One of the primary concerns when a couple decides to separate is child custody. It’s difficult to envision not living with your children all the time, but it’s the reality of separate households. What post-separation parenting arrangement is best for your children? Consider shared custody.
Absent extraordinary circumstances such as an abusive or neglectful parent, studies show that children, even very young children, and even children of high-conflict parents, do best when they spend considerable amounts of time with each parent post-divorce.
In 2014, delegates from the scientific, family profession and civil society sectors of over twenty countries attended the First International Conference on Shared Parenting. Among their areas of consensus was the following conclusion:
shared parenting is a viable post-divorce parenting arrangement that is optimal to child development and well-being, including for children of high conflict parents. The amount of shared parenting time necessary to achieve child well being and positive outcomes is a minimum of one-third time with each parent, with additional benefits accruing up to and including equal (50-50) parenting time, including both weekday (routine) and weekend (leisure) time.
The benefits of shared custody apply even to very young children, according to a recent consensus report by 110 child development experts entitled “Social Science and Parenting Plans for Young Children,” published in the APA journal, Psychology, Public Policy and Law (Feb. 2014). The report concluded that
A broad consensus of accomplished researchers and practitioners agree that, in normal circumstances, the evidence supports shared residential arrangements for children under 4 years of age whose parents live apart from each other. . . . decision makers should recognize that depriving young children of overnights with their fathers could compromise the quality of developing father-child relationships. Sufficient evidence does not exist to support postponing the introduction of regular and frequent involvement, including overnights, of both parents with their babies and toddlers. The theoretical and practical considerations favoring overnights for most young children are more compelling than concerns that overnights might jeopardize children’s development.
Knowing that shared parenting may be the best long-term option for your children’s development, how do you make it work for you? A few suggestions:
- Tolerate Different Parenting Styles: Maybe when you were an intact household, you were the children’s primary caregiver. Now the children have two homes, and you worry the other parent won’t know what to do. Maybe dad (or mom) never changed a diaper or doesn’t know how to make the PB&J just right— rest assured, he will figure it out, and your children will likely benefit from adapting to different parenting styles. It may also help if you both read the same parenting books. One that I like to suggest for divorcing parents is Putting Children First: Proven Parenting Strategies for Helping Children Thrive Through Divorce by Dr. JoAnne Pedro-Carroll. A couple of good ones for kids are: Standing on My Own Two Feet: A Child’s Affirmation of Love in the Midst of Divorce by Tamara Schmitz (for younger children), and Divorce Is Not the End of the World: Zoe’s and Evan’s Coping Guide for Kids by Zoe and Evan Stern (for older children).
- Choose Your Battles and Don’t Badmouth Your Ex: Your child at some point will probably report to you that mom did this or dad said that, and may try to play one of you against the other. Choose your battles. Your response may be something like, “Well at my house you do your homework after school, and at dad’s house you do it after dinner— that’s okay.” You and your ex each have the right to parent your children on a day-to-day basis without interference from the other, and you must make it clear to your children that they are expected to respect both parents. Never disparage the other parent within earshot of your children, and don’t allow anyone else to either. One of the easiest ways to lose custody is to try to alienate your children’s affection for their other parent.
- Enlist Third Party Resources: If the issue is not a little day-to-day thing, but a matter of importance (e.g., health, safety, education, religion), discuss it with your ex outside of your children’s presence. If you can’t resolve the issue on your own, you have a legitimate difference of opinion on a major issue and you can’t just “agree to disagree,” you can consult a parenting coordinator or another third party (pediatrician or teacher), but you both must agree in advance to abide the recommendation of the third party. If all else fails, you should consult an attorney, and you may need to seek court intervention, but the judge will be more receptive to your arguments if you have tried the co-parenting route first.
- Co-parenting is key: So what exactly is co-parenting? The International Council on Shared Parenting defines it as “the assumption of shared responsibilities and presumption of shared rights.” Both parents should be involved in meetings with doctors and teachers regarding the child’s health and education. Communicate in advance with the other parent about big ticket items like birthday parties, school and sporting events, and Christmas presents. If your kids are young, try to agree on potty training and bed time— your children will thrive on the consistency. If they’re older, discuss issues like when your child should get a cell phone or learn to drive. Think of it this way: if you wouldn’t want the other parent to make a decision without consulting you, don’t make that decision without consulting him/her. And don’t forget the fun stuff. Parenting has its rewards, of course, and both parents should reap them. You should both try to be at the school plays and soccer games. If there is a special event, tell your ex about it, so your child can share those moments with both parents.
- Use Technology: Maybe you don’t want to deal with your ex any more than you have to— this is understandable. There’s a reason you’re not still together, after all. But again, think of your children. There are ways to make interacting with your ex for the benefit of your children a little easier to bear. Email and text messages minimize face-to-face encounters, and have the added benefit of a written record to avoid any “he said-she said” squabbles later. Set up a separate calendar on your iPhone and share it with your ex to keep track of your kids’ appointments and activities. There are also apps available to manage your parenting time and communications, such as Our Family Wizard and SquareHub.
- Keep Money Out of It: In a perfect world, all of this would occur in a financial vacuum, but it won’t. Even in shared custody situations, child support is usually paid by one parent to the other, depending on the respective incomes of the parties and other factors. You and your ex will probably have financial disputes— your children should not be privy to them. Being owed money is never an excuse for withholding your children from your ex.
The bottom line: the standard that judges apply to custody determinations in New York is “the best interests of the child.” There are numerous factors involved, but above all you should be prepared to show that you are willing to put your children’s well-being above your own preferences, which may mean sharing a considerable amount of your children’s time with your ex, and your own time, too. Even though you decided to part ways, you will both always be connected by your children. It’s best for everyone if you share the responsibilities and the rewards of parenting.