One of the most difficult challenges facing parents at the time of separation is deciding how they will divide responsibility for and time with their children. Parents sometimes fear that loss of their adult relationship will also mean loss of their parent-child relationship. They are also concerned about the potential negative impact of their separation on their children’s healthy development.
Before designing a plan for your family, you should consider your own unique situation. Raising children is difficult for all parents. When parents live in separate homes the challenges are greater because relationships are more complicated. Sometimes one parent disagrees about how much time a child should spend with the other.
Before planning a time-sharing arrangement for your family, it is helpful to consider:
- The age, temperament and social adjustment of each child.
- Any special needs of each child (medical, developmental, educational, emotional or social).
- The quality of relationships between siblings and any other extended family members.
- Each child’s daily schedule.
- Caregiving responsibilities of each parent before the separation.
- How you would like to share responsibilities both now and in the future.
- Availability of each parent as a caregiver.
- Potential flexibility of each parent’s work schedule.
- Distance between each parent’s home, workplace and children’s schools.
- The ability of parents to communicate and cooperate with each other.
- The ability and willingness of each parent to learn basic caregiving skills such as feeding, changing and bathing a young child; preparing a child for daycare or school; taking responsibility for helping with homework; assessing and attending to each child’s special emotional and social needs.
Before designing your plan, answering the following questions may help you focus on your family’s circumstances.
- What responsibilities have each of you assumed for childcare prior to separation? For example, who has taken the children to school; helped with homework; scheduled and/or taken children to medical appointments?
- How has each of you been involved in each child’s recreational activities such as sports, music, dance, or after school clubs?
- What are the most important issues for each of your children; what do you believe are their individual needs?
- What do you see as each of your strengths as a parent?
- How do you want to share parental responsibilities for your children?
- How do your children get along with each other? Should you consider spending some separate time with each of them?
- Have you thought about your children’s preferences?
- What will you have to do to put your children’s needs ahead of your own?
- Can you protect your children from your own conflicts, disappointments and adult concerns?
- Have you discussed with each other how and when to tell the children the details of your parenting plan?
When designing your parenting plan, you should be specific about such things as:
- Who will do the driving for pick-ups and drop-offs?
- What time will holiday and vacation periods begin and end?
- How much advance notice is required for choosing vacation times?
- Who will be responsible for childcare when a child is sick and unable to go to school?
- Who will schedule routine medical and dental appointments?
- Who will be responsible for buying presents for the birthday parties to which your child will be invited?
- How will you share the responsibility for your child’s birthday celebrations?
- If one parent is unavailable during that parent’s scheduled time, should the other parent be offered the opportunity to be with the child?
Even if you are certain that you can work these things out as they occur, having a plan to fall back on is the best way to guard against conflict in the future.
Parents should consider the age and development of their children when developing a parenting plan. However, parents should remember that each child must be seen as an individual. Children develop at varying speeds, depending upon many things such as individual temperament, place in the family, and outside events that affect their lives. Separation and divorce present a series of major stressors in a child’s life and can cause a child to regress temporarily. If this regression happens, it may be helpful to adjust your parenting plan.
Sample parenting plans are available for review to assist in developing your plan. These plans differ in age and also address safety, transportation, holidays, vacation, and educational issues. Sample 1 is developed for a young child with a primary parent, frequent contact with the other parent but no overnight visitation and addresses safety and transportation issues. Sample 2 is developed with a primary parent, every other weekend visitation and addresses substance abuse issues. Sample 3 is developed as a 50/50 shared parenting plan and addresses extra-circular activities and summer vacations. A blank parenting plan is available through the Court Assistance Office.
Information divided into age groupings based upon developmental norms that may be helpful in developing a parenting plan is available at Planning for Shared Parenting: A Guide for Parents Living Apart. This booklet was written in 2005 under the sponsorship of the Massachusetts Chapter of the Association of Family and Conciliation Courts (AFFC).