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Parenting time and decision-making

When parents decide to separate or divorce, they have many decisions to make such as how their property will be distributed and how they will care for their children.

Parenting plans refer to how parents handle the day-to-day care of children after they separate. With shared parenting plans, both parents have equal or nearly equal parenting time with their children (e.g., 50/50). The actual exercise of parenting time may vary depending on where the parents live and what is most feasible for the child and family. For example, the child may spend alternating weeks with both parents, or more time with one parent during the school year and with the other parent when school is out (e.g. such as when the parents do not live close to each other). As we will learn later in the course, these equitable plans have the best outcomes for children. Other plans allocate primary custody, or full custody to one parent and less parenting time to the other, such as every other weekend parenting time with one of the parents. Around the world, primary custody of children is more often awarded to mothers than fathers due to gender biases and beliefs that mothers are essentially “better” parents. While this bias has been changing slowly in some parts of the world, there are still large gender discrepancies in how child custody is allocated. Decision-making authority is a separate but related decision that is made when parents separate or divorce. Major decisions about education (e.g., where the child will attend school), medical care (e.g., whether a child needs surgery), recreation (e.g., what sports children play) and religion are common domains that parents need to make decisions about.

How are such important decisions made?

Sometimes parents are able to strike agreements amongst themselves; they formulate a detailed stipulated agreement about parenting time, such as how to handle holidays, child related expenses, and decision-making. In most governments, such as the U.S. and China, such agreements only need to be approved or ratified by a court or governmental agency. There are many advantages to handling divorce this way; it is much less expensive than other options, and the agreements that are made are more likely to be followed because both parties developed the plan together. This type of plan requires negotiation and the ability to trust that the other parent will not renege on promises or agreements. Given that there are usually good reasons that parents decide not to stay together anymore, reaching stipulated agreements are not feasible for everyone.

While a large number of divorces are litigated in court because the parents cannot agree on terms, many are negotiated and settled with a mediator. Some courts mandate that parents attempt meditation with a neutral third party first, before even seeking court involvement. For example, in Australia, families are required to attend Compulsory Family Dispute Resolution in the hopes that they will develop a cooperative parenting solution without going to court. The mediator’s role is to work with both parents to clarify issues, to keep lines of communication open, brainstorm ideas, do some reality testing, and help the parents make decisions that are best for all. It is common for parents to get off track during this process when they become angry, so mediators attempt to keep the couple focused on the issues at hand. Mediators are supposed to be neutral and not favor one parent or the other. The mediation process can take time, from one to ten or more sessions, depending on how much agreement the parents can reach early on. While mediation can be expensive because the parties typically need to pay an hourly rate, it is private, meaning that others do not need to know what is negotiated because it is done behind closed doors. Parents are never 100% happy with what is agreed to, but the benefit of mediation is that the parents decide their outcome rather than attorneys, judges, and other parties. Mediation is also considerably cheaper than litigation.

Court litigation is the last and most invasive way that decisions about parenting time and decision-making are made. Depending on the country’s legal system, laws and procedures that apply to divorce and child custody vary greatly. For example, across the European Union, there is a recognition that children have the right to a personal relationship and direct contact with both parents, even if they live in different countries. How these laws are interpreted and applied also varies greatly across countries; without legal representation (e.g., lawyers), parents often struggle navigating court rules and procedures. The result is that court litigation is extremely expensive and the outcomes are not perceived as satisfactorily as those that parents are able to reach by agreement.

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Positive Parenting After Separation

Colorado State University

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