Help! How To Protect My Kid from bullying due to polyamory?

Dear Louloria,

So far I’ve been pretty lucky – able to mostly insulate my son from changes with partners (I learned that lesson when he was mostly too young to remember, at least). And we’re 90% out, so I’m not worried about him outing us. (By 90% out I mean that friends know and neither my husband nor any of our partners are in a job where outing would matter, there’s just a few family members that we haven’t told yet and if the way they find out is via my son, well, that’s not ideal but it won’t be the end of the world).

But despite the fact that we live in a very liberal city, it’s still in the Bible Belt (Durham, NC). And so I’m worried that in the long run, *my* choices re going to have consequences for my *son’s* social life, if we’re judged by other parents. I’ve already had a few women in “mom groups” seem to draw back a bit after finding out about my nontraditional approach to relationships. But as you so rightly mention, I don’t want to ask my son to keep secrets, and this will be much more of an issue once he’s in school, I think.

Thanks for any thoughts you might have,

Ms. PolyandProudMom

Hi Ms PAPM,

Goodness me, this is a question that deserves much more than one post. There are complex intersections with communication, education, self-esteem, bullying and your personal environment. Obviously this is an ongoing work.

To boil it down to basics, right now there’s two sides of the story. What you can do to influence others’ opinion of your relationships, and what you can do for your son, so that he can still feel good about himself when faced with (the perhaps inevitable) society backlash. I suggest that the latter should be prioritised because:

  1. Changing the ‘world’, whilst a great activist goal to have, is unrealistic in the short term and you’ve already created–to the best of your ability–the ‘open’ environment which is a good example of living your choices without shame (and something that he will absorb).
  2. As you mention, there are few consequences at the moment–the bullying is not yet occurring–and laying the good ground work for your son’s self-esteem is more important in these early years.

But before I dive into the ‘how your son can feel good about himself’ aspect, I’d like to supply you with a little information around bringing your child up in a society filled with prejudice. Your primary tool of course is education. Not in the ‘sitting down and instructing way’ as he is too young, but through continued discussion with your child about the examples he sees around him every day. Be aware, call them out. Your area of the world has a long history of civil rights and talking about this, will be fairly easy to extrapolate to any form of prejudice (here in Sweden, the prejudice is hidden and sometimes too subtle even to call out). Most importantly, is your own example of not vilifying others who do exhibit prejudice, even when it occurs towards you.

Children need to realize that all people are different. It is important to communicate to children that we often think others are different simply because they are unfamiliar to us. We don’t think our own beliefs and appearances are strange or funny because they are what we’re used to. Point out that we must appear different to others, too.

What to tell your child about prejudice and discrimination

The other thing you can do with your external environment is to continue to build your tribe. Establish connections between yourself and other mothers/families whose values you respect; you have a great deal of common experiences in your parenting journey whether they are monogamous or polyamorous. Don’t withdraw, hold your space. If the shit hits the fan, don’t be afraid to create your own world filled with accepting people (it is said that you are the average of the five people you spend the most time with [caveat, including yourself], bear that in mind when it comes to who your son interacts with).

Onwards.

How can your son feel good about himself in the face of critical judgement? There is only one way and that’s high self-esteem. Self-esteem is a sense of self worth, independent of what you do or what you have accomplished. My own definition is this.

Self-esteem gives us courage in an uncertain world to live in a way which makes us happy, even if this is at odds with how others judge what we do and who we are.

I’m sure, Ms PAPM, you already know how important good self-esteem is for those of us who follow a non-monogamous path (and who are therefore constantly judged by others). But more broadly, good self esteem is the single biggest gift you can give to your children, and to yourself.

Your level of self-esteem and your need to support it will drive your survival mechanisms. When you are little, you are of course unable to survive without the love of your parents. And if you don’t have unconditional love you will develop survival mechanisms which will satisfy the conditions in which you get love. Is it by promising to eat up your dinner? Or is it by suppressing your emotions because ‘boys don’t cry’?

I have spent years examining the survival mechanisms seeing which ones truly make me happier and attempting to undo those which constrict my experience of living and loving. You will also need to do the work, if you haven’t already and this work is–as before–ongoing. But there is little point in undoing the survival mechanisms if the original problem, for which they were designed to protect, still remains. The most basic problem of low self-esteem is the conviction that it is what we DO that improves it.

As long as we are convinced that our self-esteem can be supported by things outside of ourselves instead of stemming from an internal security – the knowledge that we are good enough, just as we are, we will continue to develop survival mechanisms to get what we think we need. That could be as innocuous as hiding oneself away in a good book to escape the world, or as destructive as drug abuse. So how can you help your son develop a high self-esteem? Here are some basics.

1. Offer unconditional love

Of course you probably do already, but how you communicate this to your son can (and probably will) be misinterpreted by him. That means not withdrawing through anger when he’s done something ‘wrong’. It means short sharp action to prevent an undesirable situation from escalating but then returning to the status quo as soon as possible. No grudges. No sulking. And above all no disgust at him or his behaviour. Disgust is highly ‘transferable’ and such a reaction may imprint on his memory thus becoming how he views himself in future. Communicate often that you love your son just as he is, that he makes you feel happy (but that what is important is that he is happy).

2. Encourage self-praise

Your son brings home a piece of ‘art’ that he calls ‘the dark of night’. Its a black squiggle and all you can think of to say is ‘oh er, INTERESTING!’ before turning away …really there is not much else to say. Or is there?

Saying it’s beautiful doesn’t cut it because there is no opportunity for self-praise (and it’s a lie). Self praise is the thing that will help him bolster his self-esteem by himself. Saying ‘You must have worked hard on that’ brings the opportunity for the little voice inside his head to be proud of himself and say ‘yes, I worked hard on that’. Saying ‘ the colours make me feel warm inside’ give him the opportunity to realise that he can move others through his creativity. And best of all, saying that ‘you make me feel happy inside’ even when he doesn’t come home with a piece of ‘art’ makes him realise that others are happy to see him, without having accomplished anything at all.

3.  Disassociate what he does from who he is

The six year old daughter of a friend came round and danced to Gangnam style(!). My daughter, who was three at the time, tried in vain to copy her but stopped after 5 minutes saying ‘I’m no good, I can’t dance.’

At three she’d already associated what she did (or rather what she was unable to do), with the belief that she was no good. I could have wept then and there. It’s an ongoing battle to remember to show children that you love them, regardless of what they do. And conversely to be pleased with what they do, but remind them that these do not contribute to our love for them. Children are not, after all, an extension of us… but people in their own right.

Finally it’s no use, no use at all, if you are one of those Moms who sacrifice your entire self for your children. Some of us Moms are particularly susceptible to the world ‘belief’ that we are of little importance without our children. That they come first. Sometimes they must, and other times not; there’s a balance to be achieved (which constantly changes!). So do your thing. Follow your passion. Treat yourself how you would want your children to be treated. Don’t like your job? Feel bad in your relationship? Allow others to impinge on your generous hospitality? Keep asking yourself this simple question.

Would you want your child to stay in the unrewarding job, unhappy relationship or potentially abusive power dynamic that you are in? If the answer if no, you have a responsibility towards yourself and your children to change your life. 

I can highly recommend the following reading (note that these are associate links to Amazon, but also that these are books which have helped me personally).

Good luck,

Louisa

PS. If it wasn’t obvious these ideas are aspirational… I keep trying myself, and only partially succeeding. Be compassionate with yourself too.