For many years judges who heard divorce cases that involved children made custody decisions based on the assumption that children, at least up to about age 12, needed to be primarily with their mothers in order to develop properly. This was popularly known as the "tender years" doctrine. This doctrine prevailed in American courts from the late nineteenth century until fairly recently. Today the tender years doctrine--and in turn child custody arrangements--is fast being replaced by the idea of co-parenting.
Co-parenting is based on a different assumption, which is usually referred to as the "best interests of the child" doctrine. This doctrine is interpreted in many courts to mean that children--including very young children--develop most healthily if they spend approximately equal amounts of time with each parent. Several state courts have even ruled that the tender years doctrine violates fathers' constitutional rights. These rulings have resulted in more movement toward co-parenting. As a result, it is not unusual today to find children as young as two (or even younger) splitting their time about fifty-fifty with their fathers and mothers. Is this a good thing?
Co-parenting (sometimes called shared parenting) does makes sense on one level, in that more frequent contact with both parents is usually (but not always) associated with happier, healthier children. Also, research has shown that under the tender years doctrine fathers tended to drift out of their children's lives. This was especially true when there was a lot of overt conflict between the divorcing parents.
That said, despite its theoretical benefits, it cannot be said that shared parenting is inevitably better than an arrangement, say, in which one parent has primary residence and the other has a fixed visitation schedule. What may matter most is: each parent's experience and competence in the day to day tasks of parenting; the extent to which a child is emotionally attached to each parent; and the parents' shared commitment to maintaining their child's relationship with both parents.
Time in the Trenches: Assessing Parenting Experience
As appealing as the idea of shared parenting may be, there may be as many potential hazards in it as there were in the tender years doctrine. In other words, neither doctrine may hold true all the time. Unfortunately, the law can be a crude instrument, not given to making fine distinctions. Therefore, once a doctrine becomes established it tends to be applied as a rule with few exceptions. In that case blindly following a policy can damage children.
If you and your former spouse are debating (or contesting!) the issue of shared parenting, one factor that should play a role in whatever living arrangements are initially made for your child is just how much of the day-to-day, week-to-week, "grunt work" of parenting each of you has done up until this point. The following questionnaire can be useful for this.
Answer each of the following questions as it applies to you right now.
• Do you know the name of your child's pediatrician?
• How often have you brought your child to a pediatrician appointment?
• Do you know the name and phone number of your child's school nurse?
• Do you know the name and phone number (or e-mail address) of your child's teacher?
• Does your child take any medications? If so, do you know their names, doses, and when your child is supposed to take them?
• Do you know approximately your child's weight and height today?
• How many days in the past two years have you taken off from work in order to stay home with your child when she or he was sick?
• If your child is in day care, how often in the past year have you had a one-to-one chat with the director of the day-care center about your child's progress in socialization?
• How often do you supervise or help your child with his or her homework?
• What are your child's favorite television shows?
• How often do you read to your child?
• How many days per week do you supervise your child while he or she gets ready for bed, including brushing teeth, washing up, and getting into pajamas?
• How often do you prepare a meal for your child?
• What are your child's favorite foods, and which are his or her least favorites?
• How often do you purchase clothing for your child? Do you know what his or her current clothing sizes are?
• Do you know the names of your child's best friends?
• How many of your child's birthday parties have you personally organized and supervised?
Taken together, the above series of questions can be taken as a measure of just how much a parent has "walked the walk" of parenting--at least so far. These tasks constitute the grunt work of parenting. And while a child may certainly love both parents, he or she will have a stronger attachment to that parent who does the lion's share of day to day parenting. Separating from that parent is bound to cause anxiety and insecurity.
The more of this hands-on parenting each parent does, the more ready they are for true, fifty-fifty co-parenting. Conversely, the less of the grunt work one of them has done so far, the less prepared they are for complete co-parenting right now.
Breaking Free from All-or-Nothing Thinking
Just because one parent may fall short when it comes to hands-on parenting experience does not mean that he or she will never be ready for full co-parenting. But it does mean that he or she is not there at this point, and that 50-50 shared parenting may not be the best thing for their children right now.
What many divorcing parents (and their children) can use is not a blind, ill-informed decision about co-parenting, but a joint plan for getting there from where they are now. Parents who are less experienced in the kind of hands-on parenting described in the above questionnaire may be able to learn "on the job," as they say. However, while they are doing this, their children are put in the awkward position of having to educate their parents in the day-to-day, week-to-week responsibilities of their own parenting. Children are very likely to feel anxious during this stage, since the support they have come to rely on from the parent who formerly had done the bulk of parenting will be unavailable while they are with the less experienced parent.
Walking the Walk: Matching Co-Parenting to Parenting Experience
My personal bias is to try to roughly match initial visiting and custody arrangements with each parent's level of parenting experience. For example, if reality shows that one parent has had 75 percent of the parenting experience described in the above questionnaire, while the other has had only 25 percent, after the divorce children should divide their time between the parents in roughly the same proportions, at least initially. Such an arrangement can easily be written into a divorce agreement, which might place a time limit on the 75/25 split.
Over time the less experienced parent should be given opportunities to "catch up" in the day-to-day parenting; for example, by taking the child or children to pediatrician appointments, by cooking family meals, and by supervising bedtime preparation. Then, as the less experienced parent begins to catch up, living schedules can gradually move toward a true fifty-fifty split. This gradual increase avoids making the child or children anxious and avoids having to separate a great deal from the parent who early had done most of the parenting.
Some people who read this may object to this recommendation. They may feel that they have parental rights that entitle them to "equal ownership" of their child or children, regardless of how much actual nuts-and-bolts parenting experience they may have. Indeed, these parents may find that a court is sympathetic to this view. However, I would maintain that this legal bias should not be confused with what is truly in the best interests of their child's or children's development.
Others I have talked to about my bias have argued (defensively) that they should be given credit or doing things with the children such as taking them fishing or to a ball game. These things do matter. However, they are the fun part of parenting, as opposed to the grunt work that builds a strong parent-child bond.
Children are much more likely to emerge from divorce in better psychological shape if their parents first take stock of their actual parenting experience. If, in doing so, they realize that there is a significant imbalance, they should devise a schedule for their children that allows the less experienced parent some time to build up what might be called their "parental resume" over time. As that happens, a true co-parenting arrangement will be less stressful for the children.
For more information and ideas on shared parenting see The Divorced Child: Strengthening Your Family through the First Three Years of Separation.
Copyright Joe Nowinski, PhD 2011