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How to Create a Successful Parenting Plan

When your divorce or separation includes children, one of the most important decisions you must make is how you will arrange your children’s time. Your parenting plan, formerly called custody and visitation, should be tailored to the needs, challenges, and opportunities for your specific family.

Whether you and your ex can sit down together in a coffee shop, or you work with a mediator or in collaborative process, here are some important considerations for mapping out a successful plan:

Consider Different Kinds of Time

Dr. Isolina Ricci, author of Mom’s House, Dad’s House, recommends that when you are designing a parenting plan that you think about different kinds of time you spend with your children - for example:

  • Regular at-home time (naps, meals, homework, bath, chores)
  • Overnights
  • Outside activities spent together (sports, shopping, visiting relatives)
  • Holidays and special days (birthdays), and
  • Time the children spend away from both parents (school, friends’ homes, lessons)

No matter how much time each parent spends with the children, it should include these kinds of times.

Also, consider how much input the children should have. Parents must make decisions for young children, but teens might feel more empowered if they are able to have some input.

Age-Appropriate Planning

How should every-day time spent with each parent be split? Assuming there are no issues of safety in either home, the answer largely depends on two factors – your family’s unique needs and the development stage of your children.

First consider the logistics – your work schedules, your children’s activities, how you’ll arrange pick-ups or drop offs, and any childcare arrangements. Can the children get to school from both parents’ houses? Also consider the emotional aspects – how well your children can adapt to transitions, how well siblings get along with each other and other family members, and how well you communicate with your ex. Understanding what works for your unique situation will help create a plan that works for your family.

Second, consider your child’s development stage – are they very young or older? How much attention do they need and how much transition can they handle?

Babies and young children need more attention and structure. Infants need frequent physical contact with each caretaker, as well as a predictable schedule. Toddlers still need frequent contact, but have more awareness of others, so sibling relationships may also be important to them. A plan for a family with infants or toddlers may involve 3 or 4 changes a week (2 days or so at each home, or for one parent to take the children out for a few hours while they are staying with the other parent).

Older children may be more flexible. By the time children reach elementary school age, they can spend a few more days with each parent, and can use other types of contact (like telephone or Skype) to stay connected. A plan for adolescents, may involve the children spending a week with each parent. This is a time when they are exploring relationships with peers, so they need their parents to catch them when they fall! A plan for teens, however, may involve the children spending a week with each parent.

Another popular plan for older children is to spend Monday and Tuesday with one parent, Wednesday and Thursday with the other, and alternate weekends. This allows the children to spend equal time with each parent, while not being away from either parent more than 5 days in a row.

This part of the plan should be particularly mindful about where and how the children do their homework. If pick up and drop offs are at school, does that mean that the child has to bring a huge backpack back and forth? Is one parent more likely to do homework with the child?

Dividing the Holidays

Holiday planning does not need to be difficult if you follow these steps. First, pull out your calendar and figure out which holidays are the least important to each of you. For instance, some parents want the children with them on their own birthdays, and others don’t care. How do you feel about them?

Then look at your own work schedules and think about whether you and the other parent are both available on school holidays. Are you both off from work on days like Columbus Day? Veteran’s Day? Election Day? There might be a natural way to break this down.

What about the holidays that always fall on a Monday? – Martin Luther King’s Birthday Celebration, Memorial Day, Labor Day, Columbus Day? If one parent has the children for the weekend and usually returns the kids on Sunday, you might want to extend these weekends to Monday at the same time.

You might notice that I didn’t include Washington’s Birthday or Easter Monday above, even though these may also be school holidays. That is because, at least in our school district, they are always included in the February and April week long school breaks. You might alternate these, or you might decide to each take of the vacation.

Finally, tackle the important holidays. If a particular holiday (e.g. Christmas) is really important to one parent and not to the other, the children may spend that holiday with that parent each year, and another with the other parent.

When a holiday is important to both families, parents sometimes alternate, so the children spend Christmas with Dad in even years, and with Mom in odd years. Or, if parents spend holidays close to each other, they may split the holiday itself, so the children spend the morning with one parent and the evening with the other. And in some families, it may work for the parents to spend time with the children together, or to split the children up so the parents spend time alone with each parent. Again, think about what this experience is like for your children, and make sure there is time for them to participate in extended family celebrations.

It may be tempting to plan out only the upcoming year, but it’s better if you can come up with an ongoing plan. You can always go back and change it later, if you both agree.

Summer Vacation

How long do you each want to have the children for during the summer? Do you take vacation? Do you travel? What kinds of activities do your children do – are they in day camp or at sleep away camp? Do they spend time with extended family? Parents often want to keep things as “normal” as possible, so you might want to work your schedule around your children’s schedules here. When do you want to know from your ex about their schedules? Some parents put in a clause that says they will let each other know by a particular date (e.g. May 1) of the spring before – or whenever the camp deposit is due!

How You Handle Emergencies

Parenting plans often contain wording about flexibility. Who will stay home if one of the children is sick? What if the “parent on duty” has to travel? Or is sick? What if one parent has a family wedding that the children are invited to? What are the consequences if a parent is late picking up or dropping off? Who will take the child to doctor’s appointments? Birthday parties?

Other considerations

How do you and your ex get along? How is your communication? The more strained the communication, the more things should be clear in writing. For instance, you might want to include provisions in the agreement as to who will do the pick up and drop off, the times that the pick up/drop off will occur, and contingency plans in case one of you is running late or has an emergency. You also might want to make clear how you will make decisions in the future. For instance, if you mediated this agreement, will you return to mediation?

Finally, if both parents are comfortable using the computer, consider using software that might help make everything concrete. It may be a simple as Google calendar (which is free), or you might invest in more robust programs designed for parenting plans, such as Our Family Wizard, KidsFirst!, or 2houses.com.

A good parenting plan will be about logistics. But more importantly, it will foster loving and consistent relationships between your children and the adults they love.


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