Joint custody is sharing the children after divorce, but what does it really look like? And is it good for the kids? This is a question I am frequently asked.
Joint custody can be either joint legal or joint physical custody or both. In NY at this time, joint legal custody is often the presumption, with both parents sharing the joint responsibility of decision making for their children. This means that neither parent can independenty decide any major decisions about the health, education or welfare of their children. Both parents must communciate together about what schools the children will attend, and whether or not they need braces on their teeth. Most parents are able to accomplish these tasks together after they divorce.
Joint physical custody refers to where the children reside. The joint custody plan is often 50/50 time, but can also be 60/40, 70/30 or whatever the couple decides is best for the children. The arrangement should take into account the children’s ages, the parents availabilty and work schedules, the locations of the parents’ homes and proximity to school etc. It should also be especially mindful of the children’s needs. It may require parents to be involved in dropping off clothing and communicating about homework or daily needs. Joint physical custody works best when co-parents can function in a cooperative manner with each other.
Sometimes, joint custody with young children is begun with “nesting”. In a nesting scenario, the children stay in the marital home and the parents rotate back and forth, rather than the children, which is more customary in a joint custody situation. A nesting arrangement often works well for young children when they are in the attachment phase and learning to trust their adult caretakers. The stability of one home is generally beneficial. This arrangement doesn’t usually work for more than a year or so as the parents need to share the original home together, which can get difficult as time goes on. Again, this arrangement demands co-operative co-parenting.
Many couples share 50/50 custody very successfully and the children get used to going back and forth and living in two homes. These situations work best when the parents live relatively close to one another and are friendly with each other. Joint custody works best when the children’s clothes can go back and forth with fluidity and the parents can be helpful to bring over or drop off a forgotten book, or boots for the snow. When children feel that they can freely bring toys, books and clothes back and forth from house to house, they feel relaxed. When the children are helped to feel comfortable in each home and not pushed to “like” one better than the other, they are happier. When the parents can chat with one another at transition times it also makes it easier and safer for the kids.
Children want their parents to get along, in whatever form that takes. Research tells us that children thrive best when they can have relationships with both parents, that is real relationships, not just a Sunday visit. In a real relationship, both parents have fun time with their kids as well as “work” time. That means, getting homework and chores done. That means discipling children for staying up too late, spending too much time on screens, or eating too much sugar. In order for a real relationship to evolve, enough time must be spent with the children, which is an argument for joint custody. It is prevelant today that both parents are involved in their children’s lives and neither feels they should be only a “visiting” parent. Both parents want to be full parents, even if it is half time. And many parents have reported that when they only have their children part time, it becomes more quality time, as it is more highly valued. As parents have more time free to do what they need to do, they can devote parenting time completely to their children. This is in contrast to full time parents who often take for granted that their kids are always there so they can more frequently be on devices and not pay as much attention to their kids. Children are resilient and can adjust to situations, but parents must be the guides. Research also tells us that children of divorce can thrive in two loving environments but react poorly when parents are in deep conflict. The key is for parents to develop a good co-parenting relationship for themselves and for their children.