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Polygamy and Adolescent Development
Conversation and debate surrounding family structure are ubiquitous throughout the world. Many parents capitulate their own fulfillment in order to preserve whatever family structure is deemed most conducive to happy, high-functioning children. However, some parents, belonging to cultures and communities all around the world, elect to raise their families with structures stigmatized by modern media and practices. Polygamy, defined as “marriage in which a spouse of either sex may have more than one mate at the same time,” has invariably defied society’s monogamous marital standards (Merriam-Webster). It appears in cultures and religions around the world, but it “is legally practiced in various countries in the Middle East, Asia and Africa, although not practiced by all” (Al-Sharfi, Miller, Pfeffer). As determined by Augustine Solomon Thliza and Micah Nuhu, students at the University of Maiduguri, over forty-seven percent of Nigerian ethnocultural societies experience polygamy to some degree (“The Effects of Polygamy on Children Education in Northern Nigeria”). Govardhan Nimasow, for example, a village council leader in rural India, is “a rich man who married eight wives ” and “fathered twenty-six children.” Described as “wise, compassionate, tolerant,” and humble, Nimasow lives an objectively pleasant life; he holds a position of power, possesses wealth and all of its indicators, and is deeply revered by those around him (Rymer). But do his twenty-six children from eight different mothers live lives of the same high caliber?
The implications of polygamy in regards to children have been cross-culturally evaluated, with Dr. Timo Saloviita and Emmanuel Olusanjo Bamgbade having gathered that “younger children in polygamous families really display a host of symptoms, such as anxiety, hostility, aggression, somatic problems, and difficulties with learning” (“School Performance of Children From Monogamous and Polygamous Families in Nigeria”). Various medical professors conducted a study on the sexual activity of children from different family structures, and polygamy was named the most promotive of adolescent sexual activity (Slap, Lot, Huang, Daniyam, Comfort, Zink, Sucop, et al.). Considering the academic, social, psychological, and sexual ramifications of polygamy on children, one can conclude that a polygamous upbringing adversely impacts the cognitive development of children.
Polygamous families, in many cases, cannot sufficiently access education. According to Thliza and Nicu, polygamous parents are often unable to provide their children with adequate financial resources for their education. The average polygamous family reproduces at a much higher rate than the average monogamous family, widening the financial gradient existing between polygamous and monogamous families. In consonance, polygamous parents also struggle to help with schoolwork at home and identify their children’s academic needs. As a result, these children are generally faced with a deficiency in their opportunities. Furthermore, female children in plural-marriage families suffer far more than their male counterparts. Considering the financial strain tantalizing many polygamous families, the funds for the schooling of all children is unavailable. The education of boys from polygamous families -- seen as the future family leaders -- is prioritized, hindering the intellectual growth of female counterparts. Additionally, polygamous culture commonly stipulates the marriage of underage girls, with educational careers demising at the commencement of a life overrun with domestic work. Both discriminatory factors result in the early school dropout of girls, with the authors noting that “some girls who would have loved to go to school are frustrated by the problems of non-availability of fund in the plural-marriage home” (“School Performance of Children From Monogamous and Polygamous Families in Nigeria”).
Supplementing the inability of many polygamous families to access education, the practice has proven to stifle adolescent academic achievement. Dr. Timo Saloviita, a Finnish professor, has devoted his career to the study of adaptive behavior and cognitive activity. Along with graduate student Emmanuel Olusanjo Bamgbade, Saloviita conducted research on polygamy’s impact on Nigerian children, concluding that “academic achievement as measured by examination results or school reports was found to be lower among children from polygamous families than monogamous families.” In corroborating accounts, “below average academic achievement” and “lower than average” scores in “scholastic concentration, school attendance, homework completion, classroom adjustment, and motivation” were found in a focus group of Bedouin-Arab Israeli children with polygamous backgrounds from ages six to twelve. Additionally, a cognizance of academic inferiority was noted of the Bedouin-Arab youth. With determined levels of low self-esteem, eight to nine-year-olds reported notably low “perceived achievement in Arabic, English, and mathematics.” Outside of the Bedouin-Arab community, South African children of the notoriously-polygamous Xhosa population were studied as well. Xhosa children from polygamous families scored poorly on the Standard 7, an external examination including seven academic subjects. “The results showed that the mean achievement score of the children from polygamous families was significantly lower than that of the children from monogamous families.” Deplorable scholastic performances commonly seen in children with polygamous backgrounds are deeply rooted in domestic conflict and violence in addition to inaccessibility. Associated with “elevated maladjustment,” “the existence of more marital conflict in polygamous families” greatly contributes to academic underachievement in adolescents (“School Performance of Children From Monogamous and Polygamous Families in Nigeria”). Developmental psychologists Dr. Mohammed Al-Sharfi, Dr. Kirsty Miller, and Dr. Karen Pfeffer came to similar conclusions, specifically finding that the academic achievement of young girls living in polygamous households is disproportionately hindered by corporal punishment (The Effects of Polygamy on Children and Adolescents: A Systematic Review”).
Social deficits succeed subjection to the unhealthy domestic conditions, and polygamy seldom offers exemption from this unfortunate truth. Dr. Saloviita and Bamgbade also investigated polygamy’s impact on children’s social development, first mentioning that “polygamous families experience higher rates of marital conflict, family violence, and family disruptions.” As one might expect, “marital problems between parents may predict poorer social competence, … lack of security, and increased misconduct and aggression among children.” Elevated levels of violence appear in plural-marriage households because conditions are inhospitable for natural human relationships. Jealousy exists amongst wives, and some children feel the amount of parental love received depends on maternity. In many cases fathers leave their senior wives and their children for new families, which adversely impacts those children’s social competence. The burden of financial instability associated with polygamous culture increases levels of stress in children, thus hindering their ability to function socially. The studied children from polygamous families themselves reported “lower family cohesion, worse relationships with their father, more sibling conflicts, worse relationships with their friends, lower adjustment to the school system and the society of other children” (“School Performance of Children From Monogamous and Polygamous Families in Nigeria”).
The invisibility of mental health obstructs clear signs of damage at the hands of polygamy, but the mental harm inflicted by it persists nonetheless. Dr. Miller, Dr. Al-Sharfi, and Dr. Pfeffer found that “children and adolescents from polygamous families had higher levels on a range of psychopathological symptoms than those from monogamous families,” more specifically “obsessive compulsive symptoms, paranoid ideation, depression, hostility, phobic anxiety, psychoticism, acute affective disorders, externalizing problems, social difficulties, attention problems and delinquent problems” as a result of the violence, lack of familial cohesion, and general dysfunction associated with polygamy” (The Effects of Polygamy on Children and Adolescents: A Systematic Review”). Writer Jo-Ann Ding published the research of Dr. Norani Othman, a professor of sociology, who surveyed Malaysian children from polygamous families to record the emotional responses that polygamy elicits. Sixty percent of children interviewed noted “indifference” as their primary emotion regarding their family’s polygamy, but when these children were later interviewed for longer intervals and asked to elucidate their answers, “they revealed that being indifferent was a way of coping emotionally with disappointment and distress” (“Malaysia: The Impact of Polygamy”).
Sexual activity in adolescents is conclusively dangerous. As reported by Dr. Carolyn Ross, sex between or involving minors increases the participants’ risk of unwanted pregnancies, contracting STDs, and exposure to sexual violence (“Overexposed and Under-Prepared: The Effects of Early Exposure to Sexual Content”). In 2003 a group of doctors and medical professors analyzed the sexual behavior of over four-thousand students as young as twelve in Nigeria from both monogamous and polygamous households, mentioning that polygamous family structures come with a history of forced sex and child marriage. A staggering forty-two-point-three percent of secondary students from plural-marriage families reported sexual activity compared to only twenty-seven-point-five percent of secondary students from monogamous families. The researchers determined that polygamous upbringings result in the premature commencement of sexual activity, naming forced sex and child marriages to be the primary catalyzing factors. The disconnection from parents and peers characteristic of polygamous relationships heightens the risk of adolescent sexual activity adolescents as well (Slap, Lot, Huang, Daniyam, Comfort, Zink, Sucop, et al.) Additionally, the absence of traditional education and access to outside information typical of polygamous cultures strips children of sexual precaution.
Although polygamy hinders development in most fields, developmental additives and neutralizers found must also be acknowledged. Children from polygamous families grow up with additional positive role-models, and these role-models help to shape and refine character (Al-Sharfi, Miller, Pfeffer). Extra parental figures strengthen the support system available to adolescents, which is vital in the key stages of childhood. In a comprehensive analysis of polygamy’s impact on the upbringing of Jordanian children, author and research Omar Khasawneh notes that many of the children studied did not believe that polygamy impacted their upbringing, education, or financial support, proving that some children can adapt and thrive in this particular environment. Although anomalies deserve recognition, the fact that the majority of children cannot adapt or strive in polygamous environments endures. Moreover, polygamous cultures often encourage the marriage of teenagers, particularly targeting girls. When men take multiple wives, many of whom begin their marriage as teenagers, the fear of “spinsterhood” is relieved (“Polygamy and Its Impacts on the Upbringing of Children: A Jordanian Perspective”). Young girls who fear that they will not marry have objectively higher chances of finding a husband when polygamy is available to them. However, the promotion of child marriage, resulting in premature sexual activity, termination of education, and domestic abuse, speaks to a far deeper issue ingrained in polygamous practices, which is the inherently misogynistic structure of polygamy. Accordingly, research concluding that polygamy positively impacts children’s holistic development has yet to be presented.
Steps to lessen the toll polygamy takes on children’s cognitive development are available, but solutions vary due to the vastly different climates polygamy exists in. First and foremost, attention must be called to the problem. Until addressed, issues of intellectual and emotional competence, neglect, and abuse only fester. Regarding education, Thliza and Nuhu, recognizing illiteracy and academic underachievement fueled by polygamy in Nigeria, outline a plan to combat such issues:
“On the part of the government, effort to provide the basic needs for the children to pursue their education in northern Nigeria should be triggered towards creating scenario whereby there would be low level of illiteracy, hawking in the street and main roads. Efforts should equally be made towards creating sensitization programme on education, adverts that would ginger school age children with emphasis on the negative impact of illiteracy to the nation.” (“The Effects of Polygamy on Children Education in Northern Nigeria”).
In improving upon academic resources in all circumstances, psychologists and mental health specialists must be made available to children in higher quantities. External intervention is crucial to dissipating social and psychopathological difficulties elicited by plural marriage. On a separate note, child marriage and sexual abuse desperately call for stricter regulation and enforcement in every nation and society. Children should not be coerced into binding relationships prematurely, but the marital trap created by polygamy appears to be cyclical and perpetual. Although the direct prohibition of plural marriage would subdue many of these dilemmas, polygamy holds great historical and cultural significance in many societies, which must not be overlooked.
Change will ultimately occur when those unaffected by polygamy’s pernicious nature become cognizant of the scale of its detriment to children. Plural marriage is a prominent feature in many North American, Asian, and African communities, but the overall well-being of children born into polygamy is marginalized. Considering the poor education, mental health, and independence facing children of polygamy, they cannot fight for their own rights. Outside advocates are desperately needed to repair developmental damage already done and protect future victims. Children from polygamous backgrounds will flourish when academic, social, psychological, and sexual suffering ends.
Al-Sharfi, Mohammad, Miller, Kirsty A, and Pfeffer, Karen. “The Effects of Polygamy on
Children and Adolescents: A Systematic Review.” Journal of Family Studies.
Bamgbade, Emmanuel Olusanjo, and Timo Saloviita. “School Performance of Children From
Monogamous and Polygamous Families in Nigeria.” Journal of Black Studies, vol. 45, no. 7, 2014, pp. 620–634.
Ding, Jo-Ann. “Malaysia: The Impact of Polygamy.” Malaysia: The Impact of Polygamy |
Women Reclaiming and Redefining Cultures, 23 July 2010.
Khasawneh, Omar M., et al. “Polygamy and Its Impact on the Upbringing of Children: A
Jordanian Perspective.” Journal of Comparative Family Studies, vol. 42, no. 4, 2011, pp. 563–577. JSTOR, JSTOR.
Ross, Carolyn C. “Overexposed and Under-Prepared: The Effects of Early Exposure to Sexual Content.” Psychology Today, Sussex Publishers.
Rymer, Russ. “Vanishing Voices.” National Geographic, National Geographic, July 2012.
Slap Gail B, Lot Lucy, Huang Bin, Daniyam Comfort A, Zink Therese M, Succop Paul A et al.
Sexual behaviour of adolescents in Nigeria: cross sectional survey of secondary school students BMJ2003; 326 :15.
Thliza, Augustine Solomon, and Micah Nuhu. “The Effects of Polygamy on
Children Education in Northern Nigeria.” Nigerian Voice, The Nigerian Voice, 1 Apr. 2017.