“No party is more greatly, directly, and ultimately affected by the issues on the table in a divorce mediation than the children of the divorcing parties.” (“The Party of the Last Part: Ethical and Process Implications for Children in Divorce Mediation” by Bruce Menin)
One of the most important pieces of a divorce mediation process is determining how a couple is going to share the minor children’s time among them. The plans that mediating couples agree upon are varied and creative. No two plans are alike, and they depend so much on the nature of the family unit.
There are, however, several factors that parents should keep in mind when they are formulating these plans.
Firstly, parents must keep in mind the needs of their children. Children are usually not at divorce mediation meetings but, as Menin says, there is definitely an impact on their lives. It is important that the plan be workable for both parents but that may not be the paramount consideration. How will it be for the children? Will it help to ease the stress of a two-household family or increase it? Will the children be able to continue with their present activities — their friendships and lives — to the extent possible, or will these things be completely disrupted? Will they have enough time with both parents or will they be missing one parent?
Parents usually want a schedule that allows the children regular and frequent contact with both parents. If personal contact is not possible or practical, this can take the form of telephone or e-mail contact. Parents should also be willing to agree that they will not expose the children to their own fights, make derogatory remarks about the absent parent, or use the children as spies or messengers.
The couple must decide how specific they wish to be in the parenting plan. Parenting plans can be as vague as stating there is to be a “reasonable sharing” between the parents with no dates, times, or schedule of any kind to a specific outline of the times, dates, and places of pick-up and drop-off of the children by each parent. There are different levels of specificity between these two extremes. The more specific the plan is, the more it can be relied upon if the parents are fighting or not speaking to one another. If there is a continual and open flow of communication, the plan can be verbally modified by mutual agreement, but it is beneficial to have some specifics in the event of a disagreement.
The couple must decide whether they want to agree upon a schedule for holidays and vacation times. These can be a hotbed of disagreement if the expectations of parents are different. For example, if one parent expects to be able to be with his children each Christmas morning and the other parent had no idea that Christmas was important to him, a problem could arise that is not discovered until Christmas Eve. Or, if one parent expects that the children will accompany her on her annual east coast visit to her parents, and the other parent cannot accept that his visitation will cease during this period, problems will arise again. The time to clear up these understandings is during the mediation process.
The couple must decide whether they want to include any personal restrictions in a parenting plan, such as on drinking, drugs, overnights with new mates, or out-of-town travel.
The couple needs to decide whether they should schedule regular meetings to discuss the children. They will be co-parenting until the children are fully grown, and it is extremely important for them to communicate with one another about the children’s schedules, problems, interests, challenges, and future plans. Associated with this should be a decision about whether they wish to have any family counseling sessions or arrange counseling sessions for the children to facilitate the children’s adjustment to the divorce and the new form their family has taken. Whether this is necessary or would be beneficial depends upon the children and the circumstances of the divorce. Some ways that parents could attempt to determine whether this would be a course of action they should take is to speak to the children about their feelings, discuss the matter with trusted teachers, coaches, and clergy and generally follow their own hearts.
The couple needs to decide whether they want to make any decisions regarding present and future schooling for the children. Do they want to commit to keeping their children in a particular school district? Do they want to agree to live within a certain distance of the school and of each other to aid in transportation arrangements? How important is it to their children and to the quality of the children’s education to make these kinds of agreements at the time of divorce?
The couple must decide whether to schedule a future mediation date to review and possibly amend the parenting plan. Parents may not know how well a parenting plan will work for the family until it is in place for some time. Also, as children adjust to the new form their family has taken, and as they grow and meet new challenges, the plan in place may not work as satisfactorily as in the beginning.
Joan Thomas is a licenced attorney and advanced practitioner member of the Association for Conflict Resolution (formerly the Academy of Family Mediators). She has degrees in both social work and law. Her divorce and family mediation practice is restricted to southern California.
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