Making decisions about where children will live is one of the most frightening and difficult tasks of divorce. The prospect of no longer being with your children all the time is bad enough. The thought of losing your children can be terrifying. The fears – and the conflicts that can stem from them – often are compounded by traditional legal language: One parent wins custody, while the loser gets only "visitation" with his own child.
Good parenting isn’t a contest. Parents can take a different, more child-friendly approach to both legal negotiations and the child-rearing agreements they construct. Like many experts, I prefer to think about this challenging task as devising a parenting plan, a legal agreement that spells out a clear, specific schedule for children as well as guidelines for each parent’s coparenting responsibilities and role in decision making. In fact, you may chose not to use terms like custody and visitation in your parenting plan.
From the beginning of your consideration of alternative parenting plans, you need to recognize several key issues.
- There is no single ideal schedule not joint physical custody, traditional every other weekend visitation, "bird nesting" (where the children stay in one place and the parents move back and forth), or the hundreds of variations in between. All of these arrangements can work, or none of them can. Making your parenting plan work depends upon you, your ex, and your coparenting relationship.
- Neither judges nor psychologists possess special wisdom or mysterious tests that can tell you what is best for your children. Seasoned experts will tell you that you, the parents, are in the best position, by far, to make these decisions. And if you don’t agree, you need try again, be flexible, make some compromises, and create parenting plan that will work for your children. Remember: This is about your responsibilities as a parent, not your "rights."
- View time with your children in terms months and years not just hours, days and weeks. Your parenting plan can be a "living agreement," one that you are likely to alter as your children grow older and your family circumstances change. After all, what you decide for a 2 year old may not be best for her when she’s 14 (or 4 or 7). And you probably want to experiment with your ideas about a schedule a bit now. Why? So you can see how your child reacts to a schedule instead of guessing what will or won’t work. If you are willing to experiment a bit, you can make changes as needed to create an even better schedule for your children.
- Different schedules work better for children of different ages. That’s why I’ve outlined alternatives according to the age of your children below. In general, younger children benefit from having more of a "home base." School aged children can manage more complicated schedules – as long as the parents can help them negotiate the complications. And you need to consider a third schedule for teenagers: Their own.
- If you have more than one child, this creates both opportunities and complications. For example, a younger child may be able to handle more complicated schedules if she is moving back and forth with the added security of siblings. On the other hand, your 16 year old teenager may rebel about a week to week schedule, even though the plan is working fine for his 9 year old brother.
- Most importantly, your divorce style – your coparenting partnership – is critical to making any parenting plan work. Below you will see different schedules for parents with a cooperative, distant, or an angry divorce. Note that you have many more options for children of a given age – and over time – if you can to develop cooperative, businesslike relationship with your children’s other parent. For detailed advice on how to develop that kind of relationship, see The Truth about Children and Divorce.
- Finally, remember that these schedules are intended as examples. My goal is to help you to think creatively (and concretely) about your parenting plan while considering the best options for your family. I discuss the reasoning behind these schedules, and many other critical coparenting issues, in The Truth about Children and Divorce.