Telling Tweens, Or Just For Adults?

Dear PWA experts:

I’ve only recently learned about polyamory, and while it feels like it could be right for me and my wife, I’m wondering how in the world this can work for couples with children.  I can’t imagine how to even start bringing this up to our two pre-teen daughters (10 and 12). How can we hide our dating lives from them, and until when should we?

-Married With Children

Dear Al Bundy:

It is up to each family to decide when and how much to educate their children about ‘adult’ topics, like sex, reproduction, and relationship structures, but erring on the side of more objective information is rarely inappropriate. I don’t have kids of my own, but I know many poly families with kids around that age, and to be honest, most of those kids are more mature and capable than most of our elected officials right now.

I know ethical nonmonogamy is a new concept for you, but it’s not clear from your question whether you’re primarily interested in polyamory (multiple ongoing relationships regardless of sex) or swinging (multiple sexual partners regardless of relationship status), as those are two very different (albeit often overlapping) workable relationship structures. I’d first suggest spending time with your wife figuring out what each of YOU want out of your relationship going forward, before involving the kids.

The biggest problem with families opening themselves up to polyamory is almost never from the children. It’s from adults acting like children: burdening themselves (often with help from outsiders) with shame and worry over the symbolic implications of nontraditional relationships, when the kids really just want to feel like they know what’s going on and that they can continue to love and trust their parents. I recommend you and your spouse agree on the best way to share with your kids that you’re each going to be spending more time with other friends from time to time, that Mommy and Daddy’s relationship is just fine, and that they can ask questions if they want to. It can be a simple chats done one-on-one rather than through a ‘family meeting’; if you don’t make a big deal out of it, they won’t either. I’d suggest simplifying the conversation to whatever level seems age-appropriate, but definitely don’t avoid topics or issues because you think YOU can’t handle talking about them.

Hiding things from children never goes well, especially about subjects which don’t deserve to be hidden, like love and affection. Your kids are around the right age to be having these conversations with you and your wife, whether you or they bring it up. They’re not newborns anymore, and if they don’t find out directly from you they’ll find out another way (this applies equally to the Birds and the Bees talk and your opening up your relationship to new friends), and they will rightfully feel betrayed and hurt that you didn’t tell them yourselves.

Atrina, what’s your take?

Hi Married,

I noticed that your specific question was about how to “hide” your dating life from your children. My immediate response was: “Why?” What are your motivations for being intentionally deceitful to your children?

If it’s because you don’t know how to talk to them about what it is that you’re doing with your free time, that’s totally understandable. But consider this: they might not care. Sure, they will care if you are around or not. But what is the real difference between you going out to dinner with a friend and going out to dinner with a love interest? Not much, from a child’s perspective. Children care most about having stability in their lives and if they don’t have reason to worry about that stability, then they generally don’t care much about what it is you do with the people that you spend time with. Sociologist Dr. Elisabeth Sheff studied children from polyamorous families over a 20-year span and found that most children simply did not want to hear about their parents’ sex lives. Shocking, right? So ideologically, if you’re not telling them that you’re having sex with the people you are spending time with, then what does it really matter what kind of relationships you are having? Dr. Sheff did find troubles that were common among children in polyamorous families, the worst of which was stigma.  Around ages 9-12, kids start becoming more aware of the social environments that they’re apart of and notice the differences between their families and the families of other people. This feeling of being “different” from other families is at the crux of the issue here, not the polyamory itself. Similar to the kids of same-sex parents, some children with polyamorous families have to deal with how other people react to their family structure. One study of same-sex parents found that Proactive Parenting around these issues included preparing their children for bias, understanding and celebrating diversity in families. When it’s time, you might consider learning more about how to talk to your kids about how to deal with this stigma, and perhaps discuss possible ways to disclose your family’s differences to others.

In terms of how to disclose, imagine if you were single: How would you disclose to them that you were dating someone? At what point in that relationship would you introduce them to your kids? How would you do so? Keep in mind that the way you bring things up will shape how they react to the information that they are being given. If you tell them about your new lifestyle/identity like you are ashamed of it, or like there is something wrong with it, that’s how they will perceive it. If you casually introduce them to your new “friends” and express how much you care about them and how much they mean to you, they will likely accept that and move on. If they ask questions, answer truthfully in an age-appropriate way. Reassure them about the stability of your relationship with their other parent and remind them that there a lot of different family structures that work. There is no one right way to make a family. And heck, there are actually quite a few advantages to polyamorous families! Imagine all the extra presents and people to play with!