Your Own Parenting Plan
© Vicky Campagna, PhD
If you and
your ex are able to get along well enough to keep the best interests of
your children paramount in your minds, you may be able to come up with a
parenting plan, either completely on your own or with the guidance of a
professional with experience in the subject. (And it’s very important
that anyone who provides guidance on the subject have the appropriate
expertise. It’s highly specialized knowledge!)
You may be
tempted to try and have a loosely-structured plan, one where you and
your ex just “go with the flow,” i.e. the kids go with whomever it seems
appropriate at the time. But no matter how well you get along, it is my
opinion that such an unstructured approach is likely to fail. This is
true for several reasons:
children need the stability of knowing where they will be at any given
time, and to get into a routine so that their life feels safe and
comfortable and predictable once again. There may be jokes about
“if it’s Wednesday, it must be Dad’s house,” but in truth, children take
comfort in knowing what to expect.
Parents, too, need to know what the boundaries and expectations are.
Each of you should be able to make your own personal plans without
worrying if there will be someone available to take care of the
children. And no one needs the guilt of wondering if they’ve put in
“enough” time with their children.
Having an agreed-upon plan in place prevents -- or at least
minimizes! – future squabbles about things such as where
Johnny will be for
Christmas this year. Parenting apart is enough of a challenge without
Where to Begin
The first decision is whether or not you two want to attempt to create a
parenting agreement all by yourselves. A mental health professional
with expertise in divorce issues can be invaluable and can be well worth
the relatively minimal financial investment, when you consider the havoc
and cost that a poorly written and/or incomplete plan can create! You
could also seek out a professional mediator. Some attorneys are trained
in mediation and a very good resource for this kind of legal service is
which is the website
for the collaborative law movement. Check the URL for detailed
information, but basically, attorneys who follow this approach pledge to
help you work through the issues of your divorce fairly and
respectfully. One caution: if you do decide to get legal help to write
a parenting plan, be sure you select an attorney who has specific
training in mediation, and not one who will resort to litigation at the
first bump in the road!
however, you prefer to write the agreement yourselves, I cannot
emphasize too strongly how important it is to at least read up on the
subject! There are an infinite number of things you have to consider,
each of which could prove vital at some point. Here are some
Mom’s House, Dad’s House
by Isolina Ricci.
This book, now in its 3rd edition, is one of the classics
of divorce literature. Ricci outlines points to consider in fashioning
a custody plan and then shows you how to implement it.
state of Arizona has produced a booklet on parenting plans that you can
This is a very nuts-and-bolts approach, and does not explore the
psychological issues that may underlie the plan’s construction or
implementation. But there are some easily-understood graphics here,
that you may wish to use as you map out your own plan.
Building Parenting Agreements That Work (Child Custody, 3rd ed),
is another classic in its 3rd printing. Lyster
provides some helpful forms for you to tear out and use to
Custody Solutions Sourcebook
Blacktone-Ford (199). Lowell House Publishers. Chicago. ISBN
0-7373-0075-2 presents a very clear, step-by-step procedure for
designing your plan. Blackstone-Ford also explicitly defines all the
various forms custody may take (e.g. joint legal vs. joint physical
custody) and offers some novel solutions you may want to consider (like
both you and your ex move out, leaving the kids in the family home, and
the parents rotate coming to that home to provide custodial care).
Phil Stahl’s book, Parenting After Divorce, (2000)
Impact Publishers, Atascadero, cA. ISBN 1-886230-26-9 is written by a
very experienced custody evaluator. Although the book’s focus is on how
to parent after the divorce, it also contains a succinct few pages on
how to design the plan itself.
Kids First Parenting Plan Muklewicz, C. and Grazino, D. (1999)
This book, only 64
pages long, was put together by an attorney/psychologist team. It’s
extremely well done, and presents options, as well as relevant research
and commentary by both the lawyer and the shrink. Each parent needs a
copy and should record his/her preferences on the book’s worksheets.
These are then used for negotiation and to craft the plan itself. There
is even a tear-out parenting form where the parents simply circle their
choices and then file the document with the court. It doesn’t get much
simpler----IF the 2 parents can negotiate on their own. It’s also the
perfect resource to use together with a neutral expert. It will help
focus (and likely minimize) the amount of time you spend working things
out. And included is a small booklet titled “Taking The Conflict Out
of Custody: 7 Awareness Exercises to Stay Focused on the Needs of the
All of these books
concur in the necessity for a parenting plan, and in what ought to be
covered in such a document. Briefly, they say that a complete, well
thought-out plan should cover the following areas:
Specify who will provide transportation for the children between each of
your houses; many couples find it works best if the receiving parent
does the picking up. Where will the pick-ups be? If the level of
hostility is extreme, you may wish to designate a neutral pick-up point,
such as a police station.
will your decision-making method be? Most commonly, routine decisions
(e.g. what Johnny will take in his lunch box that day) are left to the
discretion of whoever has custody at the time. But you will also need
to determine how the major decisions (e.g. should Sally take piano or
ballet lessons) will be made, and in fact, how you determine just what
is a “major” decision.
if you were the most compatible couple in the world (which you’re
obviously not, because you’re divorcing!) you’d still disagree about
some points of childrearing. Decide how you will work through those
disagreements. There are many options, including the use of a neutral
arbitrator such as a Special Master. (See the article on Special Masters
elsewhere on my webpage.)
children grow, you will find the parenting plan needs revision to
reflect the changing circumstances. A child who at age 3 could not
tolerate being away from either parent for any length of time will
likely, at age 10, be ready to go away on a week’s vacation with one of
them. How often will you review your parenting plan, and how will you
forget to mention how the children’s’ expenses will be allocated.
Things such as orthodontia, private school tuition, etc. are costly.
Who will pay for them? Will you require receipts for reimbursement?
will you handle things if one parent---for reasons you should spell
out---cannot take his/her regular parenting time? If Dad is ill, will
Mom let him make up the missed time? If Mom must go out of town, who
will care for the children? Many parents have a “first right of
refusal” clause: the other parent has the first right to assume custody
if the scheduled parent cannot meet the responsibility. But be sure
to clarify that the scheduled parent has the responsibility for
finding appropriate care!
time to time, information about the children---for example, their grades
at school---will need to be shared. How will you accomplish this?
will the parenting time be divided between you? What about holidays?
Vacations? Birthdays? Be as precise as you possibly can---it will save
misunderstandings, hurt feelings, and even battles later on.
Please be aware
that the points above are only some of the major decision points of a
parenting plan. There are in infinite number of smaller areas that must
be covered---for instance, will you alternate holidays, or will one of
you always have Christmas Day, for instance, and the other always have
Christmas Eve? Do you want to set any geographic limit as to where
vacations can take place? What if one of you wishes to move out of the
area? I cannot stress too strongly the absolute necessity of
making your agreement as comprehensive as possible. In my
opinion, the investment of $20 or so for one or more of the above books
to insure that you have covered absolutely everything is more
than worth the investment. Note too that many libraries have copies you
can borrow. And even if you take the independent route, you may wish to
consider using the services of a mental health professional with
expertise in parenting plans to help you navigate the inescapable areas