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July 19, 2023 Feature

Polyparenting: When Children Have More Than Two Parents

Dr. Robert A. Simon

While most children have two legal parents, it is now legally permissible for children to have three parents in seven U.S. states—California, Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Nevada, Vermont, and Washington—plus Washington, D.C. Of course, even where it is not legally possible for children to have more than two parents, it is not at all uncommon for children to identify and recognize more than two of the adults in their lives as parental adults. For example, when parents split up and re-partner, children may recognize the partner of one of their parents as a parental adult. It can also happen when children are raised in multigenerational households or when an extended family member who does not live with the child takes on key parenting roles and responsibilities, or when the child recognizes a grandparent, for example, as being in a parental role. Thus, whether children can legally have more than two parents or whether they have parent-like relationships with more than two parents, the reality of “polyparenting” is important and demands recognition.

When you stop to think about it, children’s love for, attachment to, and affiliation with parental adults are not necessarily limited to a parenting duo. In fact, the biology of parenting in and of itself is not determinative of parental status. All one needs to do is recognize that an adopted child, for example, who has not been biologically created by the adults who the child recognizes as a parent nevertheless forms parent-child bonds and relationships with adults with whom they do not share genetic material.

The truth is that children are capable of developing and maintaining multiple parental-like attachments to adults. It has been said that the more adults there are who love a child, the better off that child is likely to be. The intuitive ring of truth to this statement is persuasive, but loving a child and being a parent to a child are very different things. Being a parent to a child speaks to a certain level of commitment to the child, a level of participation in the child’s life, and a type of responsibility for the child that is different from other relationships adults have with children. Thus, parental adults are not only adults who the child sees in a parental role but also adults who assume parental roles, take on parental responsibilities, and participate in making parental decisions.

Defining Polyparenting

Polyparenting is the raising of children by more than two parental figures. Polyparenting is receiving increased attention nowadays as issues of gay rights, gay marriage, and assistive reproductive technologies (ART) are talked about more openly and more frequently. As same-sex couples become parents and as same-sex as well as opposite-sex couples seek to become parents by way of ART, more than two adults taking on parental roles in a child’s life is becoming more common. Further, given the fact that over 50 percent of couples divorce and that most divorcing parents re-partner, the introduction of new parental adults into the lives of children is a reality of modern life. Whether a child has three legal parents or whether a child has more than two adults who they recognize as parents, polyparenting is here, and it is here to stay. In fact, it has always been present.

While all of this may sound “new,” and as politically potent as these issues may be, more than two adults raising a child has happened since human families first came into being. Polyparenting is associated with the concept of “alloparenting,” which is when parenting is done by others who are not the actual parent of a child. With this in mind, this article is not written in support of or in opposition to legislation that seeks to make it possible to have more than two adults designated as the legal parents of a child. It is, instead, a discussion of psychological factors to consider when considering polyparenting and the current reality of polyparenting in our world.

In some cultural contexts and communities, polyparenting may be a norm, such as when multiple generations live together and multiple generations of adults are involved in the parenting of children. For the purposes of this article, polyparenting refers to situations in which a child has more than two adults identified as parental adults for or by the child. There are multiple paths to polyparenting. These paths include:

  1. blended families, in which stepparents and biological parents are all involved in some parental capacity in the raising of a child;
  2. open adoption, in which the adoptive parents and the biological parent(s) are all involved in some parental capacity in the raising of a child;
  3. extended families living together, with grandparents or other family members helping the biological parent(s) to raise the child;
  4. guardianships;
  5. assistive reproductive technologies, such as surrogacy and known donor insemination;
  6. polyamorous relationships, in which more than two adults are engaged in committed romantic relationships; and
  7. the conscious choice of parents to include other adults in parental roles for their children.

When thinking about polyparenting, it is helpful to consider what we mean when we use the terms “family” and “parent.” So, what is a family? The “traditional” western concept of the family is one in which a mother and a father (i.e., one male and one female) raise one or more children. Yet substantial research indicates that positive outcomes for children are not related to the type of family or family constellation in which the child is raised. Instead, the research indicates that it is the nature of relationships within the family, the appropriateness and quality of parenting, the character of those raising children, and the nature of family interactions that significantly predict whether the children from a particularly family will grow up to be successful adults or not. Thus, research tells us that a child of a “traditional” family has the same opportunities for success as the child of a “non-traditional” family, including a family in which polyparenting is practiced. While this may come as a shock or as unwelcome information to some, it is what the empirical and objective social science research tells us. Recognizing that the “traditional” concept of family is not the only pathway to successful family life and the raising of children, we then can realistically question the traditional idea that a child has only two parents—traditionally a man and a woman.

The concept of polyparenting requires us to redefine what the word “parent” means. It calls on us not to restrict the concept of “parent” to those involved in the biological creation of a child or those who are legally the parent of a child. It also asks us to consider whether there is any reason to restrict the legal designation of “parent” to only two adults. Many children also have “psychological parents” and “functional parents,” who are other adults the child sees as a parental figures, with whom the child shares a close relationship, upon whom the child depends, and with whom the child shares a parental-like attachment. An example of a psychological parent might be a stepparent who the child views in a parental manner and who has been intimately involved in the raising of a child, views themselves as a parent, sees themselves as responsible for the child’s well-being. Another example might be a grandparent who the child views as a parental figure and who takes on parental responsibilities and sees themselves as having parental duties and obligations. In other words, being a “parent” is not simply a designation given to adults or the way the adult regards the child. It is also important to consider the child’s relationship to the adult and their experience of the adult. Given this definition, it is also possible to see how an actual legal parent can be something other than functional parental. An example of this kind of parent might be a father, who, after divorcing the child’s mother, maintains physical and/or emotional distance from the child, divesting from involvement in actually rearing the child and from emotional ties to the child. While this individual may legally be a parent, they may not be a functional parent.

To understand the impact of polyparenting on a child, it helps to look at different aspects of parent-child relationships. One wants to understand not only the legal relationship between the parental figure but also the nature of the parent-child attachment and the nature of the parental figure’s attunement to the child. It is helpful to consider when in the life of the child the parent-child relationship was formed, the duration of that relationship, and the cultural context in which the relationship exists.

Parent-Child Attachment and Parental Attunement

Reciprocal parent-child attachment is seen by many experts as the hallmark of the parent-child relationship. However, for many reasons, when considering the best interests of children in child custody disputes, attachment should not be considered to be dispositive with regard to custodial determinations. Instead, attachment is properly thought of as an additive factor. Amongst other factors to be considered are parental attunement with the child, the parenting history with the child, parental commitment to the child going forward, appropriateness of parenting skills, the nature of the child’s needs and the parent-child “match” that results. Unlike other animals and species, when humans are born, they literally will not survive if adults do not provide for them. The survival of the infant is facilitated by the formation of an infant-caregiver attachment that psychologically binds the infant and the caregiver to one another. As the caregiver reliably, effectively, and appropriately responds to the infants needs for care (such as food, warmth, changing, and cuddling), the reciprocal attachment between the infant and the caregiver grows. As children become older, the ways in which attachments are established and maintained will change since the role of the caregiver in the life of the child changes. What is important to understand is that attachment is reciprocal. While it facilitates the survival, growth, development, and well-being of the infant, the reciprocity of attachment also enhances the sense of well-being of the caregiver.

Traditional models of attachment offer that the infant forms a “primary attachment” to a single “primary caregiver,” often conceptualized as the mother. However, it is now recognized that infants are fully capable of forming multiple attachments. In other words, the infant can form attachments to a number of caregivers if, in fact, the infant has multiple caregivers who take on vital caregiving functions. Thus, in a multigenerational family in which grandparents live in the home and are involved in child-rearing, the infant can form powerful attachments to the mother, father, and grandmother, for example, setting the stage for polyparenting in that family even when only the mother and father have legal parental status.

While infant/caregiver attachment is necessary to ensure the survival of the infant, not all powerful parental attachments form during infancy. Children can and do form such attachments throughout their development. While these later attachments may not be of fundamental necessity to ensure survival, they do serve to enhance survival and foster a child’s resilience, coping, adaptation, and opportunities for success in the here-and-now as well as later in life. This is seen all the time when parents’ divorce and remarry and their children begin to relate to their parent’s new spouse in a parental manner. It is also seen when parents choose to be absent from a child’s life or when they die. For example, imagine that an infant forms attachments to his mother and father, and the infant’s father passes away early in the child’s life. The mother subsequently re-marries, and, over time, her new husband and the child form a powerful parent-child attachment. Now imagine that, sadly, the mother passes away, leaving the child with her stepfather as the surviving parent to raise the child. Were the child not able to form new and vital attachments after infancy, the death of the child’s only surviving biological parent may doom the child psychologically. Therefore, it is important to keep in mind that throughout the course of child development and, therefore, throughout the course of family life, children and adults are capable of and, in fact, continue to form attachment relationships that provide the child with additional parental adults. Given that over half of marriages end in divorce and that most divorced parents remarry, it may well be the case that a substantial number of today’s children are being polyparented, whether this is overtly acknowledged or not.

In addition to attachment, a parental figure’s attunement to a child is a factor worthy of discussion. For this purpose, attunement is understood as a parental figure’s sensitivity to the particular child; that child’s individual and unique personality, characteristics, needs, strengths, vulnerabilities, and capacities; and the ability to appropriately tailor parenting to these facets. In the context of polyparenting, it may be the case that for a particular child, the grandparent living in the home and involved in the day-to-day raising of a child is more attuned to the child than either of the biological parents. It may be the case that the egg-donor for a same-sex male couple who is involved in the life of the child demonstrates a higher level of attunement to the child than either of the legal parents (the male couple in this example). While far less appears in the literature on attunement than on attachment, this aspect of the parent-child relationship is conceptualized as directly related to the subjective quality of the parent-child relationship and is, therefore, a crucial element of parent-child relationships to understand and consider.

Timing of the Formation of the Parent-Child Relationship

Does it matter when the parent-child relationship is created? Are parent-child relationships formed at birth more compelling than those formed afterwards? This is not a simple question nor is it one with a straightforward answer. Attachments formed in very early life tend to be compelling and enduring even if they are not positive attachments. Attachments formed later in childhood are also compelling and powerful but may lack the sense of “permanence” that comes with very early attachment relationships. Just as important as when the attachment is formed is the nature of the attachment and the nature of the relationship between the child and the parental figure. Not all attachments are created equal. Broadly speaking, parent-child relationships can be characterized as secure, insecure/ambivalent, insecure/avoidant and disorganized. Attachments that are not secure in nature are thought to be associated with various forms of interpersonal as well as psychosocial risk and maladaptation. For example, if a child has been able to form only insecure attachments to parental figures but a new parental figure emerges and the child forms a secure attachment with that figure, it is possible that the quality of that attachment relationship, though newer, is more persuasive and important to the child than the relationships characterized by insecure attachment. If a new parental figure emerges in the life of a child and that parental figure begins to carry out multiple caregiving duties with the other parental figures to whom the child is attached recede into the background in terms of essential caregiving duties, it is possible that the newer relationship will feel more primary and more emotionally powerful than the attachment relationships that have been in place longer.

Further, the age of the child at the time that the parental attachment relationship is formed may impact the nature of the relationship and its meaning to the child. For example, suppose a third parental figure comes into the life of a preschool child versus the life of a child in mid adolescence. The developmental status of things such as identity formation as well as emotional and cognitive self-regulation will have a direct impact on the nature of the new parental relationship with the younger child likely to form a more enduring and compelling relationship than the older child. In addition to understanding the time in the child’s life at which the relationship was formed and the function of the relationship, one must also consider the duration of the relationship as a factor to consider. For example, if a child’s parents divorce and a parent remarries but that marriage fails after a brief period of time, the impact of the newly formed parental relationship is likely to be less than if the remarriage fails after, say, a decade.

Cultural Considerations in Polyparenting

The cultural context in which polyparenting unfolds is also a worthwhile consideration. Imagine, for example, that a child is born to a same-sex female couple who choose to include the sperm donor male in the child’s life in a parental capacity. Considerations of attachment, attunement, and age at which the parental relationship was enacted in the life of the child aside, if this child is raised in a major metropolitan area with a more accepting view of same-sex relationships, the polyparenting of the child may impact the child differently than if the child grows up in a less accepting community. A child being raised, in part, by a grandparent may be more culturally consistent in a family of Japanese ethnicity since multigenerational households are common in Japanese culture, whereas such families are far less common in other cultures.

While it is certainly true that the more adults there are who love a child, the better off that child is, considerations of polyparenting are different. Parents do more than love children. They are responsible for the children’s day-to-day care and supervision, instilling social and moral values, and providing an essential safety net. When understanding polyparenting and its impact on the life of a child, it is useful to consider multiple aspects of the parent-child relationship. Parenting, like all complex things in life, is multifaceted, and one size does not fit all.

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Dr. Robert A. Simon

Psychologist and Consultant

Dr. Robert A. Simon is a licensed psychologist and consultant based in San Diego. He has over thirty-five years of experience in the legal domain of family law and domestic relations and serves as a member of the Board of Directors of the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges (NCJFCJ). He is the only psychologist ever elected to that board. He is a past member of the Board of Directors of the Association of Family and Conciliation Courts.