Parenting Issues in Divorce

Here are the key issues parents need to work through as they negotiate the terms of their divorce. Your key challenge is to find ways to be good parents for your children even after you are divorced.

Most of the parenting questions you need to resolve fall into three main categories:

Where Will the Children Live?

You have several options here. Your first option is to plan for the children to live with one of you all the time. This is the traditional, and by far most common, arrangement for parenting.

If you’re taking this approach, you can plan for the children to spend time with the other parent on something like a standard visitation schedule. You could opt to increase the visitation time by adding a weeknight, perhaps a sleepover weeknight. You could also opt for something vague like “reasonable visitation” or “liberal visitation,” both of which place the burden on the two of you — and your children, by the way — to make it work.

Your second option is for the children to alternate between your two homes. Despite the unreflective or uninformed condemnation of equal-time parenting from some persons, research indicates that children who grow up in an equal-time parenting arrangement are no more likely (and no less likely) to experience difficulty. The key variable for children is not the extent to which they switch residences but the extent to which Mom and Dad fight.

Here’s a software program you might want to check out, called Kidmate. I haven’t seen it and don’t know how useful it is. At $85 (drastically reduced from the price they were charging for it when it was new on the market), it seems worth a try if you and your spouse are struggling with how to keep up with the children’s schedules.

In general, equal time parenting arrangements rarely last through the teenage years. As children move into and through their teenage years, they are likely to prefer a single residence so their friends can find them easily, and parents generally try to accommodate that.

Your third option is called “nesting,” in which the children stay in one home and the parents move in and out on a periodic basis. Typically, each parent will maintain a separate residence where they live when it’s not their time with the children. Nesting is sort of like the weather; everybody talks about it but few parents actually opt to do it.

Even when parents opt for nesting, it rarely lasts forever. The most likely disruption of nesting comes not from the growing up of the children but from new partners that come into Mom’s or Dad’s life.

Major Decisions

What happens when your daughter needs braces? When your son gets leukemia and you have to decide whether to use surgery or chemo alone? When your daughter is hanging around the teen club and you have to decide whether to restrict her involvement? When it’s time to decide whether your daughter should join the church? These are vexing questions even for intact families; they’re especially challenging when there’s tension between Mom and Dad. Many divorcing couples resolve this issue by turning all the major decisions over to one parent; I, for one, think that’s an entirely rational choice, but it may not be the best choice for the two of you.

If you’re going to share major decisions, how? Will you simply keep talking until you agree? Will you usemediation if necessary? Will you apportion responsibility? Here’s one list of the major categories of parental decision-making, if you want to allocate them, together with my entirely subjective guess about their “power factor” in most families:

Decision Category Power Factor:
Academic High
Athletic Low
Religious Low
Civic and Cultural Low
Medical and Dental High
Lifestyle Low

How do You Handle Change?

When children grow up with both parents, they normally shift their loyalties between their parents. They want to be closer to Dad for a while. Then they want to be closer to Mom. It’s okay. It’s natural.

Come divorce, though, and we lock parents and their children into a rigid structure. Any change is an occasion for painful, defensive struggles for turf. Children learn. They figure out that they have extraordinary power over their parents based on those shifting allegiances. It’s degrading and unpleasant for parents and children alike, but it happens.

The most effective parenting plans, the most compassionate parenting plans, are designed to be flexible. That doesn’t mean children need to be moving back and forth with every whim, but it may mean that the two of you build in a chance to re-examine your residential plans and visitation schedules on a periodic basis, so both of you can review them without defensiveness and without feeling threatened.

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