Who Counts as Mom and Dad?

Parents, according to kids in polyamorous families

Posted Jan 04, 2016

As part of my 15-year study of polyamorous families with children, I interviewed 22 children between 5 and 17. They told me all sorts of interesting things about their families, and I report those findings in my first book, The Polyamorists Next Door (2014 hardback and ebook, 2015 paperback and audiobook).


Kids from poly families told me that, for the most part, they don’t often think of their parents’ partners as parents. Poly partners who are Not-Parents are generally in two categories:

1) Mundane adult, someone who just blends in to the social environment populated by lots of various adults, from librarians and peers’ parents to soccer coaches and parents’ co-workers. Because all romantic or sexual behavior happens among the adults, behind closed doors, and after the kids have gone to sleep, the kids do not really notice these adults as any different from other adults.

2) Special adult, who has a relationship with and spends time caring for the child, like a granny, uncle, or mom’s best friend. This adult often spends time with the children when the parents are around as well, interacting with regular family life. Instead, they are more like aunt or uncle figures, cousin or friend of the family. When partners stuck around for long periods of time, kids started to see them as an ally who could be counted on to bring treats, play games, provide a ride home from the movies, and fork over $5 when mom said she didn’t have it. In those cases, the kids established polyaffective relationships with their parents' partners -- linked in a platonic chosen family relationship through someone else's polyamorous connection.  


Adults generally had to meet at least two of these three conditions to be considered a parent:

  1. Enter the child’s life when the kid is young;
  2. Stay involved in the child’s life for years;
  3. Live with the child 

Living together is less important than the adults' degree of ongoing interaction with the child -- those who stay deeply involved for years get more parental status. When the child met the parents’ partner as an elementary schooler or younger, the child lived with the partner for years, and the partner cares for the emotional and practical needs of the child, then that child would be almost certain to view that partner as a parental figure.

What to call them?

Kids in poly families used a range of language to describe and label their multiple parents. Some would use a specific parental label for each adult, like the little girl who called her four parents Mom, Mama, Daddy, and Papa. Others would use the adults’ first names, or a combination of parental labels and first names. This flexibility of what to call people led to many nicknames and pet names as well. Generally the kids knew who their biological parents were, though some of them did not place that much emphasis on biological parentage. Instead, some kids in poly families said that it was the degree of emotional connection and reliability to be there over time that was more important to their relationships than biological connection.  

If you want to find out more about what children in polyamorous families think, you can read it in their own words in my second book, Stories From the Polycule (2015).