By Peter J. Favaro, Ph.D. — McGraw-Hill Professional
This is a difficult topic to discuss with people because many myths circulate about how children should share time with their divorced or separated parents. There are certain statements that, when repeated often enough, are taken as facts or standards. The only "fact" that applies to the creation of parenting schedules is that children generally adjust to whatever their parents approve of and feel comfortable with. This means that if two parents decide that an every-other-day visitation schedule, which is typically not a good schedule for children, happens to be what is best for them, the children will most likely adjust; and if they do not adjust, the parents should modify it. Your attitude toward the long-term schedule you choose will determine your children's attitude in most cases.
Making Two Homes for Your Child
There is no visitation schedule that is all good or all bad from a purely practical point of view. You might have to experiment with a few different types of schedules before something will prove to be a good fit in the long term. You will also need to adjust the schedule based on the developmental and social needs of your children.
One very common reason a parent might deny visitation is a stated desire for their children to have "a home base," or "one home." This concern is completely without merit. Most of the time, parents who say they want their children to have a "home base" want to control visitation, or they want to be able to show that they have the children for the majority of time so that they can be awarded child support. It is perfectly normal for children to feel comfortable living in both of their parents' homes.
With a little work and cooperation, children can have two comfortable beds for sleeping, two places to do their homework, and two parents who act like real parents. The keys to this are cooperation, sharing of parental responsibilities, a common set of disciplinary rules, and civilized behavior between the parents.
When parents live in close proximity, the practical aspects of coparenting are easier, and it is easier to develop parenting schedules that include sharing weekday time. I do not favor the type of visitation that presumes that the noncustodial parent receives every other weekend visitation and one dinner visit during the week. The typical Wednesday night 6:00 to 8:00 visit rarely amounts to more than the visiting parent running out to a fast-food restaurant, helping the kids do homework on top of greasy wrappers, and running the children back to the custodial parent's home. This becomes even more difficult when the child is involved in an after-school activity like sports or music lessons.
Let's take a close look at the practical aspects of this common visitation schedule. A weekend consists of, at most, Friday evening to Sunday evening, a forty-eight-hour period of contact. If visitation is every other weekend, that makes two forty-eight-hour periods of visitation per month. I typically ask custodial parents if they think two forty-eight-hour periods a month would be enough time for them to influence their child the way they desire. Of course, most say that is not enough, yet many of them find it acceptable for children to have so little contact with the noncustodial parent.
That is because people have been told over the years that this is an acceptable schedule of contact for the noncustodial parent. If the noncustodial parent doesn't want any more time than that, you certainly cannot force it on him. But many parents want to have full and complete relationships with their children. They want to be involved. This cannot happen on an every-other-weekend schedule.
There are several ways to accomplish a more complete relationship between the children and both parents. The first and easiest way is to be certain that the noncustodial parent has access to after-school activities and functions. That way, even if there is only every-other-weekend visitation, the child can see the noncustodial parent during the week in a traditional parenting role. The second way to accomplish this is to permit the noncustodial parent to stop by the children's residence after school to say hello.
This situation might not seem realistic if you and your co-parent hate each other, but the question always boils down to whether you want to do what is best for your children or vent your rage at the co-parent for the rest of your children's lives.
When parents cannot tolerate one another's presence, the children should not suffer for lack of contact with either parent. Mom not liking Dad or Dad not liking Mom is not a sufficient reason for denying a child access to a parent. Yet it is the most common reason why visitation is denied or limited.
When Midweek Visits Don't Work
What can a noncustodial parent do when he does not get along with the co-parent and cannot visit the children for practical reasons during the week? One option is to seek more weekend visitation; instead of every other weekend, try three out of four weekends. Another very successful option is to split the year into ten five-week blocks instead of twelve four-week blocks. This takes a little more planning, but it can give the noncustodial parent three out of five weekends instead of two out of four weekends.
In a three-fifths weekend visitation schedule, the weeks are arranged in a five-week recurring A-B-B-A-B cycle in which A is the custodial parent and B is the visiting parent. On the first weekend of the cycle, the custodial parent has weekend visitation; on the second and third weekends the noncustodial parent has the weekend. On the fourth week, the weekend goes to the custodial parent, and on the fifth week, the weekend goes to the noncustodial parent. After the fifth week, the cycle starts again.
It is best to describe visitation in terms of a repeating cycle rather than referring to the first week of the month, the second week of the month, and so on. Months vary in the number of weeks, offering a cause for confusion and argument over "extra" weekends. Two-week repeating cycles are adequate to describe most visitation schedules. When a generic Week 1 and Week 2 are agreed to, simply mark a "1" or "2" on each Monday of a twelve-month calendar. The entire exercise takes about two minutes. Make sure that you and the co-parent have started on the same Week 1.
The Visitation Schedule I Recommend
I am partial to a particular type of shared parenting schedule that I have seen work well with both high-conflict and low-conflict divorced parents for many years. I suggest this when both parents are within a twenty-minute drive to school; when both parents are available to spend most of the allotted time with the child or children; and when the children are comfortable and happy with both parents. It is a two-week repeating schedule.
I will explain it with a notation showing how the children go from home to home with letters and symbols. The first day always represents Monday, so that the weekend can be seen as days in a row.
First, designate one parent as A and the other as B. An A in brackets ([A]) means that Parent A has the whole day with the children. A bracketed A/B ([A/B]) means the children go from Parent A to Parent B on that day.
Week 1 [A]-[A]-[A]-[A/B]-[B]-[B]-[B/A]. Parent A has the children on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday for the entire day. On Thursday, the children go from Parent A to Parent B. They are with Parent B on Thursday after school or in the evening (depending on the transition time). They are with Parent B all day Friday and Saturday, and they return to Parent A on Sunday evening.
Week 2 [A]-[A]-[A]-[A/B]-[B]-[B/A]-[A]. Parent A has the children from Monday to Thursday afternoon or evening, just as in Week 1. Instead of the children coming back to Parent A on Sunday, they return on Saturday morning. This is so Parent A can have weekend time with the children.
The advantages to this schedule are numerous.
Time is divided equally between the parents. Parent B gets to see the children on some portion of fourteen out of every twenty-eight days.
The children are only out of the Parent A home for six days of every twenty-eight-day period. Because the children start in Parent A's home on Thursday and spend part of each Sunday or Saturday with Parent A, the children see Parent A for some portion of twenty-two of every twenty-eight days.
The children have a regular "transition day" during the school week. Every Thursday the children go to Parent B's residence. This gives Parent B the opportunity to participate in school-work and other activities. Thursday is an important day to prepare for tests and quizzes, so this should satisfy Parent B's desire to be a "real parent" as opposed to merely a weekend parent.
Midweek visitation is eliminated in favor of blocks of parenting time for each parent. There is no need for rushed visitation, fast-food dinners, or sloppy homework.
Because parenting time is distributed in blocks, each parent has "time on" and "time off" with respect to parenting responsibilities. This is great because when it is each parent's time for parenting, they can concentrate on the children. When it is their "off" parenting time, each parent can tend to their personal responsibilities, their social lives (which should be kept away from the children), and their shopping and personal chores.
There is a single drawback to this schedule: Parent A does not get a "full weekend" with the children, meaning that there is no weekend where Parent A gets to have a Friday night with the children. There is a way to deal with this facet of the schedule. It is called "being reasonable." If Parent A wants to spend a Friday night with the children, she calls Parent B in advance and requests the time. Parent B obliges because Parent B wants the children to do fun things and have fun experiences. Parent A then consents that on the next Week 1 (which is Parent B's longer block of time), Parent B can keep the children on the Sunday night they would ordinarily return and bring them to school on Monday morning so as to make up the missed sleepover.
When you are creating schedules, be open-minded. Do not be so quick to count the number of "sleepovers" as being that meaningful. The only useful thing you can do while your kids are sleeping is spend time figuring out how you are going to pay for your lawyer. Consider instead the quantity and quality of face-to-face time you will have with your children. When your children are awake you can tell them how much you love them, and until they are old enough to disappear with their friends and use your residence as a boardinghouse, you can spend your time playing with them and educating them. Those are the important moments, and that is the type of time and contact you should be seeking.
There is no compelling research-based evidence that shows kids are better off when they spend the majority of time with one parent for the sole purpose of having a "home base."
Don't let your dislike of the co-parent determine your child's need to spend time with her. Visitation is not about you; it is about your children.