Etiquette for Polyamory Partners and Children

I talked about interactions between poly partners and children a couple of times in the Raising Children in a Poly Family blog series. But this apparently an issue a lot of people stress about, so I’m going to pull it all together in one place.

This article assumes that you want your children to meet your poly partners. If you don’t, that’s okay. Do what works for your family and relationships. (Should I be out to my children?)

The First Rule is KISS

Keep It Simple, Stupid. This rule will get you through large parts of life and especially large chunks of parenting. Kid’s are smart. But they are also…let’s go with focused. They don’t care about the details of your job (unless they are planning on going into the same field). They don’t care about what you and your friend do when you go Tuesday nights. And they don’t really care about the details of your relationship with your poly partners. Answer the questions they ask–the exact questions they ask–as simply as possible. Then stop. If they want to know more, they’ll ask.

Introducing Your Poly Partners to Your Children

Short version: Follow the same general guidelines as introducing anyone. Don’t make a big deal out of it. Your poly partner is another adult friend of their parents, of no immediate interest to your kids unless you make it a big deal.

The long version is here.

What Should my Children Call my Poly Partner?

Short version: Let the kid decide. If you are in the closet and worried about the kid outting you by calling a poly partner “Aunt” or “Mom 2,” then this is a good time to teach them about formal and informal interactions. This is a useful tool in other areas of life, such as dealing with their boss at work or teachers at school. Some situations are informal and we can call each other nicknames, some situations are formal and we use formal names or Mr. and Ms.

The long version is here.

How Should I Interact with my Poly Partner’s Children?

Keep it relaxed and casual. If you want to keep a bit of distance in your relationship, treat them like a co-workers children. Polite, but don’t interact beyond basic courtesy:

Poly partner: Jason, I’d like you to meet my friend [you.]
Jason: Hi, [you].
You: Hi Jason, nice to meet you. [Poly partner], are you ready to go?

If you want to interact with the kid directly, and maybe develop a relationship with them, act like a family friend:

Poly partner: Jason, I’d like you to meet my friend [you.]
Jason: Hi, [you].
You: Hi Jason, nice to meet you. Cool shirt.

(next time you bump into each other)

You: Hi Jason, how you doing?
Jason: I’m okay. School sucks, though.
You: Yeah, I always hated math class. (pause, let Jason respond more if he wants, if not) I’m supposed to be picking up your mom. Do you know if she’s ready?

When you see the kid, engage a bit, ask how they are doing, what’s going on. If they mention one day they are practicing guitar, the next time you see them ask if they learned to play any new songs. This shows that you paid attention and are interested in what they are doing.

Do NOT force a conversation when the kid isn’t interested. Don’t let things get awkward. If the kid doesn’t respond to something you say or seems like they want to be doing something else, give them a graceful escape and return your focus to your partner.

When Your Relationship With Your Poly Partner Changes

A lot of emotional upset gets spent on how traumatic it can be for kids when their parent’s poly partner leaves their lives. The mistake in this is that adults kids like and relate to leave their lives all the time. That teacher who changed your life in fourth grade? Were you really traumatized when you moved onto fifth grade and she wasn’t your teacher anymore? When I played softball as a kid, we had a different coach almost every year. Some of those coaches I really connected with, but when the season ended, the team split and I didn’t see the coach until next year–if I saw them again at all.

I can’t say I was particularly traumatized by most of the adults who moved in and out of my life. The only one I remember with any real hurt is a priest who had a big impact on me. He left my life (moved to a different congregation) and when I ran into him years later he didn’t remember me. His leaving didn’t hurt-his forgetting did.

If you are going to leave the lives of your partner’s kids, here are some guidelines for how to make it work:

1) Give them some warning and a timeline. Yes, it is hard to do this when a relationship with a poly partner is changing or ending. But you and your partner can still say “This isn’t working anymore. Let’s stop seeing each other gradually over the next two months.” Which gives you and the kids time to adjust.

2) Give them some way to stay in contact if they choose to.

3) Allow them to be hurt or upset.

You: Hey Vanessa. I’ve really enjoyed hanging out with you and talking about your artwork. I need to let you know that my relationship with my parent is changing. After the next few months, I probably won’t be coming by anymore. Here’s my phone number. If you ever need to talk, you can give me a call okay? And I’ll still be around for a little while longer.
Vanessa: But…I’m gonna miss you.
You: I know, I’m going to miss you too. We can cry about it a bit. Change is sad. I won’t stop caring about you just because I’m not coming over a lot. And like I said, you can always call me.

If you and the child in question wants, changing your relationship with their parent doesn’t need to change your relationship with the kid. If you have taken on a large role in the kid’s life, this can be an important option.

1) Tell them about the change in your relationship with the partner

2) Reassure them that it doesn’t change your relationship with them

3) Give them a way to control how your relationship develops from there.

You: Hey Vanessa. I’ve got some tough news. Your parent and I aren’t going to be seeing each other anymore.
Vanessa: Does that mean you won’t come hang with me?
You: Of course I’ll come over if you want me to. Parent and I are changing our relationship, but you and I can still be (friends/family/what have you).
Vanessa: Good. I don’t know what I’d do if you didn’t come to my art show next week.
You: I’ll be there. And you have my phone number. Anytime you want to get together, just give me a call.

(For younger kids: Parent has my phone number. Anytime you want to hang out, ask them to call me.)

This post is part of the Polyamory Etiquette blog series.

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