With divorce, there’s a lot of paperwork, red tape, and headaches to battle through. Chief among these is figuring out how to go about the business of raising kids across two households. No matter what the circumstances are, experts all agree that it is crucial that divorcing parents come up with a co-parenting agreement. In essence, the agreement is a written document that outlines point by point how the parents will raise the children once the divorce is finalized. This encompasses everything from dividing up when the children will visit to day-to-day things like bedtimes, school schedules and activities.
“The most important thing to realize out of the gate is that your co-parenting agreements, whatever they are, are for your kids,” says Karen Bonnell, a co-parenting mediator, coach, mentor and co-author of The Co-Parenting Handbook. “They’re not for you and your spouse. They’re for you to be the best parents you can be across two households. But we need to look at them through the lens of ‘What is the impact on our children?’ so that we’re giving them the childhood that they deserve.” With that in mind, here are six tips to consider when forming a co-parenting agreement.
Time Spent In Each House Should Be Substantial
When two parents divorce, that likely means there are two houses the kids will know split their time between. And how that time is divided up is very important. Two weekends a month and the occasional diner dinner on a weeknight just isn’t enough. A co-parenting plan has to take into account enough time so that both parents can enjoy quality time with the kids.
“This is what the research tells us,” Bonnell says. “There needs to be enough residential time with each parent to have an engaged and loving relationship with each parent.” Additionally, per Bonnell, when the kids do stay over for a weekend, make sure it’s for the full two days. “What we don’t want is kids just bouncing back and forth for one overnight,” she says. “That’s just disruptive. School-age kids do better when they get two overnights in a row with a parent. At least then they unpack their backpack. I always say to parents, that it’s kind of like when you go away for the weekend and you only go away for Friday night. It doesn’t feel like you got away. But if you go for both Friday and Saturday night, you feel like you’ve had a trip.”
Don’t Be A Slave to The Every-Other-Weekend Agreement
When it comes to divorce, the traditional arrangement has often been that the kids stay with one parent all week and then the other on rotating weekends. However, that arrangement often means that one parent is out of the loop on things like schoolwork and sports. An ideal co-parenting arrangement allows for both parents to know what’s happening in every aspect of their kids’ lives. “I want both parents to have time where they’re involved in school and schoolwork,” Bonnell says. “For those during the week rhythms, it’s useful if both parents know what’s going on with say, little Samuel’s geography class. And similarly, I want them both involved in weekend time so that they’re having that more relaxed, spacious open time with their children.”
Stay Open-Minded About Holidays
“When parents first separate,” says Bonnell, “kids often do better when they can share holidays with their parents because they’re adjusting to so much.” However, going forward, she notes, it’s good for parents to be open to the idea of kids spending one full holiday with one parent. “I tell parents that children want to relax on the holidays as much as we do,” she says. “And so the opportunity to have a whole Christmas with Dad one year and a whole Christmas with Mom another year, that’s what we’re really looking for.”
Consider New Partners
Keep in mind that the chances of either parent finding someone new is very high. And, when that happens, time spent with this new partner needs to be considered in a co-parenting situation. “This is sometimes hard to talk about,” says Bonnell, “but in the next two to five years, either one or both parents will re-couple and their children’s sense of family is going to change again. There are going to be other adults, there might be other children, and so, again, going back to holidays, if we’re pulling kids back and forth, how will they ever develop a sense of relationship and tradition with that parent’s now expanding family?”
Factor in Vacation Time
Whether it’s spring breaks, summertime, or Christmas vacation whenever kids are home for an extended period of time, it can definitely change the game for co-parents. With that in mind, it’s important to keep vacations in mind and make sure that both parents get their fair share of break time with the kids. “It’s one of those different qualities of time that we want parents to share,” Bonnell says. “So sometimes, parents will say, ‘Hey, there are two school breaks, one’s in the fall and one’s in the spring. How about one year you get the fall break and I get the spring break and then the next year we’ll reverse that so that we each get that different kind of time?”
Be Sure to Watch How It’s Worded
Given the contentious nature of divorce, one or both parties could easily be looking for any excuse to stir up trouble. And one prime target could be co-parenting agreement. As such, both parents need to make sure that it’s worded and put together in such a way that neither one feels slighted. “The courts really want to help parents stay out of conflict,” says Bonnell, “and one of the ways to do that is to say ‘Look, you’re going to create a parenting plan that’s going to be well-written right from the beginning so that neither one of you are sitting around thinking, ‘Well, I’m just going to change it.’”
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