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Dear How to Do It,
My husband and I were involved in our local group sex scene before having kids, and remain close friends with one of the couples we met there, Daniel and Amanda, even though we rarely play anymore. Years ago, Amanda was diagnosed with early onset dementia and she worried a lot about her husband’s life outside of his caretaker role. They discussed it at length and put an agreement in writing.
She wanted Daniel to have opportunities to have sex with others and potentially form romantic relationships when she became very ill. She’s now in a great nursing home, but it’s still really hard and sad for her family.
A year ago, Daniel approached my husband and me and expressed interest in playing together again and seeing where things went. Things are great, if difficult to schedule. We have a 4 and 7-year-old. We’ve all discussed love and he is regularly a guest at our home. Understandably, both Amanda and Daniel wanted a lot of privacy around this when the agreement was made so it’s not known outside our play circles. But we’re wondering about the long-term protocol with our kids if this becomes a more serious romantic thing. Right now, he’s a close family friend, but what’s the best way and time to cover more with our kids if things become permanent? Hearing too much info is inappropriate, but lying seems wrong, too.
Stoya: I am rarely called upon to speak with children, so am at a loss.
Rich: This is covered extensively in this book called The Polyamorists Next Door by Elisabeth Sheff, who I’ve talked to as a result of reading this book, which I thought was brilliant. It doesn’t merely describe what polyamory looks like on the ground; it also delves into attendant issues like how families are affected. Sheff did this longitudinal study which, at the time of the book and possibly still, was the only longitudinal study of polyamorous families. She actually talked to kids in poly families about this. What’s interesting here is that she broke it down by age. The first age group, based on her sample, is children between 5 and 8 years old, which is exactly how old these kids are. She wrote that those kids did not often notice that their families were any different from other families. Instead, they took their family makeup for granted which bodes well, I think. There’s some room to ease into this.
At that age, there’s often a lot of egocentrism happening. There’s not this existential “who am I compared to you” thing that’s innately coming out in those kids. Kids are made to feel different all the time. But in general, that kind of scrutiny doesn’t come as easily as you’d find in other age groups. So you say, “I have my mom, my dad, and Daniel, and that’s how it is. Look at that.”
Stoya: I do know Kids Say the Darndest Things was a TV show for a reason. I remember being a child myself and just, oh, the things that came out of my mouth that adults didn’t want other people knowing. Given Amanda and Daniel wanting privacy when the agreement was made, and given the fact that Amanda is now in the stage of dementia where she is in a nursing home, I think the three of them—the writer, the husband, and Daniel—need to sit down and consider, is there any chance of this affecting Amanda’s life now if it becomes public knowledge? Also, what is Daniel himself comfortable with?
And then when you’re speaking to the kids, they might control the information until they’re old enough to self-censor (and I have no idea what age that is). But until they get to the point where they can weigh who they’re talking to and how far into the inner circle of the family that person should be as far as classified knowledge, which, God, is so much responsibility to put on a kid.
Rich: It is.
Stoya: But rather than put the kids in a position where they are slipping up because they’ve been told too much or where they are totally stressed out wondering who they can be open and honest with, I think it’s better for the parents to control the amount of information the kids have.
Rich: Definitely. On that tip, Sheff writes just about coming out and the way that kids may come out or not:
“For the most part, children did not have to deal with coming out to strangers, classmates, coaches, or teachers. The popularity of serial monogamy—a cycle of coupling monogamously/marriage, breaking up/divorce, and coupling monogamously with someone else/remarriage—in the United States makes it commonplace for children to have multiple parents. Now that stepparents are standard social fare, kids from poly families with several parental figures simply blend in. Unless poly family members intentionally highlight and explain their family structure, they are rarely called upon to justify their ‘extra’ members.”
People can take it for granted in the same way that kids do. There are a lot of adults in kids’ lives sometimes because that’s how it goes. If a kid were to mention Daniel, other people’s minds aren’t necessarily going to, “Oh wow, that’s their parents’ throuple.” That’s just not necessarily going to be a thing.
Also, I guess there’s some kind of a question about what’s appropriate to talk about sexually. I think, in general, you can just use your cultural nose. When a parent of a young child has a boyfriend or a girlfriend and a new partner, their sex life is so rarely discussed in those terms. Some people are more open than others. But in general, that’s just not a thing. It’s implied and it’s not explicated.
And so on that egocentric tip that I mentioned before, folding in an extra adult can be very easy to do because kids tend to regard adults in terms of what they do for them or what role they play. Not in terms of how they relate to each other in any kind of specific way, but, “What do you mean to me? What do you provide to me?”
“And so an important consequence of this,” Sheff writes, “is the presence or level of sexual interaction among the adults was simply not germane to these young children’s experiences or conversations.” Again, you can let them take that for granted, no one’s the wiser, and everybody’s happy.
Stoya: Yeah. I have this perception that there’s some sort of romantic sexual norm, which is divided from friend love or other kinds of love because that’s how most people live their lives. I don’t even know if that’s accurate. But I’m not sure that, for a 4-year-old and a 7-year-old, anything needs to be said more than a close family friend.
Rich: Yeah, I agree.
Stoya: If you’re having sex with someone, and you’re really close with them emotionally, and you’re involved in each other’s lives, I feel that fits the definition of friend. I don’t think children need to hear what mom and dad do in the bedroom regardless of the specifics.
Rich: In the event that the child does want to know more specifics, like, “Why are you so affectionate? Why are you kissing this person? Why are you hugging this person?” I think, again, “friend” does the trick. But, I mean, you could let your kids set the tone for that, too. If they ask questions and really want to know, maybe it’s time to think about, “OK. Well, they want to know. It is our world. I’m not doing anything wrong. It’s time to have that conversation with my kid.” It doesn’t have to be graphic or specific, but it can be more specific than “friend.” You can kind of let your kid set the tone, I think.
And then the last thing I think the family needs to consider, are the legal ramifications—just in terms of poly families being targeted, being legally vulnerable. There are a number of cases, depending on the state, where other members of families, say, the grandparents have stepped in to challenge the custody of the poly parents. That happens. That is a risk so it is very germane to keep this under wraps for a lot of people.
Stoya: That’s what I was dancing around up top with the kids and self-censoring because it’s so much pressure to be trying to navigate puberty and also what you’re allowed to speak to your homeroom teacher about. That’s something for the parents to consider before they tell their child something that could tear apart the family if it gets out.
Rich: Yes. And just to underline, I think that this writer and their husband should absolutely read The Polyamorists Next Door. Not just fascinating reporting, but I think it’ll be a good field guide for navigating this issue as well as many others that come up.
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