As a Guardian Ad Litem, I see a wide range of parenting time schedules. Under some schedules, a child may bounce from household to household every two to three days (often referred to as a “suitcase child”); under others, a child may not see the other parent for two weeks. It is very important in creating a parenting time schedule that the parents consider the developmental needs of the child and how those needs may change in the future.
For infants and very young children, for example, I often examine the parenting schedule prior to the parents’ separation. If both parents played an active role in the day-to-day care of a young child, a schedule which disrupts that relationship by limiting one parent’s involvement may adversely affect the child’s attachment and bond to that parent.1 Conversely, removal of a child from a parent who has been the primary caregiver may be stressful for the child.
In crafting a parenting time schedule, a critical consideration will be the relationship between the parents. Co-parenting between high conflict parents is extraordinarily difficult and often causes additional stress on the children. Courts are reluctant, I have found, to implement custody arrangements and schedules which require frequent communication and contact between high conflict parents. (Custody evaluators and Guardians Ad Litem must be careful to deliniate between situational conflict, such as litigation, which may cease at the conclusion of the case, and high conflict parenting, which will continue after the litigation ends).
High conflict parents are often unable to reach a parenting time agreement, requiring a judge to craft a parenting schedule for them. I have found that in the absence of agreement, courts often implement an alternating-weekend schedule with exchanges taking place at school, for example, in order to limit parental contact. Judges do not want to impose schedules which require frequent parental contact and communication because such schedules may cause additional stress for the child. Exchanges can be extraordinarily difficult when the parents are hostile and inclined to argue in the child’s presence.
Unfortunately, the crafting of a parenting schedule can degenerate into a power struggle between the parents, and the needs of the child can be ignored. Often one parent will demand a parenting schedule that provides him or her no less than 50 percent of the parenting time with the child, regardless of how much time that parent has spent with the child in the past. For those parents, the parenting time schedule it is more about what is “fair” to them. They simply cannot understand how any child could benefit from an arrangement which gives one parent greater time with the child. For other parents, it is very important to have a piece of paper that says “50-50”, although it may not reflect the reality of the arrangement. Some parents literally count days with the child and refuse to accept a schedule in which their time with the child does not exceed the other parent’s time. For a limited number of parents, a motivating factor in the creation of their parenting plan is the level of child support he or she may have to pay, reasoning that the more parenting time they are granted, the less support they will be ordered to pay.
A parent’s proximity to one another will be a decisive factor in a parenting plan. Geographical separation can limit, or completely eliminate, the possibility of co-parenting. In those situations, it may be important for parents to create a parenting plan which utilizes technology (e.g., FaceTime, Skype) to maintain the non-resident parent’s presence in the child’s life.
These are just a few scenarios that come up in crafting parenting plans. Clearly, there are no one-size-fits-all parenting plans; however, the primary consideration should always be what is in the best interests of the child, not the parents.
- (See Lamb, M. E., & Kelly, J. B. (2009). Improving the quality of parent-child contact in separating families with infants and young children: Empirical research foundations. In R. M. Galatzer-Levy, L. Kraus, & J. Galatzer-Levy (Eds.), The scientific basis of child custody decisions (2nd ed., pp. 187–214). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley)