When parents divorce, it begins a series of events that require thoughtful and considered decisions about their children’s future. It soon becomes starkly evident how many decisions a parent must make on a daily basis and how much coordination it takes to make a family engine run smoothly.
A parenting plan is not just about where children will sleep each night. It is a valuable document that helps parents anticipate the decisions they must make about important aspects of their children’s lives. Most coparents find it helpful to discuss these in advance and to recognize that a parenting plan is a living document that changes as their children grow older, shift developmentally, and have new and different needs.
1. Vacation and Holiday Schedule
Each year, vacations and holidays mark important and memorable moments in children’s and parents’ lives. A holiday schedule can be planned to last for many years, while a vacation schedule can require attention each year. If planning for a summer vacation, try to have plans settled by a date in early spring. Because vacations may change the regular parenting schedule, make sure to include important details like times for exchanges and who’s doing the driving.
2. School and Daycare
This aspect of the document is certain to change as children grow up. For some, it’s easy to anticipate what schools children will attend through high school. For others, school systems might have to be determined depending on where the parents are living. Public or private school? There are many more questions to consider.
3. Religious Upbringing
If parents have different faiths and practices, it helps to discuss these issues both during a marriage and after. Lack of discussion or agreement on how to proceed often puts children in the middle of an unnecessary parental battleground.
4. Extracurricular Activities
While this can be simple, extracurricular activities often become a bone of contention when children’s activities span both parents’ parenting time. Agreeing ahead of time how activities will be chosen, supported, and paid for can relieve a great deal of tension.
5. Medical Issues
Agreeing how to handle both critical and noncritical decisions about children’s health can help avoid problems later. Do you keep the same doctors? Who takes them to their appointments? How are those appointments made? What payment methods will you use? If there is an accident, what will happen depending on whose care the children are in? Whose consent is required? Figuring out these questions and more ahead of time can reduce the stress of an already-overwhelming crisis situation.
6. Children’s Belongings
This is another item that seems simple on the surface. It helps, however, to make clear agreements about clothing, toys, and other belongings instead of feeling like they are disappearing into a black hole at the other parent’s home.
7. New Relationships
When one of you moves on to a new relationship, think about how to prepare your children—consider things like timing and communication between parents. Create methods so that children are not the messengers for what is going on in parents’ homes. Children feel safest when they know their parents are in control.
When traveling with your children, what agreements would you like to make with each other? Where are their passports kept? What kind of contact is expected? Coming up with a plan before planning a specific trip relieves pressure.
Regular communication between coparents is essential to children’s well-being. Children are less likely to lose out on an event or miss a doctor’s appointment when parents have kept each other informed. Find a time that works for both parents to communicate privately away from children.
10. When Problems Arise
There may still be times when best efforts do not build a bridge. It is very helpful to arrange ahead of time what steps you will take should you come to a parenting impasse.
I hope this list gets parents to start thinking about the decisions and details that go into a parenting plan. As with most things, the more work you do up front, the easier it will be when you are in the midst of a problem needing to be solved.
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