Honesty and boundaries: Navigating how much information kids need about who and how you date

A secret involves information that is relevant to another individual but that individual is prevented from knowing. There is a significant difference between my understanding of “secret” and information that is interesting but most likely none of another individual’s business. It’s hard sometimes to navigate the line that divides those two concepts, especially when communicating with my kids.

I want my kids to feel like they can talk about anything with me, but at the same time, I want them to understand that there are boundaries that must be respected. They’re now old enough to know when I have relationships with people who are likely to stick around for a while. They have the right to ask me questions about the dynamics of my relationships as they apply to them. “Is X going to be around a lot?” Totally acceptable question. “Will X be in the house when I wake up tomorrow morning?” Again, perfectly reasonable. “When X comes over, do you have sex?” Not so much.

See the difference? One set of questions gives them information about stuff that directly affects them. The other is based in precocious curiosity that would provide them with far more information than they should have about their mother. Those are questions you ask of your partner(s) and among friends, but I don’t feel it’s appropriate to share that information with my 8 year-old.

So how does all this link into living a life that may involve romantic relationships with more than person? How do I navigate conversations with them around practical polyamory? Do I need to? As a solo poly person (someone who may be involved in several relationships without having a “primary” partner), I’m in a position where I don’t have a partner living in the house. I imagine that opening up an existing relationship would necessitate strategizing on the part of both parents/adults to figure out how much the kids would need to know. I don’t have to work through dilemmas like who gets to use our house on dates, or what happens if one or both of us develops such a strong attachment to another partner that she/he/they become an ongoing part of our family lives. Not something I have to deal with at all.

But. I may not have a primary partner, but it’s entirely possible that I’ll have partners who do. In fact, I do right now. Do the kids need to know that my “boyfriend” has significant intimate connections with someone else? Apparently, they do. I was talking to them today about a conversation I’d had with my lover earlier this week. For several reasons (both pragmatic and romantic), we’ve decided that he should have a key to the house. Since the kids live here, I believe they have the right to know who comes and goes in our home. The girl, practical soul that she is, immediately saw the benefit of his having a key: a locked door means no robbers in her world. The boy, on the other hand, became immediately agitated. “I don’t know why I feel this way, but there’s something not right about sharing keys. I don’t think I like it at all,” he said.

I explained some of the reasons why we’d made this choice, and reassured him that even though it is a big deal and that in other relationships a key offering may bring with it the possibility of a partner eventually moving in, that was most definitely not going to happen in this situation. Still anxious, he expressed more uncertainty, until my daughter said, very matter of fact, “It’s never going to happen because he has a wife.”

(She and I had a very long conversation one spring evening where she asked a lot of incredibly mature questions about relationship dynamics, jealousy, and her desire to be somebody’s flower girl someday. She has since asked here and there for clarification on some points, but generally, she’s accepted the information she’s requested with remarkable grace.)

With her announcement, the questions began anew. First, he was concerned that I was dating a “cheater.” When I said that his wife knew about me, he showed visible relief. “I only like having three of us in the house, mom,” he said. I understand his anxiety: We have lived, just the three of us, for over 7 of his 10 years. This is really all he knows. Change in housemates is hard for all kids, but for a child with autism, a child who thrives on routine, abhors change, and has difficulty making connections with people? His knowing exactly why his daily home life won’t change is essential to ensuring his feeling of security.

With all the information on the table, both my kids know that I value their thoughts and feelings on what affects them, that I will not hide anything important from them, and that I am always open to revisiting any conversation when they need more details. I also have the added bonus of exposing my kids to (hopefully!) healthy varied ways of relating to people. Never a bad thing.


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