The Polyamorists Next Door

Exploring the world of consensual non-monogamy

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 optimistc about polyamory for a couple of reasons. 

Volunteers

Cartoon people wearing shirts that spell out the word volunteers.
Generally people only participate in research if they want to, most research is completely voluntary.
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As with most family studies, this research was completely voluntary, so people had to be willing to  have someone come in to their private lives, often in to their homes, and ask their children questions about their family. People who are abusing their children, struggling with serious drug addiction, or hiding a secret they do not want the children to disclose are probably not going to volunteer to participate in a study, so already the pool of volunteers is tilted towards the more functional families simply because they are willing to be studied.

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Research Methods

The word research magnified on a page in a dictionary.
Committees called Institutional Research Boards (IRBs) regulate and monitor professors' research.
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The group of people I interviewed were also probably more optimistic about polyamory in part because of who was included in the study. Most universities in the United States put restrictions on how faculty conduct research while employed at the university, and those overseers severely limited my data collection methods, record keeping, and sample members in order to protect the identities of the volunteers. While the precautions were extremely effective in protecting the respondents, they also made it impossible for me to contact everyone I had spoken to for the first part of the study when I started the second part of the study because I could not keep the original participants' contact information. With no other way of contacting people besides putting the word out on poly websites and in poly social circles, only those people from the first sample who stuck with polyamory enough to have contact with the community were able to find out about the follow-up study. People with no contact with the poly community were more likely to be the ones who left polyamory as a lifestyle, and the views of most people who stop polyamory are not reflected in the follow-up study because I could not find them.

2. Race and Class Privilege

 

dark outline of backpack with the words
Privileges are often invisible to the people who have them, but painfully obvious to the people who do not have those privileges
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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. Like other middle-class white people, poly parents pass their race and class privilege to their children. 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. Pooling their resources also allows adults to have more personal time, work more flexible hours, and get more sleep because there are multiple people around to take care of the children. Parents in the study reported that they felt more patient and had more energy for their children when they were well rested and had sufficient income – all of which benefitted their children.

 Adults and children boating on shallow green water, smiling.

Poly families are not perfect, and their kids experience some of the same problems common in other blended families (which I will blog about soon). For those poly folks who can find the right balance in their relationships, however, multiple-adult families can be extremely advantageous for children and adults.

 

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Elisabeth Sheff, Ph.D., is an expert on polyamory and sexual-minority families with children.

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