The foundation of co-parenting rests on a bit of legalese: “In a child’s best interest.” Generally speaking, the family court system puts forth that when parents are no longer together, their decisions and actions as parents should promote, and not hinder, their children’s physical, emotional, and educational well-being. This premise seems simple enough. What parent wouldn’t want to support their child’s well-being? But the reality is that reasonable, caring parents often disagree on what is in a child’s best interest. For example:
- Is it in a child’s best interest to attend a private school instead of a public one? What if attending such a school would create an inordinate financial struggle for one or both parents? What if the public school is failing?
- Is summer camp in a child’s best interest? What about soccer? Piano lessons? Isn’t it important for children to have these experiences and skills, and to participate in healthy and enriching activities? But what if these activities routinely limit one parent’s time with the child?
It is generally accepted that it’s in a child’s best interest to bond and spend as much time as possible with both parents, but what parenting time schedule is in a child’s best interest? A 50-50 alternating week parenting time schedule would seem to be the most fair. But what if parents don’t live in the same school district–or even the same state–and a daily round-trip drive to school is not practical for one parent? Can co-parents who live in different communities still act in their child’s best interest with regard to their parenting time split?
Instead of absolutes, these issues are a quite often a matter of opinion and there can be a range of choices with regard to education, parenting time splits, and extracurricular activities that promote a child’s well-being. Co-parents do well to consider the other parent’s opinion in addition to their own, and to look for compromises and middle ground solutions.
For example, if a parent is unwilling to alternate weeks for parenting time and prefers to have her child in one home more consistently during the school year, then she could agree that the other parent should have more time in summer, and during school breaks and holidays, to balance out the time somewhat. Alternatively, some co-parents who live in the same school district alternate each year where their child lives primarily during the school year–even years with one parent, odd years with the other.
Another reason “in the child’s best interest” is a fluid concept is that children change. Their needs change as they get older and as their social and educational experiences change.
In our co-parenting family, we started out with a roughly 50-50 parenting time schedule, but in the eight years since our separation and divorce, the schedule has changed several times as our children desired more time with one of us for a variety of reasons. Fortunately, my ex and I live in close enough proximity that we could make these changes without incurring any expenses or practical challenges. For some families, this isn’t the case, and other solutions have to be found. My ex and I found it in our kids’ best interest to allow for these changes in the schedule, to meet their emotional needs–even though we, as parents, had to deal with our bruised feelings.
Staying Out Of family Court
While “in the child’s best interest” is admittedly a nebulous phrase, it shouldn’t be confused with a parent’s comfort zone and it shouldn’t be based on parental whim.
Being flexible and communicating with an ex may be the last thing we want to do post-divorce, but it may be precisely what is required to make life as stable and comfortable as possible for our children. When co-parents can’t agree on what is in a child’s interest and the family courts are asked to intervene, then decision-making for the family is put into a stranger’s (the judge’s) hands. This should be a serious motivator for co-parents to work through their differences so that the people who know and love their children best get to make decisions on their behalf.
When the family courts do get involved, judges generally consider whether any expense or travel requirements related to the matter will put an undue burden on one parent. So while a child may no doubt benefit from a private school education, for example, a judge will determine if it’s a reasonable expense given the parents’ incomes and other considerations, if the parents themselves can’t come to an agreement about it.
Family courts are also asked to get involved when parents disagree as to what parenting time schedule or access to the children is in their best interest. Claiming that it’s not in a child’s best interest to be around his parent (or stepparent), or that a parent shouldn’t be allowed to exercise his parenting time because it conflicts with soccer (it happens!), is a serious matter. Feelings of distrust or simply disliking someone doesn’t rise to the courts’ standards of harm. Even in cases where a parent’s fitness is in question, a court may still find that it’s in a child’s best interest to spend time with that parent, though under supervision.
Assessing Best Interests
What’s absolutely in the best interest of a child is for both parents to act in good faith where her well-being is concerned. So how do you determine what’s in a child’s best interest–and hopefully avoid the time and expense of having a judge make that determination for you?
- Check your intentions. Is your opinion on this matter based truly on what you feel is best for your kids–or is it a path of least resistance and discomfort for you? Is your opinion based on punishing or getting back at your ex, or collecting on an emotional debt you feel he owes? Is your opinion based on fear and sadness because your child is no longer in your care 24-7, fear that you will “lose” your child to the other parent or a stepparent? None of these feelings are wrong–feelings are feelings–but basing co-parenting decisions on such a foundation doesn’t serve children’s interests. It’s healthier for kids as well as parents for parents to work through their feelings of anger, disappointment, fear, and sadness, outside of the context of co-parenting decision-making.
- Ask yourself, “Would I have this opinion and want to pursue this course of action for my child if we were still happily married?” This is applicable for matters as diverse as private school or the time a child spends with each parent. Remember, divorce ends a marriage, but a child’s family endures. Many things will change in the wake of a divorce, but some should stay the same. Children want as much stability as possible, and they want to know that they are still part of a loving family, even though it is across two households. This means having the freedom to have a relationship with and spend time with both parents.
Take the long view. Is this position you’re taking going to keep you mired in conflict with your ex, hinder your ex’s relationship with your child, or create a financial strain? Is this position sustainable? How will your child feel about it 10 or 15 years from now? When your child looks back on her childhood what do you want her to say about how you acted in her best interest?
Deesha Philyaw is the co-author (with her ex-husband) of Co-Parenting 101: Helping Your Children Thrive After Divorce and the co-founder of co-parenting101.org. She is a remarried mother of four girls–two daughters and two bonus daughters.
Photo Credit: 2013© Jupiter Images Corporation