This section is all about putting your children first and building good parenting arrangements — arrangments that work for the children and for you. It provides a brief introduction to parenting after separation and talks about a few of the things that you probably want to think about when figuring out the arrangements for parenting after separation that are most likely to be in your children's best interests. It also provides examples of different kinds of parenting arrangements that might help you develop your own.
While the other parts of this chapter, especially the section Basic Principles of Parenting after Separation, discuss the legal issues involved in deciding how children will be cared for after a couple separate, they don't say much about the practical day-to-day issues involved in parenting after separation and options for dividing children's time between their parents' homes. This section will briefly discuss what it means to parent after separation and how separation affects children, but mostly focuses on building good parenting arrangements. It might help to read the section on Separating Emotionally, in the Separating and Getting Divorced chapter, when you're done here.
If you've got children and you've separated from your partner, you have three things to consider. First, you've got to get a grip on all the emotional baggage that comes along with the end of a relationship. Second, you've got a pile of legal issues you have to sort through. Finally, but most importantly, you and your former partner have to develop a strategy for parenting your children after the relationship ends.
No matter how pressing the first two issues are, you must remember that the parenting of your children after separation takes priority over everything else. If you think the end of your relationship is difficult for you, imagine how confusing and unsettling it must be for your children. Their needs and best interests must come ahead of your own, and ahead of those of your former partner. This is certainly the view that a judge will take.
You may have found that, during your relationship, issues involving the care of your children just sort of worked themselves out, perhaps smoothly, perhaps not. In general, you will have developed a routine, a routine that you and your partner were comfortable with and one that your children became accustomed to. After separation, that routine just may not be possible anymore, especially if you and your former partner are living in separate homes. Suddenly, the children can't rely on both of you being around the house, or on the day-to-day schedules you used to keep. They can't count on all the little things still happening, like bedtime stories, special breakfasts, and playing catch after school. On top of all that change and uncertainty, the children will be fully aware that something isn't right between their parents, even if they don't quite grasp exactly what's going on.
Separation can also see changes in the roles played by parents. A parent who hasn't been particularly involved with the children may become more involved; a parent who used to be very involved may step back a bit. This can be challenging for some parents, and what needs to be kept in mind is that children need all of the adults in their lives to do their best. A parent becoming more involved is almost always something that is good for children. What harms children is conflict, and sometimes stepping back, at least for a little while, can reduce conflict.
While this may sound a little preachy, the fact is that no matter how adults are able to rationalize the consequences of the end of their relationship, their children can't. Your job, regardless of your emotional and legal entanglements with the other parent, is to protect your children from your conflict as much as possible, and to develop parenting arrangements that will be in the best interests of your children.
The words we use often shape how we see the world around us. There's a big difference, for example, between saying "Pat lied to me about ..." and saying "Pat was mistaken when he told me that...." In the same way, there's a difference between saying "Tuesday is my access day" and "Tuesday is when I have parenting time with Moesha."
Over the past ten years or so, the courts and policymakers have become increasingly sensitive to how the words used to describe a parent's involvement with their child can impact on both the child's and the parent's perception of their relationship. As a result, shared parenting — an arrangement in which the parents share their children's time equally or almost equally — is becoming increasingly commonplace, even in situations where, twenty years ago, Parent A would be described as the "access parent" and Parent B would be described as the "custodial parent." The phrase "access parent" can often lead to a sense, shared by everyone, including the children, that this parent is somehow a lesser parent, has less of a role to play, or is less important to their child's life. It also encourages the idea that there are winning parents and losing parents when it comes time to determine the best parenting arrangements for a child.
Words like "custody" and "access" are still used in some provinces. These are loaded terms with a lot of extra meanings that aren't particularly helpful to children, or to each parent's view of their roles and responsibilities in the children's lives. This, and a wish to refocus the "rights" involved in parenting on children rather than on parents, are two of the big reasons why the provincial Family Law Act talks about the care of children in terms of guardians who exercise parental responsibilities and have parenting time with their children, and people who are not guardians who have contact with a child. They're also why the federal Divorce Act was overhauled on 1 March 2021 to get rid of "custody" and "access" and instead talk about spouses who exercise decision-making responsibilities for their children and have parenting time with them, and people who aren't spouses who may have contact with a child. These changes are huge improvements in the legislation about parenting after separation.
A few notes from JP Boyd
I am not a psychologist, a psychiatrist, or a counsellor. As a result, this section should be read with a grain of salt, as it's based largely on my observations of my clients' experiences and a healthy dose of common sense. For the same reason, you are cautioned that this section shouldn't be used as an authority on parenting. The goal of this section is simply to provide some information that may be helpful for parents to consider as they make decisions about parenting after separation.
There are lots of parenting after separation programs offered by trained psychologists and counsellors available throughout British Columbia, as well as some very good online programs developed by the Justice Institute of British Columbia. Other good programs are available from other provinces, including Alberta's Parenting After Separation for Families in High Conflict program. If you are separating or have separated, I highly recommend that you take one of these programs. No matter how good — or bad! — you think your relationship is with your ex-partner, these programs are usually very helpful. Also, in some cases, you may find yourself being ordered to attend a parenting after separation program by the court.
Children and parenting apart
As we discussed in the section "Separating Emotionally," under the Separating and Getting Divorced chapter, separation stirs up a turbulent stew of powerful emotions that can take a surprisingly long time to work through, and often winds up clouding parents' judgment. You can find yourself doing things and saying things you never thought you would, or doing things you promised you'd never do again. In the midst of all of this, you may also find yourself having to resolve critical legal issues that will have a profound effect on your future and the futures of your children.
When a couple have children, they have to accept that they'll remain a part of each other's lives unless their children predecease them, whether they like it or not. They may no longer be partners, but they will always be parents. Parental relationships don't end along with romantic relationships. If you've had children together, you're stuck with each other.
It's impossible to emphasize enough how important it is to always put the children first. Having said that, putting the children's needs and interests ahead of your own can be extremely challenging when you're also trying to cope with the intense emotions involved in separation. It can be tremendously difficult to refrain from badmouthing your former partner to the children, never mind putting energy into supporting their relationships with your former partner. However, if you care about your children, you don't really have a choice.
The reality is that it's not separation that messes kids up, it's conflict. Children can be incredibly resilient. But conflict between parents, whether they're still together or have separated, can have serious short- and long-term consequences for children. These consequences can affect their relationship with one or both of their parents, their performance in school and how long they stay in school, their choices about the other kids they hang out with, and their relationships with other people as teenagers and adults. It can also affect how children perceive conflict and how they resolve conflicts of their own.
Community Mediation Ottawa, formerly the Ottawa Center for Family and Community Mediation, has some helpful suggestions about parenting apart:
Things to think about:
- Children can best deal with their feelings surrounding the separation experience in a climate of cooperation.
- Working together as parents means cooperating with the other parent about raising the children. If you can't do this in person, try communicating by phone or by using notes that are exchanged with the child.
- It is a myth that parents who did not get along as a couple cannot work together as parents. They can. It takes time and effort, but parents can redefine their relationship from being a couple to a more business-like relationship of being partners in the parenting of their children.
- Go directly to the other parent for information, an answer, or a solution to a problem. Do not allow the child to be in the middle, to act as a messenger, or act as a spy. If you cannot deal directly with the other parent, use another adult.
- Give the benefit of the doubt to the other parent’s motives.
- Don't let yourself get caught in any angry feelings the child may have towards the other parent. Encourage the child to speak about their problems with the other parent to the other parent; don't get caught in the middle.
Children may be harmed if they:
- are restricted or prevented from spending sufficient time with both parents,
- are told that one parent is good and the other is bad,
- are encouraged to take sides, or
- don't feel free to love both parents and also stepparents.
Parents may harm their children if they:
- don’t prepare children for changes that will occur,
- burden children with adult problems, such as their legal issues or financial woes,
- compete with or criticize the other parent in front of the children,
- badmouth or blame the other parent in the children’s presence or earshot, or
- expect children to comfort them.
In short, you are the parent, and your children have the right to expect you to do the job of parenting them.
It's easier to say that you'll manage your conflict with the other parent than it is to do. A lot easier. And yet the research about parenting apart and how children adapt to the separation of their parents is full of grim warnings about the serious effects conflict can have on children. No matter how hard it is to manage your conflict, you've got to try your best.
Sometimes, a little bit of work on your communication skills helps. Partly, good communication after separation is about leaving the past behind you, at least as far as the end your relationship is concerned, and choosing your words carefully; think not just about what you're saying but about how the other parent is likely to hear what you're saying. There are also some really effective communication techniques that can improve how you have difficult conversations with the other parent, such as active listening, being alert to the assumptions you're making, and being aware of your body language and how it influences what other people think you're saying. Bill Eddy, a lawyer and social worker known for his work with high-conflict families, talks about how poor communication can put people into a defensive "react" mode rather than a constructive "respond" mode. Mr. Eddy says that communications after separation should be brief, informative, friendly and firm, and I recommend his book on the subject, BIFF: Quick Responses to High-Conflict People, Their Personal Attacks, Hostile Email and Social Media Meltdowns.
Another thing that might help is establishing good boundaries, boundaries that reflect the new relationship you have with the other parent. Robert Emery, a therapist and professor of psychology, says that you should first draw clear boundaries around your relationship with the other parent. Let them know what you're prepared to talk about, what information you're prepared to share, and how and when you're not prepared to communicate. Second, use those boundaries to form a more business-like relationship with your former partner. The two of you may not be friends, but together you are engaged in the "business" of parenting your children. Keep your emotional distance from your former partner and focus on the work you must do together. Finally, he says, you've got to respect the new rules. Don't intrude past those boundaries; keep your discussions focused on parenting. It may be hard not to react when your former partner pushes your buttons, but it's important to try. I also recommend Dr. Emery's book about parenting apart, The Truth About Children and Divorce: Dealing with the Emotions So You and Your Children Can Thrive.
Something else that might help is limiting how and when you and the other parent come into contact with each other. You might think about whether it would help to reduce the number of transitions that the children have to make between your homes, or whether you can avoid in-person contact with the other parent altogether by exchanging the children through their school — on transition days, one of you drops the kids off at school at the start of the school day, and the other picks them up at the end of the school day — or through a relative, a family friend, or an exchange service. You might think about signing up for an online service like Our Family Wizard that provides a message board, a calendar, and a journal for sharing events in the children's lives.
Once you've got the children's parenting arrangements sorted out, you might also think about hiring a parenting coordinator to help you implement those arrangements. Parenting coordinators work with parents to resolve parenting problems as they arise, help parents put the needs and interests of children first, and improve parents' communication and dispute resolution skills. Parenting coordination is a child-focussed process that is aimed at reducing conflict between parents and the children's exposure to their parents' conflict.
I also encourage you to consider counselling to help you work through the enormous changes in your life that came with the breakdown of your relationship with the other parent, and the difficult mess of emotions those changes are causing. Be sure to look for someone, a social worker, a registered clinical counsellor or a psychologist, who has specific experience helping people deal with issues about separation, parenting and conflict. Counselling is often completely or partially funded through workplace extended health insurance programs, and free public and community counselling services may also be available. Be sure to look for those too.
There are quite a lot of public and community resources available to help parents deal with parenting issues, including issues arising while the parents are together. No matter what your circumstances are, if you are having problems, get help. Whether that help involves reading a book or a pamphlet, or going to a seminar, or meeting with a support group, your children are worth it.
Public programs and services
The Parenting After Separation Program is run by the provincial Ministry of Justice. Although it's the mandatory program required of parents at some Provincial Family Court locations, it's open to everyone. A list of the agencies that provide this service is available from the Family Justice division through Clicklaw. You can download the Parenting After Separation Handbook online, in English, simplified Chinese, Punjabi, and French.
The Parenting After Separation program is offered in Cantonese and Mandarin in Surrey, Richmond, and Vancouver; call 604-684-1628. The program is also offered in Punjabi and Hindi in those areas; call 604-597-0205.
Simon Fraser University offers Information Children, a fairly broad and extremely useful non-profit program that deals with parenting issues and includes mediation services. This program offers parenting workshops in New Westminster and Burnaby, and has a handy parenting helpline. Contact Information Children through their website or at:
The provincial Justice Access Centres may be able to direct you to other helpful parenting resources, and are located across the province. Contact them through Clicklaw's HelpMap or at:
Recommended reading for parents
The federal Department of Justice has a number of excellent resources in the family law section of its website that you may find helpful. You'll find publications and research papers about parenting after separation and on other topics important to children's well-being after their parents separate. These papers are of a uniformly high quality and are well worth the read.
The federal government website has a section on creating parenting arrangements that links to three useful resources:
The federal Department of Justice's website also has information on helping your kids cope with separation and divorce.
There are lots of good books about parenting apart that will be available at your local bookstore or through online shopping services like Amazon, including these (my favourites are in bold):
- The Good Divorce: Keeping your family together when your marriage comes apart, by D. Ahrons
- Helping your Child through your Divorce, by F. Bienenfeld
- The Truth about Children and Divorce, by R.E. Emery
- Healing Hearts: Helping Children and Adults Recover from Divorce, by E. Hickey and E. Dalton
- Helping your Kids Cope with Divorce the Sandcastles Way, by M.G. Neuman
- Mom's House, Dad's House: Making Two Homes for Your Child, by I. Ricci
- Joint Custody with a Jerk: Raising your Child with an Uncooperative Ex, by J.A. Ross
- Helping Children Cope with Divorce, by A. Teyber
Recommended reading for children
The books that follow are drawn from the suggestions provided by the Vancouver family law firm Henderson Heinrichs and are reproduced with permission.
- At Daddy’s on Saturdays, by L. Walvoord and J. Friedman (ages 5+)
- Dinosaurs Divorce: A Guide for Changing Families, by L. Krasny Brown and M. Brown (ages 4+)
- Divorce is a Grown Up Problem, by J. Sinberg (ages 4+)
- Let’s Talk About It: Divorce, by F. Rogers (ages 5+)
- On Divorce, by S. Bennett Stein and E. Stone (ages 3+)
- What’s Going to Happen to Me?, by E. Leshan (ages 9+)
- Why Are We Getting a Divorce?, by P. Mayle and A. Robins (ages 6+)
The website www.familieschange.ca is designed to help children understand and cope with the issues that arise when their parents separate or divorce. The website presents differently for younger children versus teens; both versions are very well put together.
The federal Department of Justice has published a book for 9- to 12-year-olds called What Happens Next?, available online and in print. The print version is a lot friendlier and is what I'd suggest giving to a child.
Developing parenting arrangements
The terms the legislation uses to describe the plans that parents and judges make about children are a bit of a mess. Under the provincial Family Law Act, "parenting arrangements" are arrangements about parental responsibilities and parenting time made after separation, whether those arrangements are in an agreement or in an order. "Parenting arrangements" doesn't include agreements and orders about contact. I suppose those would be called contact agreements and contact orders, although the legislation doesn't say so. Under the federal Divorce Act, a "parenting order" is an order about decision-making responsibility and parenting time, and a "contact order" is an order about contact just like you'd expect. A "parenting plan," on the other hand, is the part of a written agreement about decision-making responsibility, parenting time, or contact. "Parenting plan" doesn't include arbitrators' awards or judges' orders.
What's important, really, is that everyone understands what you're talking about. Although there are important differences between agreements and orders, call the plans for the care of your children after separation whatever you'd like. No one's going to get hung up on the fact that you talked about a parenting plan rather than parenting arrangements or a parenting order as long as you're clear about whether you're talking about an agreement you've made with your former partner, an award made by an arbitrator or an order made by a judge.
In this section, we'll use parenting schedules to talk about the allocation of parenting time between guardians, and parenting arrangements to talk about the distribution of both parental responsibilities and parenting time between guardians, following the approach taken in the Family Law Act.
Some mental health professionals and many separating parents believe that the best parenting schedule after separation is for parents to share their children's time equally or almost equally. While that may be true for some children, the federal Divorce Act doesn't say that any particular distribution of time is presumed to be in children's best interests, and the provincial Family Law Act specifically says that no particular parenting schedule should be presumed to be in children's best interests. Section 40(4) of the Family Law Act says:
In the making of parenting arrangements, no particular arrangement is presumed to be in the best interests of the child and without limiting that, the following must not be presumed:
(a) that parental responsibilities should be allocated equally among guardians;
(b) that parenting time should be shared equally among guardians;
(c) that decisions among guardians should be made separately or together.
The absence of any presumptions about parenting schedules in the legislation, whether for shared parenting time or something else, is intentional. Both the Divorce Act and the Family Law Act say that decisions about children are to be made considering only their best interests. As a result, parents, arbitrators and judges have to think about is what is best for the particular child in the particular circumstances of their particular family, not what is generally best for children. This is what Justice McLachlan said in Gordon v. Goertz, an important 1996 decision of the Supreme Court of Canada:
"The argument that a presumption would render the law more predictable in a way which would do justice in the majority of cases and reduce conflict damaging to the child between the former spouses also founders on the rock of the Divorce Act. The Act contemplates individual justice. The judge is obliged to consider the best interests of the particular child in the particular circumstances of the case. Had Parliament wished to impose general rules at the expense of individual justice, it could have done so. It did not. The manner in which Parliament has chosen to resolve situations which may not be in the child's best interests should not be lightly abjured. Even if it could be shown that a presumption in favour of the custodial parent would reduce litigation, that would not imply a reduction in conflict. The short-term pain of litigation may be preferable to the long-term pain of unresolved conflict. Foreclosing an avenue of legal redress exacts a price; it may, in extreme cases, even impel desperate parents to desperate measures in contravention of the law. A presumption would do little to reduce the underlying conflict endemic in custody disputes."
When it comes to parenting schedules, what parents, arbitrators and judges have to decide is what is best for the children in light of the best-interests factors set out at section 16 of the Divorce Act or at sections 37 and 38 of the Family Law Act. Sometimes this winds up being a shared parenting schedule, sometimes it doesn't. Among those best-interests factors, some of the more important are:
- the age and maturity of the child, and their ability to be away from a parent, especially for younger children and children who are being breastfed,
- the child's need for stability, especially for younger children and children with special needs,
- the views and preferences of the child, especially for children who are old enough to have an opinion and understand how their parents' separation, and their own preferences, might impact their lives,
- the pattern of the parents' usual time with the child when they were still together,
- each parent's ability to care for the child, including the presence of any family violence,
- the nature of the child's relationship with each parent, and
- the social needs of the child and their involvement with school, extracurricular activities and friends.
Parents, of course, will have additional considerations of their own. Among other things, parents will want to think about:
- how far away they live from each other and how much driving will be involved, especially the length of time the children will be able to handle being stuck in a car,
- how their work schedules can and can't be fitted around the child's parenting needs, including how they'll manage caring for the child on non-instructional school days and on days when the child is sick and has to stay home,
- whether the schedule will regularly require them to pay for other people to look after the child and if so, the amount of time that the child will be in the care of someone other than a parent,
- how they express conflict and the extent to which the child will be exposed to their conflict, especially if the schedule requires frequent exchanges of the child between homes,
- how they'll manage moving the child's belongings between homes, especially bulky things like hockey equipment, and
- whether each of them is flexible enough to accommodate unexpected events in the other parent's life that might require a temporary change in the schedule.
There's nothing wrong with taking things like this into account when you're planning a parenting schedule. It's important to think about how the schedule will work in real life and whether it's actually doable. You probably don't want a schedule that requires you to make a round trip drive from Surrey to North Vancouver, or from Kamloops to Kelowna, four times a week — and the children probably wouldn't like it either — or a schedule that will see the children in daycare when the other parent is a good parent and otherwise available to care for them.
Creating a parenting schedule
There's really no limit to the ways that children's parenting schedules can be arranged, as long as the schedule is in the children's best interests and practical from the parents' perspective. A search online will give you dozens of parenting schedule templates that you might want to think about. What's important is that the schedule works for the children and for their parents.
A lot of the templates you'll see will offer variants based on the parenting skills of each parent. This is an important consideration when you're thinking about the schedule that is most likely to be in the children's interests. While there are many families in which the parents split the task of parenting fairly evenly and both have excellent parenting skills, there are others in which one parent takes on most of the work involved in raising the children, and there are many perfectly good reasons why this might be the case. However, it's not always fair to measure parenting skills based on how the work involved in parenting was split during the relationship. The parent who did the least parenting might, for example, have had a job that supported the family and occupied most of their time, but might otherwise be or want to be an engaged and committed parent. It's important to think about the actual parenting skills of each parent, not just how they divided up parenting responsibilities before separation.
Parenting schedule templates will offer additional variants based on the age of the children. There are many good reasons for this too. A child who is being breastfed won't be able to be away from their mother for very long, and the sort of parenting time the other parent will have will usually need to be short but frequent. A toddler is better able to handle being away from a parent for an extended period of time, say one or two days, but will need to see both parents frequently. A child who is starting school suddenly has a schedule that's got nothing to do with their parents, and a child who is leaving elementary school will not only have homework and extracurricular activities that need to be taken into account, but the beginnings of a social life that is going to become increasingly important to them as they get older. A teenager's social life will be in full bloom and it may be more important to teenagers that they spend time with their friends and in their extracurricular activities than with their parents. The reality is that parenting schedules have to change based on the age of the child and, eventually as teenagers, on their wishes as well. The schedule that works for a toddler won't work for a kid in Grade Two, and the schedule that works for a kid in Grade Two won't work for a kid in Grade Eight. That's just how it is.
Children who don't have a shared parenting schedule — a schedule in which they have an equal or almost equal amount of parenting time with each parent — will have one home where they live most of the time, sometimes called their primary residence. They'll spend most of the time with the parent who has their primary residence and spend less of their time with the other parent. This used to be the sort of schedule that almost all children had. For kids who were, say, six years old and older, they would usually have spent every other weekend with the other parent, and maybe also every Wednesday for dinner or an overnight visit. However, there are lots more ways that parenting time can be scheduled for children who have a primary residence.
The Langley Family Justice Center publishes an excellent pamphlet called "Suggested Visitation/Time-Sharing Skills" that they gave to their clients, drawn from Gary Neuman's equally excellent book, Helping your Kids Cope with Divorce the Sandcastles Way. The following parenting schedule template is adapted from their pamphlet, and is intended for parents who do not intend to establish a shared parenting arrangement. The schedule varies by the age of the child and by the parenting skills of the parent who doesn't have the children's primary residence.
Birth to 8 months 2 or 3 weekly visits for 2 to 3 hours each supervised visits in the primary parent's home 2 weekly visits for 6 to 8 hours each, plus one shorter visit 9 to 12 months 2 or 3 weekly visits for 4 to 8 hours each, plus one longer weekend visit 2 to 4 weekly visits for 3 hours each 2 or 3 weekly visits for 6 to 8 hours each, plus one weekly 24-hour overnight visit 13 months to 3 years 1 or 2 weekly visits for 6 to 8 hours each, plus one weekly 24-hour overnight visit 1 or 2 weekly visits for 4 to 6 hours each, and possibly one weekly short overnight visit 2 weekly 24-hour overnight visits that are not consecutive, plus one weekly visit for 6 to 8 hours, and a less than equal sharing of holidays 4 to 5
1 or 2 weekly visits for 6 to 8 hours each, plus one weekly 24-hour overnight visit 1 or 2 weekly visits for 4 to 6 hours each, and possibly one weekly short overnight visit 2 weekly 24-hour overnight visits that are not consecutive, plus one weekly visit for 6 to 8 hours, and a greater sharing of holidays 6 to 8
every other weekend, from Friday after school until Sunday evening, plus one weeknight after school until one hour before bedtime, plus 3 consecutive weeks during the summer holiday, and half of all other holidays one weekly 24-hour overnight visit, plus one weeknight after school until one hour before bedtime, plus 3 two-day visits during the summer every other weekend, from Friday after school until Sunday evening, plus one weeknight after school until one hour before bedtime, plus 3 consecutive weeks during the summer holiday, and half of all other holidays 9 to 12
every other weekend, from Friday after school until Sunday evening, plus one weeknight after school until one hour before bedtime, plus 3 consecutive weeks during the summer holiday, and half of all other holidays every other weekend, Saturday morning until Sunday evening, plus one weeknight after school until one hour before bedtime, plus 3 three-day visits during the summer every other weekend, from Thursday after school until Monday morning before school, plus one weeknight after school until one hour before bedtime, plus half of all holidays 13 to 18
every other weekend, from Friday after school until Sunday evening, plus one weeknight after school until one hour before bedtime, plus 3 consecutive weeks during the summer holiday, and half of all other holidays every other weekend, Saturday morning until Sunday evening, plus one weeknight after school until one hour before bedtime, plus summer visits set in consultation with the child every other weekend, from Thursday after school until Monday morning before school, plus half of all holidays
In a shared parenting schedule, the children will have an equal or almost equal amount of parenting time with each parent. Shared parenting schedules aren't always practical for young children. Some children may be able to start spending a similar amount of time with each parent by the time they enter kindergarten, although each week should be divided so that the child sees each parent frequently. By Grade Two or Grade Three, many children may be able to do a whole week with one parent, followed by a whole week with the other parent. Many parents exchange the child on Mondays or Fridays after school to minimize disruption to the child's school schedule and ensure that the children are able to spend an uninterrupted weekend with each of them. By the time the child is in their early teens, every-other-week schedules can be extended to two weeks with each parent. This will change as the teenager gets older, and their views and preferences will need be taken into account.
There are lots of creative ways to structure a shared parenting schedule. Here are a few examples. Remember to take into account the child's age, the child's schedule of activities outside the home, and the practical doability of a schedule from the parents' perspective.
This is a simple template where the children move between Home A and Home B after two days, move again two days later, and move again three days later, sometimes called a 2-2-3 schedule. From the point of view of the parents, they have the kids on Monday and Tuesday as well as Friday through Sunday in the first week, and on Wednesday and Thursday in the second week. This makes sure that the children are with each parent every other weekend, but requires them to transition between homes three times each week. On the other hand, the longest period of time they are away from a parent is three days. That's not bad.
Sunday Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday Saturday A - 1 A - 2 B - 1 B - 2 A - 1 A - 2 A - 3 B - 1 B - 2 A - 1 A - 2 B - 1 B - 2 B - 3 A - 1 A - 2 B - 1 B - 2 A - 1 A - 2 A - 3 B - 1 B - 2 A - 1 A - 2
This next template borrows the basic idea of the 2-2-3 schedule, except that the weekdays the children have with their parents don't change. This schedule, sometimes called a 2-2-5-5 schedule, makes it easier for kids to know whose home they're going to be at and reduces the number of transitions to one in one week and three in the next week. It also gives the children long stretches of five days with each parent every other week.
Sunday Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday Saturday A - 1 A - 2 B - 1 B - 2 A - 1 A - 2 A - 3 A - 4 A - 5 B -1 B - 2 B - 3 B - 4 B - 5 A - 1 A - 2 B - 1 B - 2 A - 1 A - 2 A - 3 A - 4 A - 5 B -1 B - 2 B - 3 B - 4 B - 5 A - 1 A - 2 B - 1 B - 2
This template extends the time that the children are with each parent, and involves two transitions each week. In this template, the transitions happen on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, with the result that each weekend is divided between the parents, with the children spending every Saturday with one parent and every Sunday with the other. The alternating Tuesdays and Wednesdays can make things a little complicated, but the children will always know which home they're going to be at for every other day of the week. This schedule also makes it easier for parents to schedule activities for the children on their own time with the kids.
Sunday Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday Saturday A - 1 A - 2 A - 3 A - 4 B - 1 B - 2 B - 3 A - 1 A - 2 A - 3 B - 1 B - 2 B - 3 B - 4 A - 1 A - 2 A - 3 A - 4 B - 1 B - 2 B - 3 A - 1 A - 2 A - 3 B - 1 B - 2 B - 3 B - 4
This last template has the children with each parent every other week, and is sometimes called a week on, week off schedule. The children only move between home A and home B once per week, and the transition day can be moved anywhere in the week. Moving between homes on Mondays or Fridays after school will usually cause the least disruption from the point of view of the kids and their teachers.
Sunday Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday Saturday A - 1 A - 2 A - 3 A - 4 A - 5 A - 6 A - 7 B - 1 B - 2 B - 3 B - 4 B - 5 B - 6 B - 7 A - 1 A - 2 A - 3 A - 4 A - 5 A - 6 A - 7 B - 1 B - 2 B - 3 B - 4 B - 5 B - 6 B - 7
Of course, a shared parenting schedule doesn't need to see the children's time shared exactly equally between their parents. Another kind of shared parenting schedule might see the kids with one parent three days each week, and with the other parent for the remaining four days, for example.
We've just finished talking about parenting schedules, which concern the distribution of the children's time between their parents. Now let's talk about the other big part of children's parenting arrangements, parental responsibilities.
Whether we're talking about "parental responsibilities," the term used by the Family Law Act, or "decision-making responsibilities," the term used by the Divorce Act, we're talking about how parents make important decisions about their children. Just like parenting schedules, there are a lot of different ways that parental responsibilities can be shared by parents:
- both parents could share all parental responsibilities, which will require them to talk to each other when bigger decisions about the kids need to be made,
- one parent could have all parental responsibilities, which will allow that parent to make decisions about the kids without having to consult the other parent,
- both parents could share all parental responsibilities, but one of them will have the final say in case the parents don't agree about a decision,
- parental responsibilities could be divided between parents, so that each parent has the final say about decisions relating to one of their responsibilities in case the parents don't agree about the decision, or
- parental responsibilities could be divided between parents, so that neither parent has to consult the other about decisions relating to one of their responsibilities.
Neither the Family Law Act nor the Divorce Act say that all parental responsibilities have to be shared equally by both parents or distributed in some other way. While both parents usually wind up sharing all parental responsibilities, remember what section 40(4) of the Family Law Act says:
In the making of parenting arrangements, no particular arrangement is presumed to be in the best interests of the child and without limiting that, the following must not be presumed:
(a) that parental responsibilities should be allocated equally among guardians;
(b) that parenting time should be shared equally among guardians;
(c) that decisions among guardians should be made separately or together.
The big factor that tends to determine how parental responsibilities are managed is the level of conflict between parents. Parents who tend to get along relatively well after separation and tend to agree about the bigger decisions in the children's lives will almost certainly share all parental responsibilities, likely with neither parent having the final say about decisions. When parents don't get along at all, and can't talk about anything without getting into a yelling match, that's when you're likely to see parental responsibilities being divided up with one parent having sole responsibility for some or all decisions.
Special issues in planning parenting time
There are lots of stumbling blocks that can crop up in preparing a parenting schedule, and it can be difficult to anticipate all the special days, events and occasions that you might need to address on top of the children's basic week-to-week schedule. Most often, these special days are things like Mothers' Day or Fathers' Day, the children's birthdays, religious holidays, school breaks, and statutory holidays. Other problems can come up when the parenting schedule is ignored by a parent or refused by a child. Some solutions to issues like this are discussed below. More information can be found in other sections in this chapter, especially the Children Who Resist Seeing a Parent section.
I'm not going to lie. Figuring out parenting schedules with parents who work shift work is really difficult, especially for parents whose shifts change all the time and parents who get only one or two days' notice of their upcoming shifts.
The point of a parenting schedule is to give everyone, including the kids, a degree of predictability and stability in their lives. A good parenting schedule should be something that each parent can map out on a calendar. You should know, today, at whose house the kids are going to be next October 12th. The kids should know, today, when they're going to change homes next and what they need to take from one parent's home to the other's for their school and extracurricular activities. Shift work rarely lets you do this.
There are no good options for planning a parenting schedule around shift work. At a minimum, the parent with the shift work will need to tell the other parent about their work schedule as soon as they find out about it — the more notice that can be provided the better! — and the other parent must be prepared to be as flexible as possible in accommodating the children's time with the parent. The parent with the shift work must accept that the children and the other parent have schedules of their own that may limit the time the children can spend with them. Both parents need to think about how care for the kids can be arranged when neither of them can do it, since few daycare providers work on a drop-in basis. And both parents must learn to be patient, tolerant and forgiving toward each other.
Weekends can be especially important to schedule carefully, and it's usually important that the children's weekends be shared between parents, particularly if the children are going to school. Often a parent who only has the children during the workweek becomes the disciplinarian, since that parent has the burden of telling the kids to go to sleep on time, brush their teeth, do their homework, and so forth. The other parent, on the other hand, becomes the fun parent, since that parent has the kids when they're not in school and can take them to the park, to the movies, and to the beach. The children should be able to spend weekend time with both of their parents.
It's rarely a good idea to plan a schedule that allocates all weekends to one parent, unless the other parent works on weekends or there's some other very good reason why an arrangement like this works for your family and is in your children's best interests.
Statutory holidays and non-instructional days
Make sure that statutory holidays and other non-instructional school days are taken into account when you work out a parenting schedule. Like weekends, these too are special days when the kids don't have to go to school.
Statutory holidays, like Family Day, Labour Day and Canada Day, are easy to plan for. Most of them happen at a fixed time in the year, and you can look up those that don't online. There are a lot of ways of dealing with statutory holidays. Some parents don't worry about them at all, and just follow the ordinary week-to-week schedule throughout the year, except for the main school holidays, like the spring, summer and winter breaks. Other parents share them so that one parent has a particular holiday in one year, and the other parent has the holiday in the following year. For holidays that fall on Mondays and Fridays, you could also decide that whichever parent has the kids for that weekend will also have them for the Monday or the Friday too. This is a good approach, just be aware that in some years one parent will have more statutory holidays with the kids than the other. Don't worry about it, however, because over the long run things will usually work out to a relatively even sharing of statutory holidays.
Non-instructional days, like professional development days and parent-teacher interview days, are a bit more difficult to plan for. Quite often you won't get the details about what the school's calendar looks like until a month or two before the start of school in September. However, non-instructional days magically tend to fall on Mondays and Fridays, and parents who work outside the home can't always count on being available for the children. Non-instructional days, then, raise two kinds of problems: who will have the kids for a day off school; and, how will the kids be cared for if one or both parents have to be at work.
Special non-holiday days
Don't forget about other special days that aren't public holidays when you're working out your parenting schedule. These include the children's birthdays, the parents' birthdays. Fathers' Day, Mothers' Day, Halloween and some religious holidays. Creating exceptions to the parenting schedule after the fact, to deal with special days you've forgotten about, can create an awful lot of conflict.
- Fathers' Day and Mothers' Day: The easiest way of handling Fathers' Day and Mothers' Day is to agree that if Father's Day falls on a Sunday when the children are not with their father, their father will be able to have them for a few hours or the whole day. The same approach works just as well with Mothers' Day, but won't work at all for kids with two fathers or two mothers. In a case like that, the obvious solutions are for everyone to celebrate the day together, if that's possible, to just divide the day in half, or to alternate the day so that each parent has them every other year.
- Children's birthdays: There are four basic choices for managing the kids' birthdays. You could just follow the ordinary week-to-week calendar, so that whichever parent the kids are with on their birthday has them for that day, and the other parent makes special plans to celebrate the next time they have the kids. Or, you could decide that you'll each have a couple of hours or a half-day with the kids on their birthdays. You could also decide to rotate the children's birthdays so that they're with one parent one year and with the other parent the next. Or, you could all spend the day with the birthday child together. Whatever you do, don't forget about deciding who is going to be responsible for planning birthday parties!
- Parents' birthdays: While some parents don't worry about making sure their kids see them on their birthdays, others do. The easiest way to handle that is to either agree that if a parent's birthday falls on a day when the kids are with the other parent, the birthday parent will be able to have them for a few hours, perhaps for the whole day or perhaps just for dinner. If the birthday falls on a weekend, maybe the birthday parent can spend the entire day and an overnight with the kids.
- Halloween: Do not forget to address Halloween in your parenting schedule if you have kids who are ten or younger! The easiest way of dealing with Halloween is to share trick-or-treating duties so that one parent has the kids in even-numbered years and the other parent has the kids in odd-numbered years. In general, the parent who has the kids will take them for two or three hours, just long enough to walk them around the neighbourhood. Don't forget to talk about who will be responsible for costumes!
- Religious holidays: Most parents agree to rotate one-day religious holidays, so that one parent has the kids in one year and the other parent has the kids the next. For two-day holidays, like Rosh Hashanah, parents will usually each take one day. For holidays that are a bit longer, parents often split the holiday down the middle. Christmas, for example, is often handled with the parents rotating Christmas Eve to the early afternoon on Christmas Day, and early afternoon on Christmas Day to Boxing Day.
The main school holidays are the winter break (usually about two to two-and-a-half weeks), the spring break (a week or two weeks, depending on the school system) and the summer holiday (slightly more than two months). Here are some of the basic options for winter break and spring break:
- the breaks can be divided, so that one parent has the first half of the breaks in one year and the second half of the breaks the next year,
- the parents could decide that one of them will have the kids for all of one break in one year and that the other will have them for all of that break the following year, which is easiest if either of them want to travel with the kids, or
- the parents could just keep following the same week-to-week schedule that would normally apply, without adjusting that schedule for the breaks.
Just like non-instructional school days, however, the problem isn't just dividing up the time the kids will be with each parent, it's also deciding how the kids will be cared for if one or both parents have to be at work. It's great to say that you should have the kids for half their spring break, but if you're going to be at work, how much fun will it be for them?
The summer holiday can be handled the same way as the winter break and the spring break, except we're talking about a much longer period of time. Parents also usually need to cooperate to make decisions about travel and vacations, the children's time with relatives, the children's participation in day camps and overnight camps, and the children's participation in sports during the summer holiday. While parents also need to figure out how the kids will be cared for if one or both of them have to work, remember that there's no rule at all that summers have to be split equally. Other common reasons that summer holidays might not be divided equally include a parent's poor parenting skills or disengaged parenting style, a child who has trouble being away from a parent for extended periods of time, and a parent who usually spends a minimal amount of time with the kids the rest of the year.
If the children will be spending their time equally with each parent during the summer holiday, the easiest way to start planning the holiday is either: to agree that the ordinary week-to-week parenting schedule will run until the end of June and start again on the first of September, so that the time you'll be making special arrangements for are the months of July and August; or, to treat the summer holiday as a 10-week period, starting toward the end of June when school finishes and ending in early September when school starts. (That's the inconvenience that comes from having months that don't come in tidy four-week blocks.) The basic options for dividing the children's time are:
- the parents rotate having the children for a whole week every other week,
- the parents each have the children for a whole week every other week, except that each parent gets a special two- or three-week block with the kids, which is great for road trips and vacations,
- the parents rotate having the children in two-week blocks, depending on the children's ability to be away from each parent for so long,
- the parents split the first and second halves of July and August, with one parent getting the first halves in one year and the second halves the following year, again depending on the children's ability to be away from each parent for so long,
- the children are with one parent for all of July and with the other for all of August, also depending on the children's ability to be away from each parent, or
- the parents could just keep following the same week-to-week schedule that would normally apply, without adjusting that schedule for the holiday.
Really, there are no limits about how the children's time during their summer holiday can be managed other than each parent's work schedule and the children's ability to tolerate not being with a parent for extended periods of time.
Travel outside of Canada
If either parent is likely to take the kids out of the country for any period of time, the children's parenting arrangements should talk about: how long trips like these can last; whether there should be any limits on the places the kids can go; the sort of information that the travelling parent must give to the other parent about the children's itinerary, contact information, and where they will be staying while out of the country; and, whether any health precautions, like vaccinations or buying travel health insurance, must be organized before the trip. The parenting arrangements should also talk about the things that might be necessary for the children to enter another country, including:
- signing travel permission letters,
- applying for passports for the children, and
- storing the children's passports between trips.
Border officials usually want to see proof that the parent travelling with the children has the consent of the other parent to take them into the country. If they're not satisfied that the parent has the other parent's permission, they may send the parent and the kids back to Canada on the very next flight. For their part, airlines often check to see whether the parent travelling with the children has permission to do so, not because this is a legal requirement but because they don't want to be stuck with bringing the parent and the kids back to Canada!
Special challenges in parenting time
Parenting time doesn't always go as smoothly as it could. Some problems come from conflict between parents, others come from problems with a parent's health or behavioural patterns. Others come from the children themselves, like when children resist seeing a parent after separation or refuse to spend time with a parent after separation. These challenges can usually be handled, but they require special arrangments and sometimes support from mental health professionals.
Conditional and supervised parenting time
Children's parenting time with a parent can be conditional upon the parent doing something, like buckling the kids into car seats when driving, or not doing something, like not smoking around the kids. If the parent fails to meet any of the conditions of their parenting time, they may not be able to spend time with their children until they do meet those conditions.
In general, there needs to be some fairly serious concerns about a parent's lifestyle or behaviour, and the risk their lifestyle or behaviour poses to the children, before their parenting time will be conditional. As well, the conditions of a parent's parenting time should be no broader and no more difficult than is what is actually needed to address the concerns about that parent and the children's health and wellbeing.
A parenting schedule could also require that a parent's parenting time be supervised by someone, including the other parent, a grandparent, another relative or a friend, or even by a person who specializes in supervising parenting time. (There are a number of organizations that provide professional supervision services for a fee.) Just like conditional parenting time, supervised parenting time should be limited to circumstances where the parent or their behaviour poses a risk to the children. Supervised parenting time is usually intended to be a temporary response to a short-term problem, not a permanent condition of the children's time with a parent.
Children's reluctance or refusal to see a parent
Children can sometimes have difficulty coping with change, whether a change between homes or the change resulting from the breakdown of the relationship between their parents, and may feel anxious when transitioning between homes. Other children may have a stronger relationship with one parent than the other as a result of their experiences growing up, or have a normal preference for one parent over the other for reasons including their age, stage of development and gender identity.
There are many reasons why children may resist spending time with a parent after separation. Some of these reasons, like I've suggested, are fairly commonplace and are experienced to a greater or lesser degree by all children. Other reasons include the special vulnerability of a parent after separation and the children's exposure to family violence. Still other reasons include a parent's interference with the children's relationship with the other parent. (These problems are discussed in more detail in the Children Who Resist Seeing a Parent section.) Regardless of how the parents feel about each other, however, they are both responsible for supporting the children's relationship with each other, including helping the children look forward to their time with the other parent.
It's important to know that there is no age at which children are entitled to decide their parenting schedule or whether they will or won't see a parent, although their views and preferences usually become more important and more influential as they get older. Children and youth should not be responsible for making their own parenting arrangements; that's their parents' responsibility. While a child’s views and preferences should usually be heard, there's a difference between a child having a voice and a child being entitled to make a choice.
If a child is reluctant to see a parent, it's important to know why the child is reluctant to see that parent and then to take steps to address whatever has caused the reluctance. Social workers, registered clinical counsellors, and psychologists who provide services to children and youth will often be able to identify the issues that have resulted in the child's reluctance and suggest ways that the child's relationship with the parent can be better supported, potentially including that each parent and the child receive counselling on an ongoing basis. Counselling is often completely or partially funded through workplace extended health insurance programs, and free public and community counselling services may also be available.
Parents' failure to see a child
Children benefit from stability and predictability; children with special needs especially benefit from stability and predictability. It is disruptive to them and to the other parent when a parent cancels their parenting time at the last minute, or just fails to show up at all. This is an absolute no-no. It sends a message to the children that they don't matter to the parent or that other things, like work, are more important to the parent than they are. As well, both parents need to be able to rely on their parenting schedule; this benefits children by giving them a reliable routine, and it benefits parents by allowing them to plan their lives when they're apart from their children.
Some flexibility from both parents is a wonderful thing, but a situation where a parent is always backing out, cancelling, or changing dates is no good for anyone. Both parents have an obligation to stick to their parenting schedule as much as possible. Sure, things sometimes happen that make it impossible to meet an obligation in a parenting schedule, but being late or cancelling a visit has to be a solution of last resort and can't become a constant feature of the children's time with a parent.
It might be helpful to know that, under section 63 of the Family Law Act, if a parent routinely fails to exercise parenting time, the other parent can apply to court to be reimbursed for any expenses they incurred as a result of the parent's failure to exercise their parenting time. The court may also order that: one or both parents participate in a dispute resolution process; one or both parents attend counselling or other services and programs, with or without the children; exchanges of the child be supervised; or, the parent repay the other parent for travel expenses, lost wages or childcare expenses incurred as a result of the missed parenting time.
Resources and links
- Clicklaw Common Question "I’m looking for information about the Parenting After Separation program"
- BC Ministry of Attorney General report A Summary of Evaluation Feedback from Participants in Parenting After Separation Sessions (2003)
- Legal Aid BC's Family Law website's information page "Parenting & guardianship"
- Indiana Parenting Time Guidelines
- Justice Education Society's online course "Parenting After Separation"
- Information Children (a non-profit supporting parents with family life challenges)
- Department of Justice's guide Making plans: A guide to parenting arrangements after separation or divorce
- Justice Education Society and BC Ministry of Attorney General's website "Families Change"
- Hear the Child Society
|This information applies to British Columbia, Canada. Last reviewed for legal accuracy by JP Boyd 14 Aug 2022.|
|JP Boyd on Family Law © John-Paul Boyd and Courthouse Libraries BC is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.5 Canada Licence.|