One repetitive and especially pernicious theme concerning custody disputes that we often see here at Prince Law, is the failure or practical inability of former spouses or partners to effectively co-parent.
Surely, few things in this world breed contempt like a permanent separation and that rule of thumb is usually only enhanced where a child-in-common is concerned. The breakdown of trust, communication, and cooperation between former partners or spouses can sometimes be remedied by a formal Custody Order, setting forth fairly strict guidelines concerning the parents’ responsibilities to the child and to each other, but not always. That is, even the most airtight Order (assuming that there is some form of split custody) still contemplates some amount of effective cooperation between the parents.
For these reasons, and to prevent the dysfunction which ensues in the life of a child where separated parents cannot seem to get along, we always urge parents to consciously practice certain co-parenting skills by all means possible. We have come to find that parents’ reasonably working together is the best medicine for over-litigiousness and a prophylactic against a seriously unhappy and confused children.
The following is a basic outline of some of the measures which may be taken to ensure the best interests of a child despite separation and irrespective of whether a Custody Order is in place.
A) Scheduling Visitation. Encouraging a child to spend time with the other (non-primary custodian) parent is vital. Spending substantial amount of time in both households is a boon to the psychological wellbeing of a child, therefore it is necessary that each parent be willing to be both flexible and generous with regards to scheduling the other parent’s custody time. If, for instance, one parent’s work schedule does not permit her to exercise her ordinary custody in a given week, the other party should be agreeable to modifying his general custody to accommodate. To concretely illustrate what a flexible and accommodating custody arrangement can look like, consider the “2/5 split” suggested for parents who both work full time jobs, Monday through Friday. Under the “2/5” split, one parent would have custody of the child Monday and Tuesday while the other parent would have Wednesday and Thursday; the parents would then alternate the remaining Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. Hence, it is called the “2/5” split because, in any given week, one parent would have 2 custodial days while the other would have 5. Furthermore, each party’s permitting a reasonable amount of flexibility in the schedule fosters reciprocating spirit of cooperation and open-dialogue which can be invaluable to avoiding legal disputes down the road.
B) Rules & Routines. Children, by their nature, are “creatures of habit” and require structure. Too often, in split-custody situations, we come across the good-cop/bad-cop paradigm of parenting. Frequently, a parent (typically the one having less than primary physical custody) will make up for time without his child, by failing to enforce discipline in the form of consistent rules and routines for the child. That parent conceives of himself as the good-cop and his conduct is marked by lax-parenting where he allows the child to do essentially whatever he wants. Conversely, the other parent (typically the one having primary custody) becomes the bad-cop where she must shoulder the responsibilities of discipline and structure. This model is obviously not only unfair to the bad-cop, it confuses the child and is a glaring example of co-parenting gone wrong. Therefore, it is important that to the extent possible, both parents maintain the same firm and consistent rules for the child. This latter arrangement is ultimately far healthier for the child and prevents the child from manipulating one parent against the other. Moreover, consistent rules make the job of parenting individually easier for both parties.
C) Responsible Role Model. Nothing influences a child’s development more than the actions of his parents. Whether they convey this or not, children are constantly defining their world, their norm, by what they see their parents/custodians do and how they otherwise act. This point underlines the importance of separated parties’ at least remaining civil to one another. As Family Law attorneys, we can readily acknowledge that separations are often the result of real hurt and/or animosity between people but putting aside that pain for the best interest of a child will reap a great reward.
D) Paper Trail. Consistency of routines (especially custody scheduling) and rules are best facilitated by reducing arrangements to writing. One of the single most effective ways to keep a party obligated to his role as a co-parent is to document arrangements. Short of a formal Court Order (which is always advisable), keeping text messages, e-mails and other communications wherein a party pledged to affirmatively do something or refrain from doing something, in relation to the child, leads to effective co-parenting.
E) Easy Does It. We have heard a few horror stories about what can happen, during child drop-offs, between parents who don’t like each other. Dovetailing with the “Responsible Role Model” objective discussed above, picking-up and dropping-off a child should NEVER become an occasion for parents to renew their hostilities. If the hatred is really that bad, the parties should consider a busy, public location whereat it would be plainly inopportune to argue or otherwise act uncivilly.
F) To Have His Own. Ownership of things is an important aspect in a child’s development, especially in terms of learning independence. Frequently, one parent, out of ill-will to the other parent, will forbid the child traveling between residences with things bought for the child by the other parent. This is an extreme and counterproductive position that will surely back-fire at some point. Children quickly figure out when a parent is using them as a pawn in some grander battle and when the child realizes that one parent would rather the child not have certain things because it comes from the other parent, resentment quickly follows.
Far from exhaustive, the skills of parenting outlined above are just a few of the methods available to ensure the best interest of children. Inherently, children are a work in progress and require as much love, support, and cooperation from and between their parents as is possible. I hope the reader, facing a co-parenting dilemma of his or her own, will find this helpful.