The Evolution from “Custody and Visitation” to “Parenting Plans”

In the “old days” (which in the area of family law can often mean just a few years ago due to the ever-changing landscape of domestic relations), the division of responsibility for and upbringing of minor children in divorce was rather clear-cut.  One parent was awarded “custody” and the other had “visitation”.  Alas, a positive shift in societal attitudes about child rearing has evolved.  No longer is the norm a win/lose proposition of superiority of one parent over the other when determining time spent with children and the primary power to decide schooling, medical care, religious upbringing, and similar issues.  Instead, when negotiating “legal” and “physical” custody of sons and daughters, lawyers and mental health professionals alike are working in tandem to change the dialogue.  We’ve entered the era of speaking about creating “parenting plans” and scheduling “parenting time” as opposed to hard and fast notions that one parent is granted “custody” and the other is a “visitor”.

In some states, parents now enter the court system under a “presumption” that shared decision making and equivalent time spent with youngsters is inherently in their best interest.  This is an incredible deviation from outdated perceptions and beliefs that children are always better served by having one parent function as the primary caretaker and sole decision maker.  Research in the field is clear:  in most instances children are more apt to thrive and transition to becoming well adjusted adults by maximizing time spent with each of their parents regularly—and having two adults (instead of just one) providing perspective, consistency, guidance, and nurture.

Admittedly, there is never one crystal-clear model that fits every family situation.  As much as the concept of equivalency in time and responsibilities for raising infants, toddlers, pre-teens and teenagers might “sound right”, there remain family dynamics that aren’t always suitable for the passage from “custody” to “parenting” frameworks.  Work demands, physical limitations, personality differences, wishes of the children, past history in the family, and financial constraints all impact the day-to-day routines of caring for our daughters and sons.  Yet realizing that minor children really “need” both parents in their lives can yield positive conversations, productive negotiations and successful implementation of short- and long-term planning.  We cannot forget that the ultimate welfare of our vulnerable, impressionable and legally powerless underage offspring is at stake when fathers and mothers decide parenting matters.  What can possibly be more important in transitioning to separate households?