How do I explain my sister’s polyamorous relationship to my kid?

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My sister (who lives just a few miles away and is very involved in my life and the life of our large extended family) is part of an open polyamorous quad. All four individuals live together in the same house and one of the women (not my sister) is expecting a baby in the fall. Once baby arrives, I know that it will (and should) become apparent to my two oldest children that these people are more than roommates.

In fact, my sister has expressed to me that it is important to her that my children recognize them as a family. The problem is that non-monogamy runs very counter to our family’s values and the values I am trying to impart to my children.

How can I explain my sister’s family to my kids in a respectful way that still reflects my belief in monogamy? — Anne

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Comments on How do I explain my sister’s polyamorous relationship to my kid?

  1. It depends on how old/mature they are, but I think a simple “While Mommy firmly believes that people should have one romantic partner at a time, Aunty believes that it is possible to have multiple romances. In fact, she is in a relationship with her roommates”. Essentially, keep it to the bare bones facts and be honest about it.

    • As part of a loving poly triad, I think that Aileen has the right of it. 🙂 Polyamory isn’t for everyone, but neither is monogamy, and it’s great that you’re approaching this topic with your children. Be honest about the facts and about your own beliefs, and trust your kiddos to develop an awesome appreciation for diversity because of your openness. 🙂

  2. There are going to be a lot of things in the world that you don’t agree with as a parent. Maybe there are other religions whose customs you’ll need to explain to your child. I would approach those issues in much the same way I would approach this one.

    “There are lots of different people in the world who find different practices work best for them. Auntie Becky loves these three other people the way that Mommy and Daddy love each other. Mommy and Daddy prefer to love only each other this way, because that makes us feel like we’re extra special. But Auntie Becky feels extra special with these three people.”

    Tailor it, obviously, to your child, but I feel like that might be the gist of what you want to go for.

  3. I’m not sure how old your kids are, but I find that in matters of values it’s good to explain both sides. I think that telling your children that while you believe in just being with one person and that makes you happy, auntie is in love with more than one person and that makes her happy. Then following up with why you believe in what you believe, but that you still love your sister no matter what. Good luck!

  4. I think a lot of times when adults try to explain relationships to kids they get hung up on the sexual aspect of it when kids (depending on the age) don’t really think about or understand that. They understand love and they understand family so we always focus on that.

    My in-laws are a complex family with many different styles of relationships so when we need to explain one that falls outside of the usual vocabulary we use “honey.” My daughter actually started it when she somehow figured out that my husbands step-dad (Grandpa) was “Grandma’s honey” and not his biological dad.

    I bought “The Family Book” by Todd Parr a few years ago for her to start the dialogue that all families are different and that’s ok. So as she grows older and starts to understand the complexities of her family, it’s already part of her worldview that families are all different.

  5. For me, I would explain to my son that they are a family, but that they do it one way and we do it another. We like just one mama and one dad, with baby in the middle. They like two mamas and two dads (or whatever the combo is!).
    Personally, I don’t think kids will have a problem with the concept. Its imparting the concept that is is distasteful to your belief set that will come later. While that sounds bad, that is essentially what it is. You love your sister, but you do not want her sexual orientation. They might grow up understanding the concept without feeling anything negative, but also understanding that you do not prefer that lifestyle. That should be your goal. Aware, but positive-minded children that are non-judgmental.

  6. I would say something like all families look different- some have two dads and some have two moms, some live with their grandparents- but all that matters is not what a family looks like, but that a family is filled with love.

  7. I’d say something like, “(name) is giving birth to the baby, but the baby is all of theirs, too. Me and your (dad/mom, dunno the gender of your partner) decided to be partners in life and in raising you, and that’s what (name, name, name, and your sister) have done, only all together. Usually two people commit to each other like that, but sometimes more do, too.”

    That’s pretty neutral. For me, I’m monogamous, but I see that as morally neutral, like sexual orientation. I’m happy for others to have as many or few partners as their hearts desire, so long as it’s all consensual and respectful.

    Given my feelings on the issue, it’s hard for me to give advice on how to tell your daughter that you don’t think their choice is ethical, but if you really feel you must be clear, you could say something like, “I would never choose that for myself or my family, but I love my sister and respect her choice.”

    I could maybe be more helpful I knew what it is about your sister’s situation that is so counter to what you believe? If it’s because your religion prohibits it, you could simply say, “We’re (religion), so we don’t do that, but she isn’t the same religion as we are.” Or if it’s because you think four parents is too much for children, you could say, “I think it’s best for kids to have only two parents, but (your sister) and I have agreed to disagree.”

    It’s OK for one sister to believe one thing and another to believe another. The important part is respecting and loving each other despite it all. In the end, I think that’s the most important thing for you to impart to your kid. Families may disagree, but they love each other anyway.

  8. I don’t think you need to get into notions of monogamy/non-monogamy with kids. They don’t have a practical frame of reference for those kinds of adult relationship choices.
    I would focus on all the things you guys DO have in common with your family structure by saying, essentially:
    -In Auntie’s house there are lots of people who love and care for your cousin
    -Just like mom and dad do in our house, the other grown-up share responsibility for doing things like changing the baby’s diapers, cooking food and making rules.
    -The friends who live with Auntie in her house are very important to her and they love her very much. When we have holidays or other occasions where we get our family and friend together, Auntie will bring her friends as well.
    Respect for adults, love, security, community – all of these concepts are 100% the same in monogamous and non-monogamous households.

    • I like the focus on commonalities and the kid-friendly language you suggest. My concern, though, is referring to the partners as “friends.” This to me feels a lot like the practice of referring to same-sex partners as “friends” or roommates in order to make it less controversial. I worry that referring to them as friends negates or lessens the significance of their relationships. I agree that kids may not have a practical frame of reference for non-monogamy, but in my experience as a preschool teacher listening to children talk about marriage and the parent duos they see, they are certainly aware of concepts such as marriage and romantic relationships.

      • Fair point about the use of “friend”. We also use the terms “Aunt” and “Uncle” fairly liberally to connote someone of particular significance to mine/my kids life, whether or not they are a blood relation.

        • We use aunt and uncle a lot too! My cousins, my close friends, and my own aunts and uncles are all aunt and uncle to my kids, in addition to my siblings and my husbands siblings.

      • My parents and grandparents still call my fiancé my “friend.” Not boyfriend or betrothed or fiancé, but friend. Any romantic or unromantic partnership which hasn’t celebrated marriage is a “friend.” I think it is a little weird but at the same time, romantic relationships are typically considered to be based on friendship. So I can see that logic. I don’t think the point is to snub our LGBT partners, though I know my mother uses that tactic to stick her head in the sand about my being bisexual.

        I agree that it has become bigger than that, though. It may have started innocently enough but it has certainly become a way to intentionally ignore the diversity in our world, and to steadfastedly refuse to accept that people can be “more than friends” outside the heteronormative understanding.

  9. With issues like this, I think honesty (age appropriate of course) is the best policy. Find a way to explain your sister’s family looks different than your family. Let them know how they can get questions answered. A lot of the time these truths are harder for adults to share than it is for the kids hearing them.

    Your family structure and her family structure do not need to be seen as oppositional. In fact, framing things in that way will probably give you bigger family issues. Just make it known people make different choices in different circumstances.

    I am a strong believer that the time to address values, politics, or religion is NEVER when it comes up with family and loved ones. Talk about your values, but don’t bring your sister into it. That will feel personal for both of you no matter how you spin it. However you teach them, share your values frequently. If a question about your sister comes up, you can say, “I don’t feel comfortable speaking for her,” or “your auntie has her own beliefs and even if we don’t agree, we can respect them.” It will be an awesome lesson to your kids about being nonjudgmental and loving people even when you don’t agree 100%.

  10. When I was 13 I went to visit my aunt. Before I left, my parents sat me down and explained to me that my aunt and my uncle were in a polyamorous relationship with a transgendered woman.

    I don’t remember the conversation too specifically, but they told me that my aunt and uncle had decided that their relationship was missing another person, and that they had met someone. I was very surprised and very intrigued. It wasn’t something I had ever imagined to be a possibility. I had a million questions and my parents were only able to answer a few. This frustrated me, but now I know that they probably just didn’t have the answers to my questions.

    I don’t have a lot of advice, since I was the child in this situation, but I think the best way to address it respectfully is to try and understand it better. If you are uncomfortable with it, it’s going to be really hard to hide that when telling your child.

  11. How old are your kids? Just explain it in a developmentally appropriate level. I would not mention values unless your children are at least teenagers. My brother is married to his primary partner and they have an open polyamorous marriage (some of which they live with). I waited until my son asked about it. I told him “Most of the time someone romantically loves just one other person – like me and your daddy. But sometimes a person can romantically love more than one person – like your aunt and uncle. It’s all love, it is just expressed in a different way.”

    If they ask about the family / parenting part of it just explain that, again, there are different types of relationships. Sometimes a baby will have a mommy and a daddy. Sometimes they only have a mommy. Other times they have 2 mommies and 2 daddies (like would be the case if a mother and father remarried after divorce). The number of parents you have is not important – it’s how they love and care for you.

  12. I feel like other commenters have covered “it depends on how old your kids are.” A general rule, at any age (until they’re teenagers and you have to practically force them to talk with you about some things) is to answer only the questions they ask, create welcoming space for their concerns, and don’t over-answer.

    I didn’t see anyone mention, though, your sister’s concern (sorry if I missed it!) You said she has communicated to you that it is important that her family be recognized as a family. I didn’t read anything about her saying that she wanted specific terminology used, or the exact nature of her relationships described. If she has specific terms for her family members, I would say that using them is a great start. For example, if you introduce your partner as “my husband, ‘name”‘) then you could find out from her (if you don’t already know) what she calls the members of her family, and use those terms for simple explanations to your children.

    Clearly, the depth of our conversations with our children changes with their developmental readiness for certain concepts. Yes, most kids “get” what a married couple looks like at a pretty young age. But they also have the capacity to understand families with single parents, blended families, families with adopted kids, intergenerational families, etc. There’s no reason to over-emphasize the sexual relationships that are only one aspect of how families form and maintain bonds.

    Also, it might be worth spending some time checking in with your own feelings before trying to explain them to your kids. For example, it might help to identify what makes you uncomfortable about your sister’s relationship with respect to your own. My parents had gay friends when I was a kid, but I never remember my mom saying anything like “just so you know, your dad and I are straight.” Then again, they didn’t want to communicate to me that there was anything wrong with being gay. Is that something you think you need to communicate to your kids about nonmonogamy, or are you just concerned about them being confused because your sister’s family is different than your family? I think it is fantastic that you and your sister are in eachother’s lives, and I hope that you find a way to move forward that is mutually satisfying.

  13. As far as explaining your sister’s relationship structure to your children is concerned, I agree with everybody on here so far: explain it in an age-appropriate way, focusing on tolerance and respect for people whose preferences do not appeal to you.

    However, when they become mature enough for this to become a “values” discussion, I would hesitate in linking the concept of values to monogamy and polyamory. To me, and maybe I’m projecting here, it sounds too much like the people who oppose same-sex couples on the grounds of “traditional family values”. It makes your sister’s relationship preference seem less-than yours, which will subconsciously communicate a lack of respect and acceptance of her and her family to your children (and to her). When it comes to discussing values, talk about the values you feel are important within your monogamous relationship, rather than stating your relationship preference is a value in itself. You can also talk about how all relationships, regardless of preference of gender/number of partners/ etc., can only thrive with the values of honesty, respect for one another’s boundaries, open communication, letting go of little insecurities/jealousies, compassion, etc.

    The concept of monogamy as a relationship preference can also be greatly explored when you and your children start discussing responsible sexual practices. For example, while many polyamorous relationships practice safer sex, staying monogamous is one way to reduce the risk of contracting STDs (according to the Mayo clinic website).

  14. I have no advice to offer, but can I say that I think it’s really amazing that you are making such an effort to be supportive and respectful of your sister’s beliefs and lifestyle, and instilling the same positivity in your kids, even though they counter your own beliefs? I wish I saw this in action more often.

  15. I’m not sure the previous answers have gotten to the bind that you are in. Monogamy is a strong value for your family, and seeing a polyamorous family will open your children’s eyes to that way of being and (if they’re loving and functional, not all families of any structure are) validate it. That cannot be avoided if you are going to interact with your sister and her family. But you love your sister!

    The other commenters have given good advice, but I wanted to say that that aspect of things is hard to swallow. It will happen in lots of ways for all families (unless they shelter in their own communities and avoid people who aren’t like them). Maybe you could wish it wouldn’t happen so soon or so directly. But I want to acknowledge that it is difficult to live gently next to very different values and hope your kids will turn out like you. I think, and I say this more lovingly than it will look like in text, that you just have to suck it up.

  16. I think one of the issues at stake here is that your sister wants the others of her family to feel like your family… As in, the pregnant woman’s child will be a cousin to your kids. This is more complicated then just explaining “monogamy vs poly” to them, I think.

    Do YOU feel like the others in her relationship are family? Do you treat them as uncles/aunts at family gatherings, etc? I know that we treat a lot of our friends as family, and refer to them as aunties or uncles too. I would almost suggest NOT explaining it unless your kids ask, and let them assume things until you feel it warrants an explanation. Agree to disagree, or whatever as everyone above has recommended.

    But again, if your sister wants you to treat her family as a niece/nephew, and you have a difficult time doing so, then this warrants more of a discussion on how YOU should treat the family and what you are comfortable with. If you don’t feel like you can include them as family then you should speak with your sister first, and hammer out feelings/holidays etc. I would examine your plans for how to treat this impending baby, and lead by example for your kids. That’s how they know who real family is, anyway 😉

  17. My question would be, What does your sister want in terms of “recognition” as a family? To be invited as a group to holidays? For your kids to call her partners uncle and auntie and the child their cousin? Getting some concrete information from her about what this means may help you talk to the kids and also decide to what extent you are willing to do what she’s asking.
    And also, I echo what everyone else has said — give the kids a little information, let their questions or comments or interest or lack of interest lead the conversation. I’m sure if your values are counter to your sister’s, your kids will know that without you having to explicitly state that.

  18. I’m mostly just piggybacking on a lot of the earlier suggestions… but I second (third? fourth?) communicating it as “In our family, we have two parents because that’s what makes us feel the most loved and happy. But Aunt ____ has three other people that she loves the way that we love each other, because that’s what makes her feel the most loved and happy.” Also, do you refer to the other three individuals as Aunts and Uncles? If your sister wants to be considered a family, that might help with your children’s perception of them as well.

    • I understand that you are just trying to be witty. People are offbeat/offbeat light and still Orthodox Jews. The poly relationships being discussed on here are not reflective of the biblical marriages for hundreds of reasons. Additionally, these ancestors, were still flawed people and the inadequacies in their marriages still have a negative affect the Jewish people today. That book does not exist to say all their behavior was to be copied (it is usually the opposite). Jacob’s sons were murderers too. That book doesn’t condone that lifestyle either.

      If your values are so clear and self evident, should you not be able to elucidate them without misrepresenting the faiths of others? I don’t use the Quran to disagree with a Rabbi. How does it help diversity to misappropriate and misinform Jewish values to oversell the validity of another’s?

  19. I think part of the bind that you are in is that, on one hand, you want to respect your sister and her choices and, on the other hand, you want to say to your kids “but don’t you do that!” which is, of course, demonstrating a lack of respect for your sister’s choices. It is very difficult. There is a difference between saying that different people make different choices and they are all valid and saying that it is something that you would want for your kids.

    I think, again, depending on your child’s age, this is where you can start to introduce them to the idea of a moral hierarchy. If they ask questions you can say something along the lines of “Aunt so-and-so is part of a family that is different than ours (insert all the other great suggestions that posters have given). Her beliefs are not what I think is important in a marriage, and sometimes it’s hard to disagree with someone you love very much about what kind of choices they make in their life. But the most important thing is that my sister and I love each other very much, and she loves you and I love her kids and we can disagree about some pretty important stuff and still love each other. Just like you and I might disagree about some pretty important stuff and I will still love you forever too.”

    I think something like this gives you space to express that you don’t entirely approve of your sister’s life (which is totally your prerogative) while still embracing her entirely as a person. It’s also demonstrating to your kids that you are capable of unconditional love and that is ultimately your highest value. And then you can go out and walk the walk too – you’ll treat your sister and her family the way you would want your family treated. I think that is an extremely powerful lesson for children.

    • I really agree with this. As Jane points out, you can’t really be respectful of your sisters choices while at the same time telling your family that they are morally suspect. I would also add that children are very perceptive, and they will pick up on this. Depending on their ages, their responses will obviously vary. However, if your children see that you think of your sister’s family as “counter to your values,” it might appear to them as license to behave disrespectfully. I can’t speak for your sister, but if it were me, I would be very hurt by that.

      Before you talk to your children, it might be helpful to spend some time thinking about what values it is most important to you that your children learn. The values that top the list could help guide the discussion. For instance, if tolerance is at the top, you might frame the conversation around that. If religion is number one, you might use religion. Or unconditional love and support for your family. If your number one most important value is monogamy, then that should certainly be the frame, but I think that most people build their lives around a more robust, flexible value system than a single item. Chances are, your kids already know how you feel; they see you modeling your values every day. Using a broader moral frame for this conversation may help you avoid accidentally alienating your sister.

  20. I think it’s important for you to clarify, for yourself, your views on your sister’s relationships. The way you are framing the issue is basically monogamy (two people who are in an exclusive relationship with one another) and non-monogamy (everything else). This means that you’re conflating your sister’s relationship, which sounds like a respectful arrangement that makes everyone happy, with situations like cheating on a spouse without the spouse’s knowledge, or maintaining an “open” relationship for the purpose of having a lot of sexual partners. You say that it’s important to your sister that your children recognize her household as a “family.” Do YOU consider them a family? What does family mean to you? Is it a household or group of people who love and take care of each other, or does “family” mean something more specific to you?

    If your problem is with dishonesty or promiscuity, you’re talking about a different issue. These are both often very problematic as they relate to physical safety and respect for other people. You can teach your kids in other ways that it’s not okay to lie to people you love for any reason, as well as (if they’re old enough for it) that expressions of sexuality are serious adult decisions that should be undertaken with a lot of thought and should only occur between people who love each other. But those things are not actually relevant to your sister’s family, which sounds like a happy family that just doesn’t happen to function quite like yours.

    You’re honestly on much shakier moral ground if you specifically want to condition your children such that when they have grown into responsible and thoughtful adults, they will feel guilty or dirty or unlovable to you if they discover that they would be happier engaging in a safe and consensual relationship with other responsible and thoughtful adults that looks different from the relationship you have, or the one you might have envisioned for them.

    Basically, it’s one thing if you want to teach your kid that the kind of love and happiness that can often be found in monogamous relationships is a good thing that they should pursue. If that’s the case, you can be respectful just by focusing on how your sister has found that love and happiness by a slightly different route. It’s a different issue if you want to teach them that it is NOT ok to engage in certain kinds of relationships (like your sister’s) just because of how they are structured (not because they are dangerous or unhappy or dishonest). In that case, your question has no answer, because you cannot impart that value while simultaneously imparting respect for your sister’s family and its structure.

    • I just want to clarify something really quick – I’m not saying that you have to be ok with your sister’s relationship structure! I just think that saying it’s a values thing gets kind of problematic, because it implies that your sister’s relationship stands for values that you don’t agree with. You leave these values unspoken, so I’m not sure what you think they are, and it’s important that you know them so you can express them to your kids. Polyamory itself isn’t a value, it’s just a practice. This might be a good occasion to talk to you sister about what her moral code is and how her polyamory fits into values and morality for her. You might find that you have very similar values, but she’s just putting them into practice a little bit differently!

  21. I have heard polyamory described as an orientation, which made it make a lot more sense to me. I can’t imagine being polyamorous or how it could possibly work because that’s not my orientation, but I know logically that it works beautifully for many people, because that is their orientation. It’s not a choice or a value, it’s just that some people are born needing that kind of relationship. Their values have nothing to do with it. So, how would you describe any other orientation to your kids? If your sister were, say, a lesbian or asexual, what would you tell them?

  22. Oh, dear! A sick baby and I managed to miss my own question. First, thank you for all the incredibly thoughtful advice here.

    To answer some outstanding questions: My kids are 8, 6, 3, and 8 months (my little boy who had the fever the past few days!).

    My objections are very much grounded in religion and I am sure have a lot to do with my sister leaving our family’s faith.

    My sister wants this baby to be a cousin and all her partners to be aunts and uncle.

    Here is what it comes down to (and feel free to tell me I am crazy, because I know this is a bit crazy, church lady sounding): I believe that our sexuality, regardless of the orientation of that sexuality with respect to gender, is a gift from God. It is a gift that is too be used responsibly and to me that means monogamously. I am teaching my kids that just like we don’t worship other gods because we are pledged to Christ in baptism, we don’t have sex with anybody other than our spouse after we have been pledged to him/her. It is really that simple for me.

    • Given that this is a religious issue, this might also be a good time to explain that there are people who believe in many different religions and that some don’t believe in religion at all -and that is OK. If you explain that your sister’s family is a little different from your own with multiple moms and dads who all love each other the same way you love your husband, you can follow that up with the idea that your own religious belief says one thing while they believe something different.
      Please do not frame her orientation/lifestyle as something sinful. You do not have to want it for yourself or even necessarily understand it to be respectful of her family. Teaching your children that her lifestyle is “sinful” or morally objectionable is just perpetuating discrimination and hate through the guise of religion.
      Demonstrate a healthy monogamous relationship and teach your kids about sex when the time is ready. It is fine to tell them you waited for marriage, but understand that it is less common these days for people do so, even religious people. It is better that your children understand the responsibilities of being in healthy sexual relationships, and in a way your sister’s relationship may help demonstrate that to them as well. Kids who grow up around healthy committed relationships are more likely to model that behavior in their own lives.

  23. Hey all! It’s a holiday for a lot of us tomorrow, so I’m closing comments on this to give myself a teeny tiny break. Happy 4th to those who celebrate!

  24. I’m seeing a lot of comments about it depending on the age of the children how much to explain. Speaking from experience, my kid could understand at the age of 3 that some people have multiple partners and they love each other. Stop making things more complicated than they need to be. Love and its many forms rarely are beyond a child’s ability to understand. You just have to explain it to them.

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