Polyamory and Children: Research Update

List has been updated with more recent work by Dr. Elizabeth Sheff. I haven’t heard back from other researchers yet, but if I do I’ll add their newer work as well. A lot of the newer stuff is publicly available, so skip to the bottom if you want something you can read and don’t have access to academic journals. Updated April 6, 2017.

Being a bit lazy this week, though I hope this may be helpful to polyam parents. The Yahoo! PolyResearchers group recently compiled this list of studies covering polyamory/modern forms of non-monogamy and its impact on children. While it isn’t the easiest thing for a lay person to get access to academic journals (they tend to run expensive and not be carried in the local library), this list may be a resource for any professionals you deal with who are seeking to educated themselves on how your lifestyle may impact your children.

I have read very few of these myself, but the general discussion on the Yahoo! group indicated that no one there knew of any study which found any harm to children raised in ethically non-monogamous families.

Barker, Meg & Langdridge, Darren.  (2010).  Understanding Non-monogamies.  London: Routledge.

Pallotta-Chiarolli, Maria.  (2010).  Border Sexualities, Border Families in Schools.  Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Pallotta-Chiarolli, Maria (2006).  Polyparents Having Children, Raising Children, Schooling Children.  Lesbian and Gay Psychology Review, 7 (1), (March 2006), 48-53.

Pallotta-Chiarolli, Maria.  (2010).  To Pass, Border or Pollute: Polyfamilies Go to School.  In Meg Barker & Darren Langridge (Eds.), Understanding Non-Monogamies.  New York, NY: Routledge.

Pallotta-Chiarolli, Maria, Haydon, Peter; & Hunter, Anne.  (In press, 2012).  These Are Our Children: Polyamorous Parenting.  In Katherine Allen & Abbie Goldberg (Eds.), LGBT-Parent Families: Possibilities for New Research and Implications for Practice.  London: Springer.

Sheff, Elisabeth.  (2011).  Polyamorous Families, Same-Sex Marriage, and the Slippery Slope.  Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, 40 (5), (October 2011), 487-520,

Sheff, Elisabeth.  (2010).  Strategies in Polyamorous Parenting.  In Meg Barker & Darren Langridge (Eds.), Understanding Non-Monogamies.  London: Routledge.

Older studies:

Constantine, Larry L., & Constantine, Joan M.  (1976).  Treasures of the Island: Children in Alternative Families.  Beverly Hills, CA: Sage Publications.

Constantine, Larry L., & Constantine, Joan M.  Group Marriage: A Study of Contemporary Multilateral Marriage.  New York: Macmillan, 1973, pp. 148-162.

Constantine, Larry L.  (1977) Where are the kids? Children in Alternative Life Styles.  In Libby, Roger W., & Robert N. Whitehurst (Eds.), Marriage and Alternatives: Exploring Intimate Relationships (pp. 257-263).  Glenview, IL: Scott, Foresman & Co.

Johnston, C., & R. Deisher.  (1973).  Contemporary communal child rearing: a first analysis.  Pediatrics, 52(3), (September 1973), 319-326.

Salsburg, Sheldon (1973).  Is group marriage viable?  Journal of Sex Research 9(4), (November 1973), 325-333.

Weisner, T.S.  (1986).  Implementing New Relationship Styles in Conventional and Nonconventional American Families.  In Hartup, W., & Z. Rubin (Eds.), Relationships and Development (pp. 185-206).  New Jersey: LEA Press.

Weisner, T. S., & H. Garnier.  (1992).  Nonconventional family lifestyles and school achievement: A 12-year longitudinal study.  American Educational Research Journal 29(3), 605-632.

(Originally posted January 2012)

New Studies and Articles

(Unlike the original list, not all of these are peer reviewed. The ones that aren’t peer reviewed are more like to be available to anyone, so use them to inform yourself and your friends. The peer reviewed are harder to access, but can be very useful when dealing with medical or legal professionals who need “proof”.)

2016 Sheff, Elisabeth. When Someone you Love is Polyamorous. Portland, OR: Thorntree Press.

2016 Sheff, Elisabeth. “Resilient Polyamorous Families” in Critical Dimensions of Sex & Gender Diversity: Clinical Perspectivesedited by Karian, Previn.

2015 Sheff, Elisbeth. “Polyamorous Parenting” in The Sage Encyclopedia of LGBTQ Studies edited by Goldberg, Abbie. Thousand Oaks: Sage.

2015 Sheff, Elisabeth (Editor). Stories from the Polycule: Real Life in Polyamorous Families. Portland, OR: Thorntree Press.

2014 Sheff, Elisabeth. The Polyamorists Next Door: Inside Multiple Partner Relationships and Families. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.

2013 Goldfeder, Mark and Sheff, Elisabeth. “Children in Polyamorous Families: A First Empirical Look,” The Journal of Law and Social Deviance.  Volume 5, pages 150 – 243. http://www.lsd-journal.net/archives/Volume5/ChildrenOfPolyamorousFamilies.pdf

2012 Sheff, Elisabeth. “Polyamory and Divorce” in Cultural Sociology of Divorce, an Encyclopedia, Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Polyamory and Children: Where is the Research At?

Nothing I wrote here has changed substantially in the last few years. However, there was a great deal more research on children raised in polyam families than I was aware of when I wrote this. And more research has been done since then. Most of that research has been small scale and not longitudinal, so more research is still needed. But what we have gives us a generally positive outlook. Find the full polyamory and children research list here. Revised 3/5/17

Anytime you suggest doing something that is different, unconventional, and socially unacceptable the cry goes up ’think of the children!’ And society demands that people outside the mainstream prove our choices are not threatening to children.

Unfortunately, at the moment, that proof is a bit hard to come by. Studies on polyamorous relationships with children are few and far between. Research on polyamory is complicated by the fact that there are so many possible polyamorous arrangements. A primary couple who are part of a polyam network will have a different experience raising children in a polyam household compared to a group marriage. Several researchers are currently working to address this lack of information, but research is not a fast process.

If there has been little research into polyamorous relationships, there is a lot of research into a wide variety of other lifestyles. Taken all together, looking what we know about raising children in LGBT households, in alternative religions, in foster homes, adoptive families, single parent homes, cross-cultural studies of children raised in family compounds in Asia, studies of the matrilineal Musou who don’t have marriages, and so much other research that has been done, on so many aspects of life, culture, family and child rearing . . . The conclusion seems clear: children are raised in stable, loving homes, where healthy relationships are modeled, are not harmed by any non-conventional living arrangements. They will usually grow up to be happy, healthy, well-adjusted adults.

In fact, children in non-traditional families are most harmed by the discrimination they and their families face, not their upbringing.

Alan of Poly in the News has drawn together the publically available info on the impact of raising children in a polyamorous household. As of when he published his compilation in February of 2010, polyamory is looking like it can be a pretty good way to raise children.

While we do not yet have “proof” for detractors that our lifestyle is safe for our children, what information there is looks promising. And there is no evidence that healthy polyamorous relationships are detrimental to children.

(Originally published Oct 2011)

Polyamory Hurts Kids? Not in the Real World

Any parent who chooses to enter a polyamorous relationship will sooner or later run into the charge that polyamory hurts kids, and they are being selfish by putting their desires over their kids’ well-being.

I recently ran across a blog post claiming to be based on psychological research that used big fancy words to say just that. I am taking the time to write an extra post this week specifically to refute this and other misinformation about raising kids in poly relationships.

First, the short version:

There is absolutely no evidence that children are harmed by healthy polyamorous relationships. (See: research list!)

There is some as yet inconclusive evidence that polyamory may provide benefits for children.

A lot more research needs to be done before anything else is known for certain.

The Long Version: Polyamory Doesn’t Hurt Kids

Most critics say that polyamory hurts kids in one of two ways:

  1. Unhealthy emotional development/abandonment issues—the idea is that because poly parents are constantly bringing new partners into their kids lives, who then leave again, children of poly parents face the equivalent of going through a divorce over and over again, but with bonus trauma. Because poly partners don’t get visitation rights, the kids will never again see the adults they have formed emotional bonds with.
  2. Family secrets—forcing children to keep family secrets places an unfair burden on them. Forcing children to lie to their peers, teachers, and other adults not only teaches them unethical behavior but is emotionally damaging. The alternative, lying to kids about their parents relationship, is obviously equally damaging, because sooner or later they will find out the truth and be hurt/resentful/betrayed about being lied to.

The idea that children of poly parents will be damaged in some way by their parents various partners coming in and out of their lives is an understandable concern. Though perhaps misplaced. According to sociologist Andrew Cherlin, “…family life in the United States involves more transitions than anywhere else. There is more marriage but also more divorce. There are more lone parents but also more repartnering. Cohabiting relationships are shorter. Over the course of people’s adult lives, there is more movement into and out of marriages and cohabiting relationships than in other countries (The Marriage-Go-Round, p. 19)”.

So let’s be blunt: the issue is not that polyamory is bad for children because poly relationships are unstable and transitory. Unstable and transitory relationships with adults can be unhealthy for children. Unstable and transitory relationships can happen in any type of relationship, but critics of polyamory assume it is more common to poly relationships than mono relationships.

The real question is, is there something about polyamory that encourages increased relationship instability in a way that affects kids? So far, the answer seems to be “No.”

Poly parents who have taken part in research studies have shared these concerns, and taken steps to reduce the impact on their kids. Common steps include:

  • Only introducing poly partners if/when the relationship is stable and can be expected to last a long time (and sometimes not even then.)
  • Encouraging kids to see poly partners as members of the parent’s general social circle of friends, and as such, not expected to necessarily be a permanent part of the kids lives.
  • Making an effort to give kids time with former poly partners, so that relationships between kid and ex can continue even though the relationships between the adults have ended. (You know, just like mono parents do when a relationship ends.)

The kids of poly parents who have taken part in studies haven’t shared their parents concerns, and have rarely expressed any sense of abandonment or trauma from their parent’s partners moving in and out of their lives.

As far as family secrets go, what research has been done suggests a variety of common sense approaches tends to prevent problems. Approaches such as simply being open about the family lifestyle, so there are no secrets to hide. Or teaching children about privacy and boundaries (much the way my parent’s taught me to respond to rude questions about why my brother didn’t look like the rest of the family—he and I were both adopted, but I was lucky enough to blend in with our adoptive family).

In fact, the only negative researchers have found to raising children in a poly household is the stigma they may face from those who don’t approve of polyamory. Even this stigma is less than many would expect because poly families tend to blend. Is that group of three “parents” a blended family of Mother, Father, and Step-mother? Or is that a couple and their best friend who is an unofficial “Aunt?” Most school officials, other kids, and playmates’ parents see multiple adults involved in raising kids every day of the week, so it just doesn’t raise eyebrows very often.

polyamory hurts kids
By Serolynne, Creative Commons LicensedCan you tell what relationship these adults have?

The Long Version: Polyamory May Help Kids

This section comes with tons of caveats. Basically, we just don’t have enough research, and the research we do have is not a wide enough sample. However, there is some evidence that polyamory may provide a better environment for children than monogamy.

Ian Baker provides a well thought out and compelling example of how he believes growing up in a poly family benefited him in his article “Growing Up Poor With Three Parents.”

Ian’s story is anecdotal, but it lines up very well with what research has found so far.

For kids, polyamory can mean:

  • More income, so they are better provided for
  • More adults to take of them
  • With more adults to take care of them, more rested and healthy adults who can give them more attention, time, and energy
  • The ability to have a stay at home parent and multiple incomes
  • And generally a number of other benefits that all boil down to “More adults=more resources=better for kids” whether those resources are skills, life experience, money, time, or anything else.

In Conclusion

Polyamory may or may not be good for kids (we’re waiting on more research), but there is absolutely no evidence that polyamory hurts them. The charge that polyamory hurts kids is the same line that has been used (and disproven) on interracial marriage, LGBT, and every other relationship that someone in society has disapproved of for personal reasons, dressed up in new clothes and flung at polyamory. As of this date (01/05/2015) anyone who claims they have evidence to the contrary is either misinformed or lying.

Finally, a disclaimer:

We need more research into the impact of polyamory on kids. No one who is honestly assessing the facts will disagree. The vast majority of existing research is small scale studies that need to be replicated in larger and more varied groups. There are multiple challenges facing researchers, including:

  1. Getting funding to study polyamory is very difficult
  2. Find a broad enough group of poly-folk for a truly large scale study is even more difficult
  3. The lack of preliminary research into polyamory (we don’t even have a good idea of how many people are polyamorous) makes it harder to do specific research, such as the impact on kids.

Anyone who claims that we know everything we need to know about the impact of polyamory on kids is just flat wrong. What we do know so far is that there is no evidence polyamory hurts kids, that unhealthy or unstable relationships of any variety are bad for kids, and the research so far is consistent across monogamous, heterosexual, LGBT, polyamorous and even kinky relationships: love, consistent parenting, and availability of resources are the keys to raising healthy, happy kids. Everything else is window-dressing.