"Children, Stigma, and Polyamorous Families"
The past week saw an uptick of public attention to poly, following the widely noticed Slate and CNN.com articles. As always, the concern that people new to the subject expressed most often was for children raised in poly households.
So it's timely that sociologist Elisabeth Sheff's book The Polyamorists Next Door: Inside Multiple-Partner Relationships and Families comes out in less than three weeks. It describes her findings from 15 years of studying polyfamilies and their kids.
She has been providing previews on her Psychology Today blogsite. Three recent posts there talk about her conclusions regarding children. In date order:
The Status of Children in Polyamorous Families
What does the research say?
The children in the polyamorous families that participated in my 15-year study are generally in great shape: They are articulate and intelligent, precocious and thoughtful, poised and self-confident. Not that kids from poly families are perfect — they can be just as obnoxious, defiant, and irritating as children in other families. Even so, kids from poly families are a strikingly robust group, and my findings indicate three main reasons for that conclusion.
1. Optimistic Sample
In research speak, the group of people who participate in a research study is called the sample. The sample for my study of poly families was prone to be optimistic about polyamory for a couple of reasons....
2. Race and Class Privilege
The mainstream polyamorous communities in the United States, Australia, and Western Europe — the bastions of polyamorous life and research — are composed primarily of white, middle-class, highly educated people.... Kids whose parents have multiple graduate degrees (about 2/3 of the adults in my study had at least a masters degree, and almost half had a PhD) are already starting off with many advantages compared with children whose parents have less education.
3. It Really Does Take a Village
The dominant factor that encourages kids in poly families to be so articulate and thoughtful is the presence of numerous adults their lives. Multiple adults provide lots of attention, greater life experience, copious support, and abundant role models for children....
Read the whole article (Sept. 29, 2013).
When Partners Leave Polyamorous Families With Children
Parents' and children's strategies for dealing with shifting family members.
The larger poly groups get, my research indicates, the more often they experience a change in membership. It makes sense — the bigger the group, the more likely it is that someone will leave or others will join. What happens when the group includes children who become attached to adults, and those beloved adults are the ones who leave?
Sometimes it Really Sucks
Some kids in my study of poly families reported feeling quite upset when their parents broke up with partners whom the children had come to love....
More Often it is Not a Big Deal
The kids in poly families I interviewed routinely reported that they felt safe and secure with their parents.... While some children experience painful loss and disappointment when their parents’ partners leave, for others it is rather anticlimactic....
In order to minimize the potential for kids to bond with someone who leaves, parents in poly relationships routinely use extreme caution with new partners....
Dinner parties, group camp-outs, movie nights, and support groups are common in poly communities and often include children. Because poly people are often quite social, they tend to interact with lots of friends and community members. With all of these people around, [some] parents’ partners can blend in to social background and do not stand out in children’s lives....
Staying In Touch
When adults are friendly or at least civil and supportive, it is easier for kids to stay in contact with beloved adults. In many poly communities, the ideal is for adults to bond with children and continue that link even if the various adults no longer maintain a sexual relationship....
Whole article (Oct. 7, 2013).
Children, Stigma, and Polyamorous Families
How do kids in poly families explain their home life to peers and teachers?
As with all sexual minorities, kids in poly families... are at risk of being hurt by the stigma attached to their parents’ romantic lives. The past 40 years of LGBT+ activism has made same-sex relationships socially recognizable.... Polyamory, however, remains comparatively obscure so that people are more likely to identify a woman with her two husbands as a couple with a friend/ brother/ employee instead of a poly triad or vee. This relative obscurity provides poly kids with the ability to pass as “normals” if they wish.
Hiding in Plain Sight
The most common way for kids in poly families to deal with the potential for stigma was to pass as members of divorced families.... Poly kids said that, if they did not correct others' assumptions about their families, teachers, peers, and peers’ parents would invariably assume their numerous parents were a result of divorce and remarriage....
Occasionally peers would ask poly kids about the adults that attended their sporting events or picked them up from school. In some cases the poly kid would evade the question by changing the subject, being silly, or refusing to answer. If the questioner was a trusted friend and they had enough privacy at the moment, the poly kid would often tell the truth. Sometimes poly kids would use filter questions, asking friends what they thought about same-sex marriage or some other issue pertaining to sexual minorities and gauging the safety of disclosing their poly family status on the basis of the friend’s reaction....
Getting "outed" as a member of a polyamorous family was usually the worst case scenario for poly kids, and often ended in the most hurtful expressions of stigma and discrimination....
The more social privileges someone has, the easier it is to get away with breaking rules because social privilege provides a buffer against some of the effects of stigma and discrimination....
Poly families tend to gravitate to liberal urban and suburban areas, seeking a hospitable environment.... Buffering them from their grandparents' reaction to polyamory is more complicated, and the next blog will explore relationships with families of origin.
Read the whole article (Oct. 24, 2013). I'll post about that next one when it goes up.
Here are All of Sheff's Psychology Today posts.
Her Polyamorous Family Study Facebook page.
Sheff and her media mentions have appeared here often before.
More broadly, here are my posts tagged "kids" for the past three years (including this one; scroll down).
Price discount: The Polyamorists Next Door is being published by Rowman & Littlefield. Academic publishers are notorious for high book prices, with their captive markets of students and university libraries. Amazon's discount is small. However, notes Sheff on her website, anyone can get a 20% discount by buying from the publisher directly:
If you order directly through Rowman & Littlefield at
you can get a 20% discount on The Polyamorists Next Door. Use promotion code 4M14SHEFF at checkout. This promotion is valid until December 31, 2014. This offer excludes eBooks, and cannot be combined with any other promo or discount offers.