Parenting Plans – the nuts and bolts for effective co-parenting
For co-parenting to be effective, both parents need to consider the needs of the child above their own needs. A written parenting plan provides the structure necessary to get through a difficult time. It is like a map that gives directions on how the two of you agree to parent your child. This structured agreement offers the basis of security upon which the former spouses can build trust. A parenting plan should be built on a foundation of the developmental needs of the child. It is often useful to seek sound professional advice about the needs of children at different ages in devising a parenting plan.
It should be understood that what is appropriate for a child at a certain age will not necessarily be appropriate for the same child at a later age. The child’s temperament and response to changes should be addressed and monitored. For example, how adaptable is your child? How easily can he or she handle changes? How sensitive to stimuli is he? How much does she need a highly structured routine? How distractible is he?
Also, the child’s sense of time is an important factor in considering the duration a child can cope with separation from a parent. For example, young children (under five years of age or so) have only about a three-day memory for an absent parent. After about three days with no contact with the other parent (including no phone contact), these children may begin to show distress, because they have begun to “forget” the other parent, and thus they may feel abandoned. As children get older, they can handle increased time away from each parent. These facts, of course, mean that an agreement cannot be permanent but rather is always only temporary, good and useful only until the child and/or the circumstances change. A parenting plan should include a regular school year schedule, a holiday schedule and what happens on special occasion such as Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, birthdays. Consistency, especially in the initial phases of the arrangement is important. Once an agreement is reached the less there is to negotiate and the more that trust can be established between the parents. This is beneficial, since ultimately, it will likely nurture more flexibility between the parties.
An example parenting arrangement can be found here and contains probably about all of the usual provisions one might expect to see in a court parenting order.
The day-to-day parenting plan should take into consideration the reality of the child. For example, if the child is young, and/or has awareness that one of the parents has been the primary source of parenting, then such would be the starting point of the negotiated agreement. Gradual shifts from what is familiar to the child to what is possible are best for children. To alter this too suddenly would be more about meeting the needs of the adults than of the child. The child is then forced to sacrifice his or her needs, rather than the parents more appropriately making sacrifices for their child.
Responsibilities can be negotiated (for example, who will take the child to medical appointments, purchase clothing, etc.). Such responsibilities can be shared or specifically assigned to one parent, but it should be acknowledged in the agreement. If the parents have a comfortable level of communication, the flexibility to modify the agreement can be accomplished through mutual consent. If there is difficulty communicating, then it is more effective to keep the agreement structured, with little modification. Of course, it is helpful to specify how minor modifications can be made when a legitimate need arises (e.g., when one parent is tied up in traffic and does not make it on time to a scheduled transfer of the child; or, for example, when a child is very sick and transfer to the other parent is medically inadvisable).
It is also useful to set out specific guidelines for communication. These may include when, for how long, and how frequently the parents agree to talk business with one another regarding financial matters, legal matters, etc. Also, specified time should be set aside to discuss the children. It is critically important that these discussions NOT take place in earshot of the children. Such negotiations can frequently lead to conflict and even minor conflict in front of the children of separation and divorce can be distressing to the children.
Co-parenting can work more smoothly if there is a color-coded calendar at each home. Each parent is represented by a particular colour. In this way, even young children who cannot yet recognize letters can still associate one colour with Mommy, and a different colour with Daddy. Consistency of the colour assignment across households facilitates comfort in recognition for a young child.
Anchoring certain concepts to specific events is also useful for a young child. For example, you can say, “You will be seeing Mommy (or Daddy) after you go to sleep three times,” then “two times,” then “one time.” A young child does not really understand what a “Tuesday” is, nor what “next weekend” means. Young children are concrete thinkers. It helps a child to adjust if there is a picture of the other parent in the room where the child sleeps. That way, the memory of the other parent can be sustained in the child’s mind for a longer time between transfers.
Open phone access of the child with each parent is helpful, as long as neither parent is stressing the child. The call should be a special event and solely for the purpose of speaking with the children. It is most useful to not request to speak to the other parent when you call to speak to the child. Arguments that can ensue when you ask to speak to the other parent are experienced by the child as “my parents are arguing over me.” Of course, it is most helpful to teach the child how to call the other parent, without the need of parental assistance. Speed dial buttons on phones are perfect for young children doing this.
Similarly, during transfers of the child, be civil and brief, saying, “Hello,” “Thank you,” “Good bye.” Again, it is best to avoid discussing adult matters (money, schedules, lawyers, etc.) during transfer of the child.
If it is economically feasible, the child should have sufficient clothing and toys at both houses. This avoids the child feeling like a traveller carrying luggage. If possible, arrange to transfer the child at school or at childcare. One parent drops off; the other picks up. This tends to reduce the child’s separation anxiety that results from leaving one parent to go directly with the other. Being a co-parent requires a great deal of skill. This includes the ability to listen and to avoid getting defensive. The ability to let your former partner parent the child his or her own way is a skill. It need not be perfect, or as good as your parenting style, but it just has to be good enough. It helps to understand that the child can benefit from what each of you has to offer. It is a skill to present a concern and let the other parent deal with it as he or she sees best.
It is helpful for both parents to comprehend that they are in a joint business enterprise. Their business is to raise their child and provide the necessary skills for this child to grow into a productive member of society. That does not require you to like each other or to want to spend time together. It just requires an understanding that, for the sake of the child, you let go of the animosity and resentment towards each other, and let your child love each of you.