Most divorcing parents are understandably concerned about the custody status of their children because it defines how the major decision-making responsibilities will be allocated, and may influence where the children live. However, what primarily impacts the children's lives is not their custody status but the schedule of time that they spend with each parent and the nuts and bolts of how that schedule is implemented. This blueprint for the children's care, called the "parenting plan", should be a much more comprehensive document than the typical "visitation agreement". A successful parenting plan needs to incorporate sufficient details to ensure children will not experience ongoing arguments and conflicts between their parents about the arrangements they are putting in place.
In the interests of their children, a parenting plan which maintains a strong relationship with both parents should be created, irrespective of who has legal or physical custody. A comprehensive plan offers children a predictable pattern to their lives, regardless of the quality, frequency and reliability of parent-to-parent communication.
TO BE EFFECTIVE A PARENTING PLAN NEEDS TO:
(1) Define the time that children spend with each parent.
Whether the division of time is equal or unequal, it is important to ensure that whatever time is available to each parent is allocated in emotionally rewarding blocks.
Short visits, especially those less than three hours, create a high likelihood of emotional frustration and acting out.
Children deserve to have a schedule which includes an opportunity for individual time alone with each parent.
(2) Set out the time and place involved in each handover from the care of one parent to the other.
Parent-to-parent handovers create tension and are often the reason children are witness to parental hostility.
Pick-up or return to a neutral location, e.g. school or library, are less likely to cause stress for children than handovers that occur at the home of a parent.
(3) Set out the guidelines for how parents can stay in contact with their children by telephone or other means, such as fax and e-mail.
Setting a window of time for telephone calls usually works better than setting a specific time.
In most families one call a day from a parent to the children is sufficiently frequent.
Unlimited phone contact can be intrusive and/or disruptive. The need for frequent communication can often be better handled by fax, e-mail, or IM.
When setting up a plan for staying in touch consider privacy issues for the children so that communication can be free of parental interference.
(4) Define how holidays and vacations will be allocated each year.
Assigning national and religious holidays to a specific parent by dividing them equally or alternating each year-by-year, may be fair but compromises the regular schedule by causing the need to add make-up time.
Splitting up the actual day of the holiday is very disruptive for children. Trading one day for another whole day, or trading one week for another is preferable.
Christmas is especially problematic as it has special meaning for most families. But in a given year, parents can trade a 3-4 day block around Christmas for a 3-4 day block at Thanksgiving. This arrangement offers children the best opportunity of enjoying both holidays without painful loyalty choices.
Children whose lives are fragmented by a schedule which has frequent transitions will benefit from spending long blocks of uninterrupted time during school vacations with each parent.
(5) Define what will happen in case of a last minute delay or cancellation.
Not only the children, but also both parents, will inevitably be impacted by last minute changes or cancellations.
Developing a contingency plan for alternate child care, and covering the cost, is imperative so as not to result in arguments and acts of retribution.
Make-up time needs to be addressed.