Co-parenting is a term used often in the area of Family Law, but what does it really mean? In honor of National Step/Blended Family Day on September 16, what better time to discuss what is co-parenting and why it is so important in today’s society.
It is estimated that 1 in 3 people is a part of a blended family and that there is a 50% likelihood you will be at some point in your lifetime. A blended family is simply a family consisting of a couple and their children from this and all previous relationships. That seems relatively simple, but there are other parents of children from the previous relationships that don’t simply disappear. The relationship ended for one reason or another, but the child has an attachment to both parents and it is typically in their best interest to continue the relationship with both parents, even if one or both parents have re-married or started new relationships.
Co-parenting is defined as “sharing the duties of parenting”, often when the parents are no longer married or in a romantic relationship. That definition is extremely broad, allowing parents to truthfully say “I co-parent” just because they share joint custody, even if they don’t communicate with each other.
The courts view co-parenting differently. For instance, parents can share joint legal custody, where “both parents shall share the right and the responsibility to make the decisions relating to the health, education, and welfare of a child.” Cal. Family Code, §3003. With joint legal custody, both parents have the right to make decisions regarding everything from choosing the child’s type of school (public, private, religious), the school district (where a parent lives or works), when the child should start school, where the child will receive medical care, etc. And either parent can make any of these decisions alone. This means, joint legal custody doesn’t actually require the parents to communicate with each other at all. Of course, to avoid going to court, both parents should communicate with the other and cooperate in making decisions together. And that is where the concept of co-parenting comes in.
The keys to successful co-parenting are communication and remaining cordial. Both can be extremely difficult to adhere to when it is with someone who hurt you and you no longer care about or respect him/her. According to www.helpguide.org, the first step in co-parenting is separating your feelings from your behavior. Co-parenting does not require you to let go of hurt and animosity toward the other parent. It does require you to keep the hurt and animosity from your actions regarding your child.
For example, your ex has asked to keep your child for an extra hour so he can go to his step-brother’s baseball game and your inclination is to say “no”. Figure out why you do not want to allow what appears to be a reasonable request. If the other parent has shown up late for visits and you are frustrated and feel they are taking advantage of you, that is not a good reason to deny their request. If the other parent is keeping the child out too late to complete the next day’s homework, that may be a good reason. Focus on your child and whether or not spending the extra hour with the other parent will be beneficial or detrimental. Retaliation for frustration caused by the other parent is never a good reason to deny them time with the child.
Also, never put the child in the middle. Never let the child see that you are having a disagreement with the other parent and never say anything disparaging about the other parent to the child, or in front of the child or within the hearing range of the child. This may seem self-explanatory, but parents often can’t contain their frustration and let out an expletive to a friend or family member when the child is within an earshot. Consider getting a therapist or planning your complaint sessions for times when the child is with the other parent. It’s natural to voice frustration and hurt and not even realize it. That sends a message just as loudly as if you tell the child something bad about the other parent. Children are very perceptive, so try your best to keep any negative feelings you have about the other parent (or their significant others, children, parents, etc.) to yourself.
In order to effectively co-parent, communication is key. This, again, can be extremely difficult when you have lingering feelings of animosity. Treat the relationship as if it is purely professional, like you’re speaking with or writing to your boss or a co-worker. In our world of social media and constant communication, it can be difficult to use one form of communication, but keep it consistent and, if at all possible, in writing. A little chat when you are exchanging the child is fine, but follow it up with a brief email highlighting your discussion and agreements. It clarifies what you discussed so you both can refer back to it later. If disagreements occur down the line, you have documentation showing what you previously agreed upon. Keep that form of communication regularly (once a week, once a day, etc.), depending on your issues and relationship with the other parent.
Finally, make sure you keep your communication only about your child and the issue at hand. Nothing good comes from lumping together a visitation issue with division of property, or the other parent’s new relationship or a missing child support payment. Save those issues for your attorney to deal with. If you don’t have an attorney, at least send the non-child related issue in a separate email, so one issue doesn’t affect the other.
Another indication of successful co-parenting is keeping each household as consistent as possible. Communicate with the other parent about the “house rules” so they are the same. Nothing causes problems easier than when one parent lets the child get away with whatever they want in their house and the other parent has strict rules about chores, bedtime, homework, etc. Talk to the other parent about punishments for breaking rules and a schedule so they are similar, if not the exact same, in both homes.
The keys to successful co-parenting really start and end with respect, communication, consistency and putting the child’s needs above your own. No parent is perfect, but each can strive to co-parent effectively for the benefit of their children. If you have any issues with working with another parent, there are many options out there which can assist you. In Los Angeles County, child custody cases require participation in the Our Children First program, an hour-long online or in-person program which teaches parents skills on getting their children through the divorce or child custody process as easily as possible. There are also therapists who specialize in assisting parents with co-parenting issues. Finally, you may require an attorney to evaluate your case and assist you in requiring the other parent to co-parent with you. The attorneys with The Reape-Rickett Law Firm are skilled in evaluating your custody and visitation issues, offering solutions to effectively assist in co-parenting, and, when necessary, are able to advocate your request on your behalf to obtain court orders requiring the other parent’s cooperation.