In an ideal divorce, two good parents come to an agreement and those two parents then co-parent their children, despite the separation. Let us set aside for a moment and talk about the other scenario—the high-conflict custody cases. What happens when two parents cannot co-parent? They cannot because they refuse to do so or they are emotionally ill-equipped. There are two options: give up and tell the parents to figure out a co-parenting arrangement or find an alternative to co-parenting in parallel parenting.
As a California divorce and family law lawyer, I see plenty of child custody disputes. Some resolve amicably and others go through evidentiary hearings and trial where the person in the black robe makes the decisions. Every California child custody case begins with the same question—what is in the children’s best interest? That is the question asked on legal custody, physical custody, and parenting time.
Parallel parenting is either a stopgap or long-term solution when co-parenting is not reasonably possible and high-conflict parenting is undesirable. High-conflict custody cases beg for a solution that takes into account the children’s mental health when two parents continue to be hostile to each other and refuse to compromise.
Parallel parenting recognizes that traditional co-parenting and communication will not work for this specific situation. The parents detach from each other and do not communicate about most day-to-day custodial decisions while the children are under either parent's care. Instead, each parent has control over their respective parenting responsibilities during said parenting time. Often, absent an emergency or other serious issue, there is little communication between the parents.
Parallel parenting minimizes contact, but does not eliminate it. One parent may keep the other posted on developments in a simple, unemotional way such as one of the several web- or app-based programs and message boards that are available and foster such communication. Yes, parents can also use email or text message to communicate about their child, but our experience in California is that email and text messages are rarely effective means to communicate.
As an example, if Parent A enrolls a child in an extracurricular activity and it is Parent A’s right to do so under Parent A’s custodial time, Parent A will simply inform Parent B of this enrollment. There is no discussion about the activity's merits or what should or should not occur. So long as it does not interfere with Parent B’s parenting time or requires Parent B to pay for all or part of it, there is nothing else to discuss. This is one example of contact through parallel parenting, but without co-parenting.
From our perspective, any parenting plan's goal should, in one respect, be to avoid conflict to which the children may be exposed and therefore act consistent with the children's best interest. That is what parallel parenting endeavors to do.
Conflict between parents may be unavoidable. But the children do not need to see, hear, or feel it. We want children severed from conflict so each parent can raise them in a loving and nurturing environment. Of course, parents will have different parenting styles; that is not the issue. If a parent endangers the children through physical or emotional abuse or otherwise neglects their care, a court should make orders to protect the children.
Parallel parenting on the other hand assumes there are two parents who are capable of raising the children properly but are incapable of doing so through co-parenting. Therefore, the goal is clear—let each parent raise the children without parental conflict.
There is no doom nor gloom. Parallel parenting is not necessarily the end, sometimes it is the beginning.
Breakups can be emotional whether the parents are married or not. But like all emotion, time heals and parallel parenting can sometimes be a good starting point for parents who are unable to co-parent until one day they are able to do so. “Trust” filters the lens with which parents see each other. Parents who do not trust each other can rarely or effectively co-parent. But parents who see there is life after separation sometimes, eventually realize their personal differences do not have to impact their children's well-being. As trust rebuilds, there is a greater hope for co-parenting.
Everything I wrote here is from the perspective of California law and no other State. There is some disagreement among our legal community about parallel parenting’s merit and, if it must be implemented, to what extent it should be. Like any other plan, it can be subtle, extreme or something in the middle. Attorneys who seek to draft parallel parenting plans should do so with care.
Please note, this article is not intended to be legal advice or any other type of advice.