In cases where parents choose to share the custodial care of their children, it can be tricky to map out the best way to split up your children’s time between both parents. The hackneyed “every other weekend” may have worked in the past, but I rarely see this as a desired outcome for my clients in my mediation practice. We now know so much more about the positive aspects of children having two involved parents – and both parents usually have work obligations outside of the home – that having both parents involved makes the most sense. When deciding how best to share the custodial care of your children, there are a lot of variables that you should take into account before committing to those parenting arrangements in the form of a court enforceable Settlement Agreement.
1. Should you get your child involved? You know your child better than anyone, so ask yourself, “Are they mature enough to formulate an opinion on this matter?” Sometimes it is good just to let them know they are being heard, even if you ultimately don’t follow their wishes. In your conversation with them, let them know that they are important, but that the parents are going to have the final say in what’s best for them.
2. Will the arrangement allow for the child to develop strong bonds with both parents? Children who have strong bonds with both parents seem to do better in life; at least in terms of their ability to form strong relationships with other people and, in particular, in their own marriages and romantic endeavors as they grow up. In order to form these parent-child bonds, it is important that children be given adequate time to bond with both parents. Sometimes, this means planning quality time rather than focusing on the quantity. For instance, a 60+ hour a week professional parent may not actually have the time to be a weekday custodial caretaker. That parent may only see his or her children off to school, but won’t be home until long after they are in bed. Perhaps in this case, it is better to focus on the quality time, ie. Being a “weekend parent” when there is free time to be attentive. (Note: There is a lot of discussion in mediation about whether a hard working parent’s mom (“grandma”) is a good substitute when that parent is unable to get home from work. Though this may be good for everyone, it doesn’t meet the goal of “bonding” with a parent and these types of situations must be considered on a case-by-case basis.)
3. Is the arrangement conducive for the child’s learning and growth? If your child is always stressed out because he or she feels bounced around between locations, their ability to absorb both your and the school’s teachings may be adversely affected. It is true that children need structure, the key reason behind writing a Parenting Arrangement in the first place. But stress can be cumulative and take some time to show in your child; that is why it is necessary to be on the lookout for it from the get-go. Parents who choose to have their children live in two separate homes must be on the alert to whether the stress caused by living in two different homes is balanced by the benefits of having two involved parents in the child’s life. Sometimes it is; sometimes it is not.
4. What kind of children do you have? This is the type of question that the courts do not have the resources or time to answer. You and your ex-spouse need to ask yourselves these kinds of questions: Do each of your children need to be on precisely the same schedule? Would a somewhat divergent schedule based on the children’s age, etc. allow for needed one-on-one time with each parent? Is your child organized? A little scattered? Can he or she handle the back and forth and keep track of his or her homework? Do your kids have a great need for down-time? Do they roll with things easily? Does it take them a while to get settled in to do their homework? Are they anxious? Carefree? With whom do they talk about their problems (if either of you)? Do they need a lot of discipline? Who is the disciplinarian? Is your child more bonded to one his or her parents than the other? Would spending days away from one or the other of you be devastating to them?
It can seem like a lot of work to figure out a good parenting arrangement agreement, because it is. Be aware that it should be a flexible agreement as you monitor your children and their responses. While kids can seem resilient, what happens to them as children will shape them as adults. If they don’t get the chance to bond with one of their parents, it may manifest itself in romantic relationship problems later in life. Moreover, their stress may keep them from growing in school, which is a possible foreshadowing of how well they may do in the job market.
None of this is said to frighten you, but rather to give you some tools to effectively craft a Settlement Agreement with your soon-to-be ex-spouse that is in the best interest of your children. Every family is different in the details, but if you offer your children love, a sense of safety, and emotional support, the odds are in your favor that your children will do just fine.
Written by Jane Baber, Mediation Assistant, and Robin Graine, JD, Virginia Supreme Court Certified Mediator
This blog and its materials have been prepared by Graine Mediation for informational purposes only and are not intended to be, are not, and should not be regarded as, legal advice. This information is not intended to create, and receipt of it does not constitute, an attorney-client relationship. Internet subscribers and online readers should not act upon this information without seeking professional counsel.