This Blog is the second in a Series for divorced and/or separated parents, specifically addressing healthy outcomes for children of divorce. In the first Blog in the series, we listed several assumptions and then pointed out an irony, that the law focuses on decision-making and a Physical Custody Schedule, when the Schedule is the least important factor that science has informed us to predict the long-term outcomes for children. We then listed the Seven Factors involved in healthy outcomes for children and promised in this Series to provide information about each factor, beginning with the least important – the Custody Schedule.
Before doing so, however, we want to expand on one of our assumptions – that parents reading these blogs love their children. In our first Blog, we pointed out the two sides of the love coin: the gushy intense feelings of love; and the responsibility to do what helps our children grow up successfully. That responsibility includes making major sacrifices and many times putting our needs and feelings aside in order to do what our children need us to do. This is particularly hard in a divorce because parents enter the unnatural condition of not being with their children as much as we would want to. That pain is hard to bear and if parents choose to be with them even less at times, because that is what is needed for them, parents feel a great loss. Our goal in this series is to give parents good information on what children need their parents to do in order to turn out well, be happy with their family experience and have healthy adult relationships with their parents.
That being said, the Schedule is least important of the Seven Factors, but it is not trivial. Planning a child-friendly Schedule can be complicated, but there are some guiding principles that can help.
- Children do best if they are actively involved with both parents. There is no science that says that a Schedule should be equal time with each parent, but a good deal of science tells us that each parent should have all types of time with the children, including unstructured weekends, vacations, holidays, and weekdays, both during school and during summers. However, no study has shown that where children sleep affects outcomes, with the exception of infants and toddlers. Many states count overnights to determine a Schedule, but science says that overnights are largely irrelevant to outcomes for children. This gives parents the opportunity to plan where the children sleep based on what is simply the easiest to do. In other words, if both parents are actively involved with the children, the children can sleep wherever is most convenient, even if that is in only one home. The parent involvement that matters is during the day, although some important times might include early mornings and evenings. For example, helping children with their hygiene in the morning and getting to school are important times with parents. Additionally, nighttime routines, especially if that includes helping with chores, doing homework and so on, are also important parent-child times. On a practical level, then, it might be easiest for the child to sleep in both homes at least some of the time so that both parents can be involved in these activities.
- Logistics and parental availability should be guiding principles. The distance between homes can be a major benefit, if parents live near one another; and a major obstacle if they live a problematic distance from one another. A parent who is available after school is a major benefit to help the children with afterschool activities, getting homework done and so on. Support systems with extended family and others who can help out are a benefit to children and to their parents. This means that parents should work to make those supports available to both parents and not have tribal warfare in which extended families only help their own child.
- The Schedule should support the children’s lives outside of the family. This includes school, activities and social lives. Children have one life, not two, even if they have two homes. While parental involvement is very important, most of the growing up happens outside both homes: in school, in activities, with friends, with extended family members. The focus of a good Schedule is on facilitating the life of the child outside of the homes, but always with parental involvement.
- Infants and toddlers are particularly vulnerable to life-long problems if the parents do not design a Schedule that provides opportunities for the child to attach to both parents but not experience the stress of living in two homes. Usually this means frequent meaningful contact with both parents, but living mostly in one home and generally sleeping in one home. Only a high-quality co-parenting relationship can work with infants and toddlers. When we focus on the co-parenting relationship, we will provide tips for helping infants and toddlers grow up healthy.
Most important is that parents must establish that they are both parents 100% of the time; not the artificial percentages determined by a legally ordered Schedule. The temptation is to feel like you “own” your child during “your” time on the Schedule, but this is utter nonsense from a child’s point of view. That there are always two parents 100% of the time is accomplished through an effective co-parenting relationship, not a legally ordered Schedule. This is just one reason that the co-parenting relationship is highest on the list of factors that lead to healthy outcomes for children. More on this in a later Blog dealing with the design of an effective co-parenting relationship.
If you are thinking that a Schedule for separated parents sounds a lot like a Schedule for two parents living in the same home, you are onto something. Parents in the same home share time with their children by both being involved as much as they can, but accepting that work Schedules and other demands create logistics issues that might lead to one parent having more time with the children than the other. As long as both are involved, that difference in time is irrelevant. It is pure selfishness to try to be the “primary parent” or get a “50/50” Schedule. Children do not have a “primary parent” or need equal time with both parents. They need two parents, other important adults, and a focus on their one life with one family, even though parents live in separate homes. The Schedule is only helpful in identifying who is primarily responsible for the children at what times and on what days.