Creating a parenting plan? Here’s the one thing to consider first.

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Parenting Plans — consider this factor first and foremost.

Parents living separately often create a written parenting plan to govern the details of their custody arrangement. Often, they wonder what should be included in the plan, or, how specific the plan needs to be.

It depends on each parent’s desire for structure vs. flexibility.

And the answer to both questions is the same: it depends on each parent’s desire for structure vs. flexibility. Understanding where you and your co-parent fall on this spectrum will help you have more productive, lower-conflict parenting discussions.

Start with the general, day-to-day schedule. Parents needing structure prefer a specified schedule, such as “every other week with each parent, alternating on Mondays.” High-conflict parents may even specify exact times and start dates (i.e., beginning on June 15, 2017), so that each parent’s right to custodial time is very clear in the event of a dispute.

Other parents need or desire more flexibility, perhaps to account for a heavy travel schedule or the preferences of an older child. Their order might be as general as, “child to spend time with each parent on a schedule to be determined by the parents.”

Based on the ages of the children, level of the parent’s conflict, and the demands of each parent’s career, where do you see yourself on the structure vs flexibility spectrum? Where does the other parent see themselves?

After setting the general schedule, consider holidays, special days, and school breaks. Some parents like to specify holiday and vacation times far in advance. This helps accommodate travel, reduce conflict, and ensure that the child has time with each parent on each holiday on an ongoing basis. Highly structured parents will specify the schedule on every holiday, special day and school break. Highly flexible parents will work together as each holiday arises, making plans ad hoc, so they’re not boxed into a schedule. Parents in the middle tend to balance structure and flexibility by including some holidays (like Thanksgiving, or a two-week vacation each summer) while leaving others to be decided by future agreement.

Based on your attitude toward holidays, special days, vacations, and traditions, where do you see yourself on the structure vs flexibility spectrum? Where does the other parent see themselves?

Last, consider additional parenting provisions. These are the issues other than scheduling, those decisions impacting how the children are raised. These provisions may or may not be enforceable in the event of a dispute. However, considering whether to include them while drafting a parenting plan can help avoid future conflicts and create more consistency in parenting between homes.

Parents who prefer structure may wish to include provisions about religion, introducing significant others, bedtimes, firearm storage, alcohol use, or athletic participation, to name a few. Structured parents might benefit by including a “right of first refusal” allowing the “away” parent the first opportunity to provide care if the “home” parent will be absent during their parenting time. Provisions about moving, saving for college, attending mediation, or pre-authorizing babysitters might be added. The most flexible parents will leave all additional parenting provisions out, while mid-spectrum parents might include just a few. Understanding that these provisions have various levels of enforceability, how important is it to you that they be considered?

How much structure vs flexibility would you like in your parenting decisions? How much would the other parent prefer?

If you and your co-parent cannot agree on a level of structure vs flexibility, here are a few tools to help.

First, consider the age and developmental stage of your child. Very young children and teens may need more flexibility, while young children and middle-schoolers often find comfort in routine.

Second, consider your child’s temperament. An anxious child can feel unmoored if the schedule changes often, children who are acting out may require more structure to provide consistent boundaries, and children who transition well between homes might adjust to schedule fluctuations more easily. If you, your co-parent, and your children all fall on different parts of the structure vs flexibility spectrum, then adjust to serve the person who needs the most structure. Start with a more structured plan, and work in flexibility as you can.

Developing a parenting plan is complex, and often parents don’t know where to start.

Developing a parenting plan is complex, and often parents don’t know where to start. For each aspect of the parenting plan — general schedule, holiday schedule, and additional provisions — the threshold issue is finding a balance between structure and flexibility.

Oh, and if parents are on opposite sides of the spectrum?

They should consider their child’s personality.

They should consider their child’s personality. Some children are comforted by routine, while others thrive with spontaneity. Plotting the child’s comfort level on the structure vs flexibility spectrum provides a key data point.

The parenting plan can have a lasting impact on the lives of all involved. Starting with a discussion of structure vs flexibility will help you create a parenting plan is unique to, and works for, each family.

In Shakespeare sonnets, summer fades. But for single parents, it disappears overnight, replaced one morning by an early alarm that vaults children and parents into new routines, new shoes, and new challenges.

See our live conversation on the topic:


SPLIT | DECISIONS is Your Divorce Lifestyle Network, created by cooperative attorney mediator Erika Englund and supported by family law attorneys at Forester Purcell Stowell PC. Along with local and national guests, our host and co-hosts talk about divorce as it really is — not just a lawsuit, but a lifestyle. We aim to help you make better Split Decisions. The law is constantly changing. The information contained herein may not reflect the most recent legal developments and may not be accurate or applicable in your jurisdiction. You should not take, or refrain from taking, action on the basis of information included on this website without seeking the legal advice of competent counsel in the relevant jurisdiction for your particular problem. Learn more at

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