Most people who divorce would like their children to be happy. However, more important than being happy, most parents would rather that, when grown, their children lead successful lives: that they have a career or job that works for them; that they are socially successful with friends; that they get into a relationship that leads to marriage and perhaps children of their own; that they are free of the burdens of addictions, mental health problems and chronic health problems; and that they continue to interact with their divorced parents.
These long-term goals for children sometimes are more important than the short-term wish for happy children. In order to lead those healthy adult lives, children must learn to be competent, confident and independent. To be competent and confident, children need to learn good work habits, apply themselves in academics, housekeeping tasks, social situations (like extracurricular activities) and physical activity for exercise. In many families, this includes religious training and moral development. Having these expectations can sometimes make children unhappy in the short-term. This includes forcing children to do chores and homework, punishing for breaking rules, insisting extracurricular activities, limiting screen time, having bed times, having good eating habits, and so on. In other words, to reach good long-term outcomes for their children, parents sometimes need to do hard things that make their children temporarily unhappy.
Social science research has identified clear predictors of outcomes for children whose parents are separated. Many parents getting a divorce or separation find themselves arguing over the physical custody schedule for the children. However, the research tells us that the physical custody schedule is way down on the list of predictors of outcomes for children. The reasons that the schedule often jumps up in importance is partly emotional and partly a trap of divorce laws and the divorce legal system (see the Ten Traps Series).
No parent likes to lose time with their children and lose control of their children’s experiences, and a separation and divorce threatens both. That is the emotional part. The trap is that the law focuses on the division of property and treats children as property. The word “custody” has its history in property law, because children were considered property until the late 19th century. Children were “awarded” to one parent, like a house or a horse. Now, children are not awarded to one parent, as they had been for hundreds of years. Time with the children is awarded based on some sort of schedule. Divorce law deals with the distribution of property, including time with the children. Therefore, the schedule is thrust into a focal point by the traditional family law system, trapping parents into thinking it is important.
What does social science research tell us is important to outcomes for children? The two leading contenders that vie (depending on the study) for first place are the quality of parenting in both homes and the family atmosphere (the latter being dominated by the relationship between the separated parents).
The first contender (quality of parenting) is obvious. If the parents are teaching their children to be competent, confident and independent, sometimes making the children unhappy, the children have a good chance of turning out that way.
The second contender (family atmosphere) is a bit subtler. It is not as simple as “getting along” or the absence of destructive conflict, although that is an important part of it. Studies of separated parents who have children who had successful long-term outcomes identify five basic tasks that lead to that success:
- Having good communication (information sharing, problem solving and decision making
- Coordinating the parenting across households
- Designing kid-friendly transitions from home to home
- Maintaining access systems (telephone access, flexibility in the schedule, even spending time together with the children)
- Establishing rules of conduct.
These five tasks not only accomplish important goals for the children but also change the emotional experience for the parents. When parents engage in these tasks, both parents remain parents 100% of the time, instead of the artificial allocation of time created by a rigid physical custody schedule.
Let’s flesh these tasks out a little.
Having Good Communication: Communication has two parts: sharing information and taking action. Sharing information is obvious and simple. When parents live in the same house, they take sharing information for granted because they either are both present or they talk about what went on with the children every day. When separated, the parents have to set up a means of sharing information with one another. Successful parents spend time every week, or in some cases almost every day, speaking to one another and sharing information about the children.
Taking action can be a bit more challenging. Taking action addresses making decisions and solving problems. This is easy when parents agree, but can be challenging when parents disagree. One of the skills that successful parents teach their children is how to resolve disagreements. However, often parents who divorce have trouble themselves resolving disagreements.
In some disagreements, one person is right and the other is wrong, and a good discussion can illuminate this. A healthy person admits to being wrong and gives in to the person who is right. However, some disagreements involve two people who disagree, where both believe they, and perhaps even are right. Parents teach and model how to resolve those disagreements, but if they themselves do not have those skills, they are unable to accomplish this. If parents have trouble resolving disagreements, they should meet with someone who can teach these methods. This is very important for children (see the blog series “Becoming an Expert Problem Solver”).
Coordinating the Parenting Across Households: The more similar the two households are, the better children turn out. Parents can have different styles, but the more similar the basic household routines, chores and responsibilities, schedules and so on, the easier it is for children to go back and forth. More importantly, children internalize skills that lead to later success. If the households are too different, children learn a totally different set of skills; they learn to adapt to different environments.
For example, if one household has chores and the other does not, rather than learning competencies and becoming a good housemate, the child resents the parent and prefers the good life at the other home. This is critical with young children because of the tasks involved. For example, the foundations for good work habits are built from about 3 to 5 years old, and to build those, both parents should provide almost the same experiences in the two homes (e.g., task-oriented behavior, like puzzles). It goes without saying that other tasks, like toilet training, are likely to have better outcomes if the parents are using the same or similar methods and routines.
Designing Child-friendly Transitions from Home to Home: Moving from one home to the other is stressful for children. Successful parents spend time designing the transitions to be the least stressful possible. They work out a system for handling the clothing, for getting things that are at the other house when needed, spending a little time together at the transition, sending transition objects with the child, like a blanket or stuffed animal, letting the child take toys, and so on.
Maintaining Access Systems: This is essentially having flexibility in the family for contact between children and both parents. This includes fairly open telephone contact, procedures for the child to see both parents off schedule, procedures for the parents to get the children off-schedule when opportunities arise, access to grandparents and other extended family in both homes, and so on. In the social science research, children rate this task as second in importance to how well their parents got along with one another. This is also another way that parents can feel like parents 100% of the time, even though they are not always with the children.
Establishing Rules of Conduct: All relationships have rules. However, in many cases, separated parents, allow themselves the freedom to break those rules and treat each other poorly. Children often find this confusing, but more often as painful. It also has another harmful effect: it disrupts the first four tasks above. Parents will stop speaking to one another and sharing information if the interaction is painful. Parents will some making decisions together, as it leads to painful arguments. Parents will rigidly follow the schedule and deny each other and the children flexibility, and the household routines will diverge more and more. Transitions will be anxiety producing for the children and often for the parents.
Establishing rules of conduct is simply agreeing to be courteous and respectful in general and then applying this standard to certain situations. For example, when designing transitions, parents should design rules for parental behavior at transitions so that the experience is pleasant for everyone. When both parents are at an activity, the parents should design rules for friendly and courteous interaction, so that the children are happy both parents attended.
Conclusion: Separated parents who are truly interested in the long-term outcome for their children must design a physical custody schedule. That is the law. If you are one of these parents, you should put much more time and energy into the five tasks written above, which social science research informs us are much more important. Agree on methods to share information. Coordinate the parenting and design chil-friendly transitions. Above all, develop rules of conduct that model social maturity to your children and make the other four tasks comfortable and pleasant. If you have trouble resolving disagreements, meet with someone who can teach these methods. If you have parenting weaknesses, meet with someone who can do parenting training. If you follow our advice, you enhance the likelihood of having a Happy Baby!
 In most jurisdictions, the children’s schedule is important (and often critical), regarding child support, who is awarded the family residence, child removal from the State, and so on.