Advantages and disadvantages in polyamorous family life.
Children and young adults in the study mention a range of advantages associated with growing up in a polyamorous family. These include both practical and emotional advantages.
Kids of all ages from poly families emphasize the practical advantages above other aspects of having multiple adults in their lives. Small children enjoy the treats, toys, and trips to the playground that often come with adults who are trying to contribute positively to family life. Tweens appreciate the rides home from practice or the movies, as well as the help with homework. Teens also value help with homework, in addition to the option to ask a trusted adult — who is not a parent — for advice or assistance. Tweens and teens also appreciate the communication skills they see modeled and are able to practice, as well as the honest information they get from the adults in their lives.
All of the children enjoy the possibility of getting $5 from someone else when mom or dad did not have cash on hand. Children in each age category like the increased chance of fun pets that come with the various additional adults. Best of all, these kids get more birthday and holiday gifts because they have multiple adults (and potentially several sets of grandparents attached to these multiple adults) to shower them with goodies and take them on fun events.
The kids and young adults I have interviewed often mention the emotional benefits of having multiple adults in their lives. For small children, it is the glee of having new people to play with and fresh adults with extra patience to play some of the games that their parents have long since grown tired. Tweens like having people home when they get home from school, rooting for them at sports competitions, and clapping for their performances in plays.
Teens value the different role models that multiple adults demonstrate in family life, and find the communication and emotional intimacy skills they built up as part of the polyamorous family style to be especially useful in creating meaningful connections with peers, lovers, and friends. They also value the emotional intimacy and trust they feel with their parents, something they see starkly lacking in many of their peers’ relationships with their parents that seem (to the kids from poly families) to be filled with suspicion, tension, and anger. Kids from poly families are also tense and angry sometimes too, but they feel that they can have conversations with their parents that would be unthinkable for their peers, and that level of honesty allows them to feel closer to and safer with their parents – even with the usual teenage angst.
Young adults view those emotional and communication skills as the greatest advantage to growing up in a polyamorous family, because they feel they are able to establish emotionally intimate relationships wherever they go. This provides an important buffer to the pain and loneliness that can sometimes come with leaving home for the first time. Even if they do leave home, they often retain emotional connection with their parents, and some of them return to a parental home after moving out for a while.
In addition to advantages, kids growing up in polyamorous families mention a range of disadvantages as well. These include emotional disadvantages like social stigma, complexity, powerlessness, and practical disadvantages like too much supervision.
When polyamorous families with multiple adults and children combine to share living space, the children sometimes feel like they do not get enough privacy. Kids, and especially teens, complain that the adults get rooms to themselves — often with a bathroom attached — while the kids must share space and most likely do not have their own bathroom. Household overcrowding that can come with blending multiple adults and children works, so these kids feel, to the disadvantage of children who must share space.
Children growing up in a home with multiple adults have more people to watch out for what the kids are doing. Also, in polyamorous households, the adults are frequently in constant communication, so the child of poly parents who is trying to tell one adult a lie must be extra careful to tell the rest of the adults the exact same lie or the kids are likely to be discovered in their deceit. Too much supervision and the inability to get away with anything sneaky was at the top of many children’s lists of discontent with poly family life.
Like children of other sex and gender minorities, kids with polyamorous parents sometimes have to deal with others’ reactions to their parents’ sexual relationships. Unlike children of parents in same-sex relationships, however, kids in poly families can very easily hide their family status, so they do not have to deal with it that often. Because polyamory is still fairly little known, members of the general public often do not recognize a polyamorous relationship in their midst and do not hold the children accountable for it. When people do recognize the poly family as a unit, however, it can create some problems for the family when that recognition then translates to stigma or discrimination. While it does not happen a lot, some children mentioned adults asking weird or probing questions that felt uncomfortable. One girl remembered her friend could not come over to play anymore, but thought that might be because her mother was a practicing Pagan rather than the polyamorous nature of the family which was not clear.
Like children in general who do not have the ability to control their own lives, some children in polyamorous families with they could exert more power to make their own decisions. The ones who wish for normalcy wish they could decide to be in a normal family. Others feel upset at no longer having contact with people who used to be in their lives and have moved on.
No Unique Disadvantages, Some Unique Advantages
It is important to point out a common theme in my findings: Polyamorous families experience disadvantage that appear in many other kinds of families. Families of all sorts experience parents that split up, friends who move away, people who die, household overcrowding, emotional complexity, kids who don’t have control over what the adults in their lives do, and managing sensitive information about the family. None of those are unique to poly families.
Other blended families also experience some of the same kinds of advantages found in poly family life. Grandma can provide a trusted companion and source of loving support, siblings from other parents can feel like full siblings regardless of biology, and families routinely adopt close friends as “aunt/uncle” even when there is no biological relationship. These wider family networks can provide support that is similar to what children from poly families experience.
What does appear to be unique to these families is the sense of emotional resilience and relational richness that comes from an honesty- and communication-intensive family life. This is not to say that other families do not have emotional intimacy or honest communication, but to underline the ways in which polyamorous families and communities can contribute to a unique set of skills, norms, and values that can prove quite useful in navigating life as a young adult.
In the third part of this series on I offer a sneak peek into my preliminary findings from my current and ongoing round of data collection for the 20th anniversary of the study.
Elisabeth Sheff, Ph.D.,
is an expert on polyamory and sexual-minority families with children. She is the author of Stories from the Polycule: Real Life in Polyamorous Families.