice between keeping “your secret” (and lying to their other parent) or telling their other parent (and possibly destroying your relationship and their home). That is a 100% fucked up place to put your kids.
That said, and with the best of intentions, the world doesn’t always work the way we want, and there may be situations where telling your children of any age is a bad idea. For instance, it is generally recommended that polyam folk in a custody agreement with a monogamous co-parent stay in the closet. Being polyamorous can get your custody taken away. Laws on this one vary (and let’s take a minute out here to root for the overturning of Canada’s anti-polygamy laws, judge’s decision coming up the end of this month [note: judge’s decision on that case was a mixed victory but definitely a step forward]), but in general if you think of the situation gay and lesbian parents were in 20-30 years ago, you have the right idea. (More on polyamory and custody)
With younger kids, it gets a bit more complicated. Basically, if you are out to the world there is no real reason to hide from little kids, as long as you keep it at their level. ’Mommy has a boyfriend/Daddy has a different boyfriend.’ However, if you aren’t out about your relationships, at least to close friends and family, telling a young child is a recipe to be outed – ’Granma guess what! Daddy and I had special time last night while Mommy went out with her boyfriend!’ More than one polyam family has been outed that way.
It definitely is not fair to ask little children to keep your relationships a secret. The hypocrisy of teaching them to have open and honest relationships, and lie about them with not be lost on them, and will seriously confuse their world view. Nevermind the fact that asking kids to keep grownup’s secrets just isn’t fair and is placing way too much on the kid’s shoulders. If you don’t want your little kids talking about your relationships, don’t tell them.
That said, this can be a place to teach kids about privacy. Little kids are always taught there are some things we don’t talk about. We don’t announce to the world at large that Aunt Salma had a miscarriage—that’s up to Aunt Salma to share if she wants to.You can treat your polyam relationships the same way. “Our relationships are private and it is up to us who we tell about them.” This approach MAY allow you to thread the path of being in the closet, being out to your kids, and not modeling being ashamed or secretive about your relationships.
Of course, you kids may still out you by accident, so that’s still a problem.
Now, the oddball here is children born into a polyam relationship. A child born into a quad or triad that is living together, or born when a pregnancy occurs in a relationship that is not cohabiting will know about it. When the family is living together, this is pretty obvious. When the parents don’t live together and are involved with other people you get ‘Mommy and Daddy are my parents but Daddy is married to Auntie and he and Mommy go out together sometimes.’ In this situation definitely be honest, don’t try and hide anything, and answer questions in an age appropriate way.
Children view whatever they experience as normal, and adults who were raised in polyam families have mentioned feeling sorry for other kids who only had two parents. So the younger a child is when they learn about your relationships, the easier, and more normal it will be for them. Older children, who already have a clear idea of societal norms and how things ’should’ be, may have more difficulty adjusting – especially if the see outside relationships as a betrayal of your marriage.
This post is part of a series on raising children in polyamorous families.