Poly and Kids. "I've probably observed more modern polyamorous childrearing than anyone on the planet."
On her blog at the Psychology Today magazine website, Deborah Anapol posts a noteworthy section from her book Polyamory in the 21st Century:
Polyamory and Children
Is polyamory harmful to children?
...As extended families who live together become increasingly rare, especially in the affluent West, polyamorous families are one way that some people are counteracting the isolation of the lone nuclear family and finding ways to provide at-home caretakers for children. Others gravitate toward cohousing or intentional communities that may or may not be monogamously oriented but where adults share some responsibility for child rearing.
Several studies have been done on stepfamilies and children reared communally, but there is still a dearth of research investigating the important question of how polyamory affects children. At the same time, the impact on children is one of the most commonly asked questions whenever the subject of polyamory is raised. Dr. Elisabeth Sheff is an assistant professor of sociology at Georgia State University. She conducted her doctoral research on polyamorous families with children in the mid-1990s and later decided to attempt a longitudinal study of these and other poly families. So far, she's following about thirty families with three or more adults living together who have children between the ages of six and twenty. She'd like to double that and include an ethnically and culturally more diversified group before publishing her findings but says that funding for research on polyamory is scarce.
...As a parent who has raised two children of my own in a variety of nonmonogamous contexts and watched many friends and clients do the same over the years, I have thought deeply about these issues. Over the years, I've socialized with, coached, or spoken at length with at least several hundred other polyamorous families with children and a few dozen middle-aged adults who were raised in families where their parents had open or group marriages or where patriarchal-style polygamy was practiced. While I've made no attempt to "collect data," I've probably observed more modern polyamorous childrearing than anyone on the planet.
...All the recent surveys of polyamorous people find that about half of them are parents. However, at least half of these attempt to hide their extramarital relationships from their children or have teens or adult children whose lives are mainly independent of their parents or utilize polyamorous gatherings, other social occasions, or coaching sessions as a vacation from parenting. As a result, in the course of everyday life, I've had far less opportunity to interact with the children of polys than with their parents, except in the case of personal friends where spending time with the entire family was a natural part of our interactions. Consequently, while I believe my observations can be generalized to a wider population, this may not be the case. It's possible that the children of poly parents I have not met are different from those that I have met.
...Dr. Sheff's sample is also skewed in that virtually all her participants thus far come from the network of people who strongly identify as polyamorous and who attend various polyamorous conferences, potluck dinners, or other social events. Dr. Sheff has found that some polyamorous parents are reluctant to talk to anyone "official" because they are concerned about losing custody of their children. The common perception that children in poly (and nonheterosexual) families are at higher risk for sexual abuse than those in monogamous families, which appears to be completely unfounded according to Dr. Sheff, also makes people nervous about talking to her.
Her focus has been to rely on unstructured interviews to determine what kinds of experiences children in polyamorous families have, what the internal dynamics of the family are, and what kinds of things these families do that help them survive. Further, she's included nonbiological parents, who she says are sometimes more involved in the day-to-day parenting than the biological parents, perhaps because they have more time and inclination for it. Nevertheless, as I spoke with my own contacts and heard what she had found thus far, a cohesive picture began to emerge.
In the absence of existing research on polyamorous families, Dr. Sheff has looked to the research on children of gays and lesbians for clues. There's a fair amount of this research.... The GLBT research has found that essentially all the pressure the children of homosexual parents face is from outside the family. In other words, nothing has been found in the families themselves that's a problem for the children, but they do encounter judgments, prejudice, and negative attitudes from outsiders, such as teachers or neighbors, or are concerned about appearing different. The same appears to be somewhat true for children in polyamorous families, although one bisexual poly parent told me that his teenage son's perception was that polyamory was more acceptable than bisexuality among his peers.
...What's interesting to me is that most of the young adults I know who were raised in child-centered polyamorous families seem to end up giving a higher priority to bonding and sustained intimacy than to freedom, whether they are male or female. While they often attempt both, they seem willing to go for serial monogamy because its continued cultural dominance provides greater ease in intimate connections with partners raised to believe in monogamy. Those who are more determined to pursue radical multipartner lifestyles whatever the cost or who are hungry for sexual variety to make up for a sexually repressed adolescence seem to have a greater need to rebel against the culture norms than the children of the last generation of polyamorous pioneers. This pattern also seems to hold true for the children of more mainstream families who are open with their children about their polyamorous relationships.
As I often joke, if you want your children to be monogamous, practice polyamory!
Read the whole post (March 25, 2011).
I know a number of counterexamples to that last quip, including second-generation adult poly activists today. Healthy poly families certainly produce healthy poly kids at a greater rate than the general population does. Although as Deborah points out, it's awfully hard for a lot of them to find poly-oriented partners while young.
But just as in gay or lesbian families, kids go their own way. Just as most kids of gay parents turn out straight because most people turn out straight, I think a majority of polyfolks' offspring will always tend to choose monogamy in some form because most people do.
If only because the structure is simpler.
As I've pointed out before, in the poly world there seem to be more open marriages than vees, more vees than equilateral triads, more triads than quads, and more quads than quints. The trend seems to be that the more complex the structure, the less commonly it occurs. Extend this trend the other way, and a couple is the least complex structure of all. This suggests to me that even in the fully poly-aware and poly-accepting society we will have 50 or 100 years from now, most relationships will still be pairings most of the time.
Deborah asked me to mention that she will be putting on several events in the eastern U.S in coming weeks:
-- "Love, Sex, & Freedom," Plainfield, MA; May 19-22.
-- "Sexual Healing for Women," Hartford, CT; May 28.
-- "The Yoga of Love" near Asheville, NC; June 3-5.