Polyamory is Not A Family Structure for Children

By James Lopez Published on November 28, 2015

Polyamory is “the practice of having multiple romantic or sexual relationships at the same time with all partners’ full knowledge and consent,” explains a Tedx speaker.

Why would anyone choose it? In her book, The Polyamorists Next Door, polyamory expert and activist Elisabeth Sheff gives six primary reasons people say they participate in polyamory. The first and most common reason given by “polys” is that the arrangement meets more needs. Second, it provides the capacity for more love, which polys find lacking in a two-person relationship. Third, it offers sexual variety, that is, the potential for more “sex with different kinds of partners.”

The fourth reason is to have “larger family with more love to go around, outside of the framework of one man, one woman.” Fifth, it feels more natural, because some polys claim that “polyamory is the universal human condition that had been perverted or tamed by social controls.” And sixth, it satisfies polys’ desire for freedom and rebellion. Polyamory is “something they select because it fits with their desire for freedom of self-expression and rebellion against social convention.”

A pro-polyamory documentaryI Love You And You And You — End of Monogamy*, shows that the lifestyle includes all sorts of relationship combinations. There can be one woman with two live-in boyfriends; a husband whose wife has a boyfriend; a married couple who have two girlfriends; or even three men with four women all together in a “network.”

Scott, a poly in the documentary, says that marriage “is simply something humans haven’t been built for — we have a promiscuous sexual drive … that we try to keep in check with various institutions such as religion and marriage. The best way for people to have power over you is to tell you that the things you most want are wrong.”

In another poly “family,” Jerome, his wife, and Jerome’s two live-in girlfriends all sleep together, though they hide their lifestyle from Jerome and his wife’s two young daughters. Polyamory, Jerome says, “is about sharing a relationship with others — we all have different desires and needs, that is why we have multiple people in our lives.”

Children of Polyamory

But what do these arrangements do to children? Polyamorists claim that the children do as well as children in more traditional arrangements. Sheff interviewed children between 5 to 8 years old in polyamorous families and claims that “what mattered to the children was that they had five loving and attentive adults caring for them, taking them places, picking them up from school, and putting them to bed at night.” The children

did not categorize this wealth of attention by the sexual relationships among the adults. … The children did not factor in the sexuality among the adults because it was simply not germane to their relationships with adults. The smorgasbord of love was available to the children regardless of the adults’ sexual relationships, or lack thereof.

Children between 9 and 12 years old in polyamorous families knew “that their families were different from many of their friends’ families, and they were increasingly aware of how the adults interacted with each other.”

Like other kids their age, they knew the adults had sex and preferred to know as little about it as possible. They also knew that other families were frequently different from their own families, and that this information could sometimes be upsetting to adults. Children in this category began to actively think about how to explain their families at school, to their peers, and to other adults. (Emphasis mine)

In Sheff’s interview of teenagers 13 to 17 growing up in polyamorous families, she found that they “were generally establishing an increasing level of independence and an identity formed outside of their families, more invested in their own social relationships and sexualities than were their younger brethren.” For instance, teenagers found themselves “being less focused on their parental relationships as their own social relationships eclipse familial bonds in emotional urgency. Teens in poly families often considered whether they want to have poly relationships themselves, or if they would prefer monogamy.”

Polyamory Harms Children

But do children with polyamorous parents do as well as other children, as Sheff claimed? There’s little data about polyamorous groupings available so far, but social science tells us that the best and most suitable environment for children to be born and raised is with both of their biological parents in a marriage. No other type of relationship is as good for children as that one.

In a recent study, “The Puzzle of Monogamous Marriage,” the authors write:

Much empirical work in monogamous societies indicates that higher degrees of relatedness among household members are associated with lower rates of abuse, neglect and homicide. Living in the same household with genetically unrelated adults is the single biggest risk factor for abuse, neglect and homicide of children. Stepmothers are 2.4 times more likely to kill their stepchildren than birthmothers, and children living with an unrelated parent are between 15 and 77 times more likely to die ‘accidentally’. (Emphasis mine)

If the parents of a child have an obligation to care and rear their child, as everyone recognizes, then the child has a right to belong to a family structure composed of her biological parents and only them. As Melissa Moschella writes,

By acting as the biological cause of their child’s existence, and by providing the genetic and biological basis for their child’s personal identity, parents establish a personal relationship with their child. This relationship gives them the special responsibility to, in a sense, finish what they started when they brought a new human person into the world.

Just because children can’t choose their family structures doesn’t mean that adults won’t harm children by deciding to disregard the structure of natural marriage. With polyamory, society is embarking on a vast and sweeping social experiment. The primary victims of that experiment will be children.

 

*The documentary includes possibly offensive material.

 

James Lopez is earning his bachelor’s degree in political science at Indiana University and graduate degree in philosophy at Biola University. He is the president of Biola Anscombe Society and a Youth Council Member at the International Children’s Rights Institute.

 

 

 

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  • Keith Pullman

    Polyamorous parenting can be great for children. Trying to force everyone into hetero-monogamous marriages isn’t working. I fail to see why cooperative polyamorous parenting is deficient in comparison to children being shuttled between two more more homes headed by a “monogamous” parent who is now married to a stepparents of theirs.

    • Dean Bruckner

      A child having more than two parents is a bug, not a feature. Pretending otherwise to make a false comparison is a defect both of logic and character. Polyamory is yet another selfish lifestyle choice by purported adults, a choice that harms both women and children the most.

      • So the Amish, and countless cultures which feature extended tribes of grandparents, aunts, uncles, all living together and helping care for the children, and is how human beings have mostly lived for thousands of years (or more) is a bug? Hope you’re not a history major.

      • EyeLean1066

        A lot of bluster, but no facts to back up your aggression.

      • Emma Anderson

        Responsible adults who take care of their business make good parents. There are some horrible monogamous parents out there, as there are bad poly parents. When nearly 52% of mono marriages end in divorce, there’s the same likelihood a poly relationship might not work out. It is person specific whether or not they are going to make good parents or partners, not relationship structure specific. Own up to responsibilities and choices and consequences, take care of your business, honor commitments, and basically be an adult. This makes a good parent and a good partner, no matter what structure your family or relationship takes.

      • Donald

        Hooray for ad hominem logical failures 🙂

        • Dean Bruckner

          When children are being used as pawns in a self-centered lifestyle, ad-hominem speech is entirely appropriate. Some things make healthy humans angry, and this is one of them.

          • Donald

            Children are used as pawns when heterosexual parents divorce too. We don’t say that heterosexuality or monogamy is to blame. You’re assuming that the way you do things is the way all of humanity does them (your “makes humans angry” comment). Once again that is inaccurate. Believe it or not your culture is not a human universal.

  • Dean Bruckner

    Thanks James Lopez, for speaking truth to power and tyranny. Praying for you!

    • James Lopez

      I appreciate your words and prayers, Dean. Godspeed.

      • Johnathan Collier

        And yet, you sure didn’t answer anyone’s questions or provide any actually relevant evidence or citation. Your journalism needs some work, to say the least.

        • James Lopez

          Right.

    • EyeLean1066

      “Power and tyranny”? Really?

      What power and tyranny are we talking about here, Dean? Polyamorists are at risk in every single state of losing their jobs, housing and even, in some circumstances, their children. What power is it that we have, pray tell? The power to be discriminated against at every turn? How are we tyrannizing anyone? Monogamists are the majority and monogamy is the assumed default. Tyranny? What a joke.

  • Jef Anstey

    its funny…they mention stepparents, being a risk factor for children…umm and what type of relationships have stepparents generally in our society…MONOGAMY!

    also they suggest that households with other’s living there increase risk for children…okay so now explain why you are comparing people who are “not a parent nor a partner in the relationship” to poly partners and parents who actively share obligations and expectations within the parenting/partnership

    basically the arguments here are so weak, it seem like you must rather simply be a bigot who has a default bias against polyamory just like most people are taught and coerced to in our culture

    ALSO studies on same se parents reveal that outcomes for their children (particularly with two female parents) are better than hetero realtionships, so i think basically all your arguments fall flat on their face.

    • Dean Bruckner

      Your statements are utterly without foundation, and show little logic.

      Monogamy doesn’t cure all problems, but it does reduce them compared to non-monogamous alternatives. A married step-parent is safer, on average, than an unmarried live-in partner. And no, all else being equal, two female parents are not better than a mommy and a daddy; the mommy and the daddy provide the best set of parents.

      Why do you assume bigotry is the motivation? Because you have forgotten how to think objectively, and your moral frame of reference is not aligned with reality. That’s all you have left.

      • EyeLean1066

        Sources, please. And by sources, I mean relevant ones. Ones that specifically compare monogamy to polyamory. Ones that account for the myriad arrangements lived by polyamorists in the real world (e.g. most poly parents don’t live with their extra-marital partners).

      • Donald

        Monogamy reduces problems compared to non-monogamous alternatives? What about the countless cultures today and historically that counter this ethnocentric assumption? What you’re presenting here is only “true” if you take away the diversity of human experience around the world and think that your own small slice of one culture is representative of the world.

    • Emma Anderson

      ^ Yes, stepparents are typically found in a serially monogamous relationship structure, where there is jealousy and competition between ex-spouse and current spouse (aka stepparent). There is a scarcity of resources environment, where if new spouse is to love children from spouse #1, that equates to loving spouse #1, then s/he doesn’t love spouse #2. Children are the reminder (both physically and behaviorally sometimes) of spouse #1/ex-spouse, and pose a threat to the new marriage, or less love/time/affection for new spouse. This is where the abuse often stems, as a competition or resentment from the time or affection, or the resemblance of the competitor, spouse #1/ex-spouse. Comparing polyamorous partners to an ex-spouse is like comparing apples to oranges.

  • JD Hobbes

    This is a bizarre article. You list all the pros of a Polyamorous family structure, then draw the complete opposite conclusion based solely on your own opinion and life-experience. Do you know anyone who is poly? Have you ever been poly? Do you know anyone who are building poly families with children? I personally know several poly families who are raising children and they are thoughtful, intelligent, well-loved kids who clearly have a bright future.This “Social Science” you claim to be the reasoning behind your claim that poly harms children is based on a book that was published over 15 years ago. That’s hardly current science.

    Go finish your bachelor’s degree and get some real-world living done James before you start lecturing others on how to live their lives.

    • James Lopez

      Please see these articles, “The Effect of Gender-Based Parental Influences on Raising Children,” by psychiatrist and distinguished fellow of the American Psychiatric Association Scott Haltzman, “GENDERED PARENTING’S IMPLICATIONS FOR CHILDREN’S WELL-BEING:Theory and Research in Applied Perspective,” by Rob Palkovitz, and “HUMAN PARENTING FROM AN EVOLUTIONARY PERSPECTIVE,” by David F. Bjorklund and Ashley C. Jordan.

      • Emma Anderson

        I have read numerous parenting articles and books from the moment I knew I was pregnant, and none of them have provided me with any more firm answers than additional questions and insecurities (with the exception of The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding). Theory and research are great when we are dealing with bacteria and viruses, but real people with human emotions cannot be recreated in a laboratory setting. I’ve looked up these books mentioned above to read the synopses, and I’m sure they will tell me nothing more that I need to know about how to love my kids and provide them with all they need to flourish – not just avoid harm – but spread their wings to fly. I am teaching them to question things, like monogamy, religion, politics, and motives, in hopes that they see the vast sea of opportunity ahead of them in life and choose their own path. Go have a few babies during your long academic career, far away from family and a support network, where it’s just you and your heteronormative wife in a college town where you don’t know anyone else, and see what it’s like to raise them by yourselves without any extra support from other adults. Trust me. I’ve been there.

      • Cherry Brownie

        You keep failing to answer anyone’s questions in the comments and instead just keep directing them to the same one article. If this theory was as sound as you say it is than you would be able to site multiple varied and different sources and have no problem answering people’s questions for you rather than side stepping them.

  • fluffylucy

    The premise of this article is based on one glaring piece of misinformation. Social science doesn’t tell us that two married biological parents only, provide the best outcomes for children. In fact, there are many studies that expose the isolating nature of the nuclear family and the negative effects that this can have on children. There is also extensive evidence of the benefits of traditions where the whole village/tribe shares responsibility for child raising.

    I’m not making the claim that modern polyamorous relationships are better for children. Doing so without any supporting evidence, would be as intellectually dishonest as this article.

    • James Lopez

      Actually, social science really does tell us that two married biological parents DO IN FACT provide the best environment to children. See for example, “The Effect of Gender-Based Parental Influences on Raising Children,” by psychiatrist and distinguished fellow of the American Psychiatric Association Scott Haltzman, “GENDERED PARENTING’S IMPLICATIONS FOR CHILDREN’S WELL-BEING:Theory and Research in Applied Perspective,” by Rob Palkovitz, and “HUMAN PARENTING FROM AN EVOLUTIONARY PERSPECTIVE,” by David F. Bjorklund and Ashley C. Jordan.

      • James Lopez

        You can find these articles in the book, “Gender and Parenthood: Biological and Social Scientific Perspectives” edited by W. Bradford Wilcox and published by Columbia University Press.

      • Emma Anderson

        And yet I am an adopted child, lived with non-biological parents, and my adoptive father died when I was age 10 so I was raised mostly by my adoptive mother. I have a graduate degree and have been gainfully employed in my field, successfully married to a man (who has a PhD) for over 20 years, and have two straight-A students who we are raising to be contributing members of society with goals of being in scientific fields after college. We are polyamorous, and our children know our other partners, the oldest knowing more than the younger one. Two or more loving adults who are responsible provide a wonderful environment to children, of any age or gender, of any relationship. If the home is loving among a grandmother, her daughter, and the grandchild, then that too can be a loving and supportive environment in which children thrive.

        • Anonymoose

          This is the problem with anecdotal evidence. One of my ex-girlfriends was raised in a high conflict broken home and was eventually raised by her single dad. She is now a medical student at a top 20. If you simply studied the sample size of N=1 well, you would rightly conclude there is no problem being raised in a single parent household. In fact, single parent households produce future doctors! Your logic is flawed.

          What works for you may not work for everyone else. It could very well be the case that widespread practice of polyamory, applied to a population in the hundreds of millions, leads to an overall trend of poor outcomes for children compared to the data we have available for low conflict monogamous households. Maybe the opposite is true, we just don’t have the data yet to make a meaningful comparison. That’s why James emphasized that raising children in polyamorous households is a social experiment, and a cruel one at that if it turns out to be a net negative for children raised in those households.

          From what data we do have, albeit limited to polygynous structures in mormon households, polygamous lifestyles are bad for children due to a lack of parental investment. More wealthy mormon men invested their time and resources to acquire more wives, while poor mormon men who could not afford to have another wife invested more in their children, leading to better outcomes. Before you protest that polygyny and polyamory are technically different, I know. I’m only pointing out one family group structure that does have data to back it up instead of relying on anecdotes. Moreover, just because you are polyamorist does not mean there won’t be a large or influential part of the population that turns to polygyny as a predominate form of group marriage should group marriage become legalized and practiced by large numbers in the population. We know that monogamy works because it crafted the technological advances and economic prosperity that those of us living in a developed nation enjoy today. We know out of all the societies that practice group marriage to a large extent are not developed nations and are rife with higher incidences of rape, violent crime, kidnapping, etc. Personally, I’d much rather prefer to live in a society that is low on crime, has technology, and MacBook Pros. Polyamory/Polygamy, if widespread, could be an economically and socially destabilizing force as I imagine birth rates would be even further reduced. Monogamy may just be the social cost of having “nice things” as societies that practice group marriage are, well, not exactly places you would want to live. But hey, at least you got to have a few extra male appendages to tap your feel yummy spot. Yay.

      • Donald

        Only if you ignore the majority of social science research – anthropology and sociology counter this.

  • “but social science tells us that the best and most suitable environment for children to be born and raised is with both of their biological parents in a marriage. No other type of relationship is as good for children as that one.” Horse manure. “social science” – and your links – tell us no such thing.

    And “if” social science did (which it doesn’t), then I sure hope you’re in favor of abortion, because children conceived with the help of donor sperm or embryos, all those adopted kids, the kids who had one or both parents die or abandon them, who are being raised by their grandparents or other related tribal adults, or a loving, biologically-unrelated family, are doomed to failure and unhappiness. You know, like Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.

    • James Lopez

      Your latter comment is a non-sequitur, that is, it simply doesn’t follow. And here is why: (1) The ideal family structure is a low conflict marriage between the father and the mother. See this article, “GENDERED PARENTING’S IMPLICATIONS FOR CHILDREN’S WELL-BEING: Theory and Research in Applied Perspective” by Rob Palkovitz, unless of course, you don’t like reading actual social science literature, which seems to be the impression you give me. (2) In the absence of this ideal family structure for X reason, the conclusion that children should therefore be aborted simply does not follow whatsoever, that is a huge leap there!

      • Donald

        “The ideal family structure…” For whom?? When you’re talking about ideals you aren’t going to be giving anything other than your preference – either individually or possibly culturally. This is my biggest problem with (pop) psychology: it presents some very specific cultural patterns as human universals when they aren’t. Monogamous marriage validated by the state or church may be ideal for some but for those who are not part of a particular church or even a particular state there is nothing “ideal” about it at all.

  • EyeLean1066

    Your title makes a pretty strong statement here, yet you back it up with next to nothing, even in the midst of complaining about a scarcity of data from the other side.

    You quote a study that seems to apply to a variety of situations (step parents, for example) and is not focused on polyamory per se. You also never mention that the vast majority of poly parents do *not* live with their extra-marital partners, leaving the reader to speculate ignorance on your part regarding such statistics.

    But from your photo, I see that you are very young and it is perhaps understandable that you’re not ready to write ethically about the social and psychological complexities of alternative lifestyles. I agree with those who advise you to focus on your undergraduate studies before attempting again to tackle issues such as this. Clearly, it’s what you need to be doing.

    • James Lopez

      Polyamory, an emergent type of family with children seems to place unnecessary weight to children in having to explain their families, albeit, a weight that children from single-parent families and/or blended families presumably experience as well. Just because stepparents are common, and there are a lot of children in adopted and foster care homes doesn’t justify that claim that the nuclear family isn’t necessary for a child’s well being. Sheff writes, “In a sea of single parents, divorced, remarried, and cohabiting adults with children they bore or adopted, poly families may appear to be just another blended family.” The problem is that children in single parent households do not choose to be born into these broken families; broken families are tragic and affect children. Polyamory further distances the actual needs of children see these articles “The Effect of Gender-Based Parental Influences on Raising Children,” by psychiatrist and distinguished fellow of the American Psychiatric Association Scott Haltzman, “GENDERED PARENTING’S IMPLICATIONS FOR CHILDREN’S WELL-BEING: Theory and Research in Applied Perspective,” by Rob Palkovitz, and “HUMAN PARENTING FROM AN EVOLUTIONARY PERSPECTIVE,” by David F. Bjorklund and Ashley C. Jordan.

      • Cherry Brownie

        You do realize that their are many anthropological studies that support the fact that the earliest human relationship were not monogamous but in fact polyamorus and that these polyamorus pairings included children. So to say that polyamorus relationships and families are a new social construct is ignorant and not backed by science which is what you claim to be basing this opinion on. Not to mention the fact that the “hardship” your article seems to show children of polyamorus families face is the fact that they have to explain their family unit to others. Which is no different than what the millions of children not being raised by both their biological parents do everyday and they’re just fine. You’re article is pretty much all opinion with very little fact or science, try doing some research first next time before you try and say science proves this and then have it almost all be opinion based

  • Roland Thompson

    Mr. Lopez, you have done a few things that are common to people trying to make a social argument using science.

    First, you use data from nominally monogamous relationships without a genetic link to the child as an indicator for potential harm to the child. That data point simply has no context, is this a step parent due to the death of the biological parent? Divorce? Simply missing? Do these differences matter? Someone reading your article will get a lot of opinion, but not enough facts to make an informed opinion. Percentages are a dimensionless value, so without the context they are utterly meaningless.

    Second, what you have not addressed is that statistical bests for avoiding abuse is not the same as statistical bests for flourishing. As America’s recent stubborn love affair with bacon so aptly showed, people will continue to eat bacon because they enjoy it despite it raising their morbidity by 17%. Especially when they look at the actual data done and realize that this raises the actual risk factor from 6 in 100 to 7 in 100 persons for morbidity. Odds are good that you can enjoy your bacon and still be in the lucky 93% who didn’t die from the increased risk.

    Third, since you haven’t proven harm, only demonstrated without context an increased risk for harm (much like eating bacon) you also haven’t listed the potential benefits. Better and more robust communication skills, interpersonal conflict resolution skills. People who manage to maintain multiple healthy relationships must have these skills, and skills can be passed on to progeny. So if you say that polyamory is only harmful to the child you are only exposing your own bias. Until you can clearly state that there are no benefits (bacon is delicious) then people will rightly pillory your writings as poorly supported bigotry.

    I hope this feedback allows you to write a stronger article in the future, and allows you to better examine persuasive writing written by others when they attempt to use poor “scientific” justifications to support a social stance.

  • Donald Jaramillo

    The author’s heavy reliance on “Gendered Parenting” sources makes me wonder as to his feelings on same-sex parents.

    I saw many of these very same arguments being attempted on the Proposition 8 case before the federal courts to prove why same-sex couples were bad for a child, namely that one of them does not have a biological link and is therefore more likely to abuse the child.

  • neeneko

    If you want to bring science into it, the MOST effective family structure is the multigenerational mixed household, as things were generally done before the US trend towards nuclear families kicked off about 80 years ago. The ‘two parents in a marriage’ one is only superior when compared to single parents.

    • James Lopez

      Children have a natural directedness to reaching adulthood and the social science behind fatherlessness clearly shows that children, on average, fare better in a low-conflict marriage between his biological parents. I don’t see how this is that difficult to grasp and encourage.

      • MamaWolf

        Why do you think a polyamorous relationship is going to be any less conflict free than a monogamous one? I personally have MUCH less conflict in my committed polyamorous relationship with my husband and our partner than in any monogamous relationship I’ve ever been in. Three heads are better than two.
        I honestly believe this argument that polyamory is ‘bad for kids’ is fueled by nothing more than religious conventionality than actual science. Remember, monogamy is relatively new among the human race.

  • mike

    I’m confused on where the facts are of this bold claim that polyamorous households are bad for children. My child lives in such a home, I know other poly couples who have children with live in partners. The children get multiple attention and love and care from multiple people. My son gets to have someone at home caring for him and helping him with his homework because his biological mother and i work a mid day shift. These children are far well cared for than most kids with only biological parents. So please inform me again about a situation that you are not in and not giving any actual evidence on your claim.

  • rolfen

    Your only provable argument (as far as I’m concerned) is the stepparent abuse thing, of which the causality is somewhat questionable, although it does have some weight.
    You seem to think that the wants of adults and fostering a nice environment for children are somehow incompatible or fundamentally antagonistic when I think that it’s the opposite. We have a biological drive to reproduce and I believe that includes raising children, so why should these be incompatible?
    Also you do not tackle the issue of your father abandoning you at all (I read another of your articles). If a man has 1,2 or 50 wives and abandons his children at a young age, then that is much more of an issue, not the number of wives that he has. But you seem to walk right past that and pin all your trouble on polyamory.
    I believe that polyamory CAN be a good environment. If it keeps people from cheating in secret, and helps partners to be more open about their feelings, then that’s already a positive thing for the household.
    Thanks for sharing and for the article, though. I always appreciate a well written (with some sources) and respectful article.

  • Smithjgwhs3

    All you have to do is a social hypothetical scenario experiment . Polygamy has no constraint or limitation . When continuing the pattern of endless relationships and child reproducing , how is the structure and focus not out of control ? It’s only when a limitation is put on it like monogamy, all of these comments to support polygamy hold a fathomable picture of needed stability in family life.

  • CJ O’Reilly

    The book referenced when talking about “social science” is about single parent families… not more than two parent families. It’s comparing single parent families to two parent families, not 3+ parent families.

    The study focuses on patriarchal polygamous relationship structures from a range of cultural background which are not polyamorous. Moreover, being a risk factor does not mean its a cause, only an association.

    “If the parents of a child have an obligation to care and rear their child, as everyone recognizes, then the child has a right to belong to a family structure composed of her biological parents and only them.”

    Not everyone recognizes this.
    This is not a right which every child has, as their biological parents may not be known, alive, or fit to parent. Moreover, divesting a child of their right to receive support from individuals who are not their biological parents does them no favor.

    Good luck on your BA. I hope you have a chance to experience a broader range of perspectives and hone your application of logic and scientific method.

  • Lizzie

    XD thanks for the laughs.. this article is redicuous to the extreme

  • Bubblegum-bee-otch

    I would like to let you know that I am in fact a child raised in a poly household when I was younger (not as much now cause of reasons which I do not feel I should be required to say) and the only real problem I’ve had is accidently calling for the wrong mom or dad.

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