“Children Are Not Backpacks:” Whose Needs Does Your Parenting Schedule Serve?

When parents can no longer live together, one of the first orders of business is to figure out how each of them will spend time with their children. There are any number of possible configurations for parenting time, and parents are often focused on fairness. They want their fair share of time with the kids, which is understandable; nobody wants to be a visitor in their own child's life.

But parents sometimes conflate what would be fair to them with what would be fair for their kids—and the two may not be the same. Often, a schedule that allows parents to have an equal amount of time with their children, and to see them regularly, equals a schedule in which children are passed back and forth like backpacks.

How Does “Backpack Parenting” Happen?

Parents almost never set out to create a scenario in which their children never get a chance to settle in at either home. It usually starts out with the best of intentions. Parents reason that it's not a good idea for their child to go too long without seeing one parent. So they set up a schedule, often two days with one parent, two days with another, followed by five with the first parent, then five with the second. This cycle, commonly known as 2/2/5/5 or 5/2/2/5, repeats every two weeks.

At first, the plan seems to satisfy the children's need to see both parents frequently, and the parents' desire to be regularly involved in their children's lives. The schedule looks good on paper. The flaws begin to emerge in practice. Children, fresh from the home of one parent, have to readjust to the other's rules and routine. By the time they do, it may be time to return to the other home. Also, depending on the distance between the parents' homes, this arrangement can result in children spending much of their time with each parent not face to face, but side by side as they travel in a car.

Different children adjust differently to the challenges of this type of joint physical custody. Some, of course, are just fine with it. Some may complain. Others may have difficulty with the arrangements, but due to age, temperament, or special needs, may not be able to articulate it.

One sign that your parenting time schedule is not working for your child might be regression, such as younger children starting to wet the bed after being toilet-trained. A child might also appear anxious, act out, or begin complaining of physical symptoms such as headache or stomachache that have no apparent medical cause.

Preventing Problems with Joint Custody

It's important to try to anticipate potential problems with a joint custody schedule, because getting a schedule changed once it's in place can be very difficult, especially if the other parent isn't in favor of the change. Here are some things to think about:

  • How old are the children?
  • Do any of the children have a history of anxiety or difficulty adjusting to changes in routine?
  • How far apart do the parents live?
  • Do you and your ex have very different parenting styles?
  • Will the schedule negatively impact the children's ability to play with friends, or participate in school events or extracurricular activities?

Finally, ask other parents about their experiences with 2/2/5/5 and other parenting schedules. To learn more about creating a parenting time schedule that is in your children's best interests, we invite you to contact us at Mundahl Law to set up a consultation. In the end, making a parenting time schedule that works best for your children will make the time you spend together better for all of you.

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