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Three rules for creating a child-focused parenting plan

Updated: Apr 11

Adjusting to life after a separation or divorce is difficult for everyone in the family, but a well-drafted parenting plan can help minimize interparental conflict and provide children with stability, says Toronto family lawyer Gary Gottlieb.

“Conflict, disagreements and miscommunication can create a chasm between parents trying to devise a plan for how to raise their children. A solid parenting plan that’s rooted in the best interests of the children can ease the transition for everyone,” he says.

During a period of emotional upheaval and uncertainty, says Gottlieb, children are looking for answers to important questions:

• Who will I live with?

• Where will I go to school?

• Will I have to move?

• Where will each parent live?

• Where will we spend holidays?

• Will I still get to see my friends?

• Can I still do my favourite activities?

“Children need reassurance they will have a relationship with both parents after their parents split. They want to visualize where they will be on a given day or week, which can impact their activities and ability to connect with friends,” he says.

What is a parenting plan?

A parenting plan is a document outlining how parents will make decisions for the children, the time each one will spend with them, how they will share information and, in some cases, the protocol for handling disagreements. The plan should contain enough detail to provide clear expectations yet have enough flexibility to be realistic.

Following is a non-exhaustive list of the issues that can be addressed in a parenting plan:

• Parenting time arrangements — schedule of when each parent has the children

• Vacations, holidays and special days

• Relocation of a parent

• Health care

• Education

• Religion/spirituality

• Extra-curricular activities

• How exchanges of the children will be handled

• Schedule changes — how far ahead of time do parents need to propose changes?

• Contact orders — the time children spend in the care of someone other than parents, such as grandparents

• Family pets

Considerations for high-conflict parents

High-conflict couples most frequently fight about the details of visitation, parenting approaches and the exchange of information about their children. Given that many children are in fight-or-flight mode following their parent’s separation, it’s critical to minimize their exposure to ongoing conflict.

Children are often the casualties of high-conflict separation and divorce, and Gottlieb says agreeing on a parent plan often takes an extraordinary effort.

“High-conflict people look for loopholes, so it’s best to formulate a plan that minimizes parental contact when children are being dropped off or picked up,” he says.

After helping families draft parenting plans for more than 30 years, Gottlieb has three key guidelines:

Rule 1: Determine what’s truly best for your children

Pandemic restrictions aside, Gottlieb says families typically juggle busy schedules that revolve around work, school and social or extra-curricular activities.

“In most cases, it’s best for the children to spend as much time as possible with each parent. Before the divorce, your children may have participated in several sports, but now, you and your co-parent may only be able to commit to one.”

When parents are carving out plans for holiday schedules such as Christmas, he says, they should think about how that might change over time.

“When the kids are young and everyone is in the same city, scheduling is relatively straightforward. But what happens if your parenting plan stipulates that Mom always has the kids on Christmas day and Dad wants to take them on a Disney cruise one year?”

Rule 2: Be specific

The most important aspect of creating a parenting plan on which the family can rely is to be as specific as possible, Gottlieb stresses.

“Many lawyers make them very general, relying on their clients to figure out the details, but that’s a recipe for disaster,” he says. “In my experience, the less you leave to fate, the better. A good parenting plan considers the family’s current situation and anticipates changes as the years go on.”

For example, Gottlieb says, if the parents agree they will split time with the kids at Thanksgiving, the plan should precisely spell which days and hours apply to each parent.

For his clients, he often includes “ground rules” for how parents will communicate with each other as well as how they talk to their children about the other parent. But Gottlieb cautions that parenting plans only work if parents are willing to follow them.

“Nothing on a piece of paper is going to change behaviour. That has to come from a willingness to co-operate,” he says.

Rule 3: Modify plans as children age

A parenting plan for pre-school-age children will look quite different from one for teenagers with busy social schedules, says Gottlieb.

“The younger the kids are at the time of separation, the more frequently the plan will need to be updated. It’s also important to consider each child’s individual needs and interests.”

The pandemic forced modifications to parenting plans for many families around childcare needs, work schedules and other factors. Other triggers for updating the parenting plan include:

• Health — changes to the child’s health that require additional time and commitment

• Relocation — what happens if one parent wants to move?

• Criminal sanctions — if a parent has been arrested or convicted, the plan needs to be modified

Co-operate — or a judge will decide

Gottlieb says his firm has extensive experience drafting parenting plans that set families up for success following separation or divorce.

“This is your opportunity to carve a blueprint for the next phase of life that works for you, your co-parent and, most importantly, your children. No one knows your family better than you do, so, wherever possible, co-operate with your co-parent to create a plan that works for your children.

“Parents who can’t come to an agreement may find themselves settling their arrangement in court.”

Photo Credit: Adobe Stock

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