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Kids' Stigma Management Strategies in 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 (or poly kids for short, even though I do not mean that the children themselves are polyamorous) 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: The majority of the people in the US either know someone who is gay or can at least recognize two women with their children and dogs as a same-sex family. 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

A little girl playing peek-a-boo with a baby

Passing as a member of a divorced family is as easy as playing peek-a-boo with a baby.

The most common way for kids in poly families to deal with the potential for stigma was to pass as members of divorced families. This was generally fairly easy because divorce and serial monogamy are so common now that many kids have multiple parents, so the poly kids simply blended in with their peers. 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. Refraining from correcting others' assumptions did not feel like lying to poly kids, but rather that the information was not necessarily germane to the discussion—those people were not on a need-to-know basis so they merited no further explanation.

Blending in worked best when there were many other children, and the smaller the group the more likely it was that the poly kid would stand out simply because of the greater level of scrutiny possible in smaller groups.

Selective Disclosure

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 to the question.

Forced Disclosure

A sad girl in the foreground with two girls in background whispering together.

Teasing and bullying is all too common for kids who at all different, regardless if they are from poly families or not.

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. Sometimes, when peers or their parents discovered the poly kids' unconventional family lives, they cut off contact with the whole poly family and occasionally even ostracized the polys from their social circles. When peers couldn't tell exactly what was happening but knew the family was somehow different, the poly kid was at risk of being labeled "the weird kid." Similar to children from same-sex families today (or overweight children, kids who stutter, or have too many freckles) or divorced families 30 years ago, poly kids can get teased for being different or having weird families.

Class Privileges

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. At the very least it can help to get a good lawyer. Studies show that mainstream polys (those who attend community functions, interact online, and participate in research) tend to be white, middle or upper middle class, and highly educated. While there are certainly people of color, working class, and poor people who are polyamorous, the majority of polys are pooling their already higher than average incomes and educational cache to give their families a boost.

Living Liberal

The word liberal written on a sign set in stone.

By choosing to live in liberal areas, poly families can live more comfortably and with less stigma.

Poly families tend to gravitate to liberal urban and suburban areas seeking a hospitable environment, they often have the financial and familial flexibility to choose alternative schooling for their children if the kids are being bullied at school or even anticipate not being able to fit in comfortably. The presence of multiple adults with advanced education makes it a lot easier to homeschool, and pooling income makes it more feasible to send kids to private or alternative schools. This flexibility allows some poly kids to avoid a hostile social climate, though it can backfire when a private school is so small that each child stands out enough to make passing more difficult. Many poly parents have enough race and class privilege to buffer their children from the most pernicious of effects of external stigma. Buffering them from their grandparents' reaction to polyamory is more complicated, and the next blog will explore relationships with families of origin.

More from Elisabeth A. Sheff Ph.D., CSE
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