Published on November 25th, 2013 | by Kelly Rose Bradford0
Shared parenting – our expert answers your questions
Jeff Botterill has been a McKenzie Friend and lay adviser since 2004, guiding families through divorce and separation. He is a specialist adviser on children and finances at Family Law Decisions. He spoke to parenting solo about shared parenting – and how parents can best go about achieving it.
What exactly is shared parenting?
When parents separate, ‘shared parenting’ is where children have two homes, and spend substantial time with both parents at weekends and mid-week. Both parents then share in the children’s upbringing and development. It is not necessary for there to be an equal or near equal share of care for a routine to be considered shared parenting.
In practice, shared parenting means that the children spend ‘ordinary’ and ‘fun times’ with each parent – the children are sleeping, eating, working (e.g. school homework) and playing in each home, with each parent listening and talking to the children. The parents share the big decisions about the children’s lives, with each being involved in their schools, sport, music and other activities, and both being fully aware of the physical, intellectual and emotional health of the children. The children are then also part of the two extended families – grandparents, uncles and aunts, cousins and friends.
Why would some parents not want it?
Some separated families may together decide the best option is to have one parent take on (or continue with) most of the caring responsibilities for the children, and the other parent primarily focus on the financial responsibilities.
Some parents believe they alone are best placed to care for the children. Perhaps they may wish to continue what they considered were existing arrangements prior to separation. Perhaps employment may not be something they can, or wish, to explore. Financial incentives such as tax credits, child benefit, housing benefit and child maintenance from their former partner also may be a factor. It may be the case they have a new relationship and feel that their former partner being involved substantially in the care of the children could be intrusive.
Other parents may wish – or it is simply necessary because of financial pressures – to concentrate primarily on their jobs. It may not be feasible for them to arrange working hours which enable them to substantially share in the care of their children. They may simply feel the other parent is best placed to look after the children for the most part. Or, they may be in a new relationship and a shared parenting schedule would not be practical.
What should be taken into consideration when undertaking shared parenting?
The most important factor is to ask if shared parenting will be the parent’s best choice for their children.
Parents should consider carefully that staying connected in meaningful relationships with both mum and dad is what helps children survive family break-up and eventually thrive in their new family situation. Shared parenting enables children to enjoy continued love and interaction with both of their parents and extended families, and lessens the emotional trauma they suffer due to family upheaval. Children who have a home with both parents generally have better emotional wellbeing.
Practical considerations could be employment and proposed childcare routines of the parents, distance, schools, financial and housing aspects. It is helpful if parents recognise that there should be some flexibility in arrangements at times.
If the children are older, then their views in particular should carry real weight, as long as they are not considered simply to be taking the side of a parent out of misguided loyalty and putting that parent’s wishes above their own needs.
Does going from one home to another not cause disruption for children?
Inevitably children are subject to disruption after their parents separate. Children can cope well with disruption particularly when they know both of their parents love and care for them. In many intact families disruption often occurs e.g. when parents change jobs or have to work away or have long working hours or the family relocates or there is illness.
Many intact families choose or need to use external child care such as nurseries, child minders, pre-school and after school clubs, extended family, boarding school and such. For children in separated families to move between two homes in a carefully considered schedule is little or no more disruptive – often far less disruptive. Children generally settle well into a shared parenting routine, particularly with supportive parents.
Surely it only works if parents live close by and are mobile?
The proximity between the parent’s new homes, school and work are important to consider as it affects the ability to manage school runs and clubs etc.
What if my child does not want to live between two houses?
Younger children are usually happy to have two homes particularly when their parents are supportive. As children get older they will have individual preferences, and depending on their friends and interests, they may then prefer to spend more time in one home. Parents of older children in particular should consider their children’s views and if necessary adjust any shared parenting schedule accordingly.
What if my or my former partner’s circumstances change – houses moves or a change jobs?
If there are significant changes in a parent’s situation then it is important that the effect on the children and any shared parenting schedule is re-assessed.
When should parents NOT undertake shared parenting?
If a child has certain medical conditions or special needs, which may affect his or her ability to cope with transition, then further careful consideration will be required. Also, if there is a documented history of domestic violence then depending on the severity, shared parenting or even any direct contact may not be suitable.
Other reasons could be if a parent has a disability which may affect their ability to take on substantial care of their children, or if the practical considerations such as housing and mobility are not adequate for the needs of the children.
Do shared parenting arrangements have to be legally drawn up?
It is not necessary to have a shared parenting schedule legally drawn up if the parents can agree between themselves. However, it may assist if the parents approach a mediator who can make a formal note of their agreement, although this is not legally binding.
Shared parenting or shared care is often mentioned in family law judgments but it is presently formally referred to under the legal terms of a Shared Residence Order or perhaps a Contact Order which could set out the shared parenting schedule within those Orders. The government is to eventually replace residence and contact orders with Child Arrangements Order’s in England and Wales.
What if I want shared parenting and my partner does not – what can I do?
If you are the primary carer presently of the children then unfortunately there is no legal route for you to insist that your ex partner is involved in your children’s care. Explaining to your former partner about the huge benefit to the children of both of their parents being meaningfully involved in their lives is perhaps all you can do.
If you are not presently a significant carer of the children, again explaining the benefits of shared parenting to your former partner is a start. If there is a negative or nil response then it maybe necessary to consider a formal proposal for mediation to try and agree a shared parenting schedule. If mediation is unsuccessful then an application to court may be the only option to have the opportunity of putting in place a shared parenting schedule.
Has shared parenting worked for you? Do let us know.