Do’s and Don’ts of Co-parenting   

First published in You Magazine, these Co-parenting tips are essential reading for parents who want the best for their child or children.

Co-parenting presents many challenges and our PACES manager, Jonathan Hoffenberg, is without doubt the perfect candidate to answer these deep and meaningful questions.

It’s a long read, so feel free to scan through the questions and perhaps bookmark this article for future reference.

Does co-parenting refer to parents who are separated/divorced or does it also apply to parents who live in a single household with their children?

Let’s start with the big picture as most co-parenting issues come within a context of dispute and contestation (fancy legal word for fighting) that mainly play out in a High Court, or Family Advocate setting. However, co-parenting is really the shared process of parenting between two or more adults, children thrive when more than one adult is involved in their lives. The married couple is co-parenting, and the new parents getting advice from family and friends are co-parenting, yet sadly we mostly speak of co-parenting when things go wrong.

The Children’s act (38 of 2005 plus amendments) is a key piece of legislation that determines what we mean by terms like care, caregiver, contact, parent, and guardianship. South African law does a number of important things firstly it says

“In all matters concerning the care, protection and well-being of a child the standard that the child’s best interest is of paramount importance, must be applied.” This means that the courts are primarily interested in what is best for the child. Secondly, the law states that it is in the best interest of the child to be cared for, have contact, and maintain a relationship with their parents, both parents irrespective of marital status. Should a child not be able to be cared for by biological parents then the Law lays out all the other ways a child can be cared for whether by foster, grandparents, legal Guardians, or even children themselves in the case of child-headed homes.

Co-parenting means sharing parenting responsibilities between two parental figures, often an ex-spouse/partner. It can be extended to sharing parenting between a parent and grandparent or grandparents or even between a parent and extended family members. Most of the time co-parenting is the result of change in the parenting relationship for example divorce, or death. Co-parenting also comes into existence when a child is created by parents who may not be in a relationship. Irrespective of the feelings of the parents if a child for example has a recognised biological father for example, then they have a right to have a relationship with that father and increasingly the Courts are recognising the rights of unmarried fathers to have access and therefore a relationship with their children.

Again, the Law wants children to be cared for and says a child needs to have a relationship with its parents so no matter the context into which a child is born co-parenting plays a role in the care of the child.

No matter the nature of Co-parenting it is always advisable to have a Parenting Plan which is a document that is often part of a court process that lays out custody, living arrangements and covers key issues around caring for a child such as finances, education, religious and cultural factors, travel, holidays, and communication to name a few.

What are some of the challenges parents face when they start co-parenting their child/ren?

As with my explanation about what co-parenting is, co-parenting often starts with a breakdown of a relationship in the form of divorce or separation, it may start due to an unplanned pregnancy. The first and biggest challenge of co-parenting is the relationship between the parents versus the rights of the child. Relationships are never easy and raising child in the context of a failed relationship, or as a single parent, or with the help of your parents, or in the context of new relationships and blended families (where parents are in a relationship with other parents and children that have parents outside the relationship, think of a Dad with 2 children who lives with a Mom with her own baby that they have had).

Co-parenting faces practical challenges like who has custody otherwise known as care and contact, how children move between households, the financial aspects, and the logistical complications of a child having multiple homes.

Co-parenting face the legacy of relationship trauma as parents navigate out of an unhappy relationship and into a shared parenting relationship. Many women for example struggle to see that a man who may have been a bad partner can still be a good dad. Too often the wounds and need to inflict pain on the other parent clouds the need to settle into an enabling routine of co-parenting. The longer parents are in conflict the worse it affects the children.

Lastly co-parenting like all relationships face the developmental and life challenges of life. Children grow and their needs change, Parents get into new relationships, and more and more due to economic conditions Parents have to face new realities where they move away or even emigrate.

Parenting Plans therefore also change as children change.

What does healthy co-parenting look like?

Children need care within a conducive living space with caregivers who try their best to meet their needs for well-being, developmental needs, and safety. In a country with such a wide income disparity and living conditions, we need to be mindful that healthy parenting does not mean a certain level of income and living standards. The Courts normally understand the context in which parents live, they look for evidence that parents are doing their best, that the child is loved and cared for to the best of the parents’ ability.

Healthy co-parenting is recognising that children are resilient and can cope with change, diversity, and inconsistency between parents as long as parents are consistent themselves and communicate. For example, it is okay that Dad lives in a small flat, loves to braai and watch rugby and is an atheist, whilst Mom lives in a large house with a pool and is a vegetarian and a committed Christian. Children can cope with different homes as long as parents do not involve them in their disputes, show respect to the other parent in front of their children, and have a system where they can communicate with each other and adapt the parenting needs as the children develop.

Healthy co-parenting allows for contact between both parents and their children to maintain good personal relationships and communication on a regular basis. This may mean regular calls and face time with the non-primary caregiver who lives with the children every 2nd week.

Healthy co-parenting focuses on the relationship between the parent and the children. It plays the long game, meaning it recognises that relationships change, adapt, and grow. Children who are allowed to spend time and build relationships with the parent they want to at that moment are often more likely to over time have good relationships with both parents. In situations where for example a mother refuses contact with the father can lead to parental alienation (where children are not able to attach and build a healthy relationship with their parents) and the children ultimately blame the mother for their poor relationship with their father.

Lastly, healthy co-parenting, drawing on the analogy of the village raising the child, allows and encourages the child to have contact and relationships with extended family and the wider network of all caregivers.

Are there different types of co-parenting and what are the positives (if there are) and negatives (if there are) of each?

Different literature may use different terms but essentially there are three modes of co-parenting.

  1. Parallel parenting is where Parents do their own thing. They do not argue but they don’t communicate either and operate their households independently. This can be good for children in terms of low conflict and consistency but there is no collaboration and synergy between parents. It is common in older children co-parenting where the need to communicate between parents is low and the children as teens or young adults are self-sufficient and able to interact with the parent as individuals.
  2. Conflicted or intermeshed co-parenting is where both parents are constantly fighting, undermining, and not cooperating with each other. This is very harmful for children, especially young children who are prone to internalise conflict (Mommy and Daddy are fighting because I am a bad child), it also impacts on the child’s self-esteem and ability to have healthy relationships as adults.
  3. Cooperative co-parenting is the gold star of parenting and needs work and for both parents to focus less on their own ego and more on the best needs of their children. This is where parents work together to plan and coordinate, they support each other and avoid involving the children in conflict. This allows children to recover from a divorce and lets the child know that no matter what their parents support and care for them.

Over time and with attention a lot of co-parenting can settle into a cooperative model.

Why is it important for children that their parents co-parent well?

As mentioned, children often blame themselves for any conflict between parents. Children want to love and respect their parents and feel conflicted and anxious when one parent trash-talks the other. Children can cope with change with support and can learn valuable lessons about the need to compromise and cooperate when they see their parents co-parenting well. Children self-esteem, self-worth, view of the other gender, views on relationships (values of marriage), ability to form lasting relationships (loyalty and honesty) and resilience are all impacted by how they grow up. We know from decades of research that high or extended periods of conflict in co-parenting has a lasting adverse impact on children that echoes into dysfunction it their ability to have relationships as adults. What is important to know is that negative impacts can be mitigated with positive change. Parents who work at co-parenting better, parents who communicate with their children about wanting to do better, parents who encourage good relationships between their children and the other parent can repair previous periods of conflict. It is never too late to try to improve. All parenting can be challenging and co-parenting is hard at times but you can always make things better!

What does it mean for the child’s wellbeing when their parents co-parent well?

It means a child has a solid realistic and responsive foundation from which to grow and develop. We are under a huge period of change as societies, the impact of human rights, feminism, urbanisation, rise of the internet, diverse communities, changing notions of identity and gender all mean children are growing up in a world very different from that of the previous centuries. We for example have no real idea of the impact of all the electronic devices many children are growing up with.

Parents cannot predict the future but if they place the child’s well-being as central and show through action that they care, are interested in the lives of their children, and are trying to respect and cooperate with the other parent they offer stability and a safety net their children.

What are some of the practical things that parents should do or have in place to ensure they co-parent well? E.g. should they have a set timetable?

You must have a Parenting Plan! This sets out the schedule of visitations and care. It covers holidays and special days (like spending time with Mum on her birthday irrespective of who has primary care), travel and holidays, the role of extended family (spending the December holiday with Gogo in the Eastern Cape). A Parenting Plan sets out how important decisions are made and sets the understanding of made important decisions (like health care, religion, schools but also how an issue like is the child old enough to have a cell phone is decided, so an established mechanism for making future decisions). A Parenting plans lays out expenses and how do manage increasing costs. A Parenting plans sets out the foundation for good communication between parents and parents and children (for example that there is a call to Dad every Wednesday night so he can hear about school).

  1. Consistency is always a good idea.
  2. Make sure the schools, creche and other structures in your child’s life include both parents in communications.
  3. A shared WhatsApp group, calendar, and notebook can help. There is a co-parenting app that can be downloaded on google play store that can be very helpful in sharing information.
  4. If you have a good parenting plan and an established means of communicating and solving issues then you can cope with any challenge.

What are some of the emotional things parents should and shouldn’t to ensure they co-parent well? E.g. modelling positive behaviour for the children

Try not to:

  • Fight in front of the children.
  • Trash talk the other parent.
  • Compare your situation to the other parent.
  • Criticise the choices of the other parent in front of your children.
  • Ask your children who they love more, or who is better.

Try to

  • Focus on what you can do.
  • Apologise and own your own mistakes.
  • Try say positive things about the other parent.
  • Listen and support your children when they tell you about the other parent or what they did with the other parent.

How should parents manage their own emotions when co-parenting together?

  1. Focus on the children.
  2. Focus on the bigger picture.
  3. Come back to the Parenting Plan.
  4. Accept that at times you need to compromise.
  5. Focus or try see the positives in the other parent or at least try see through the eyes of your children.

If parents cannot agree on how to parent their child/ren, who should they approach for help? How would this person help the parents?

Mediation is always a better option than court or lawyers. Parents can go to people they trust (older parents, family friends, Pastor, Rabbi or Imam), professionals such as social workers, psychologists, mediators, and finally lawyers.

But remember in all conflict it is very rare that one person wins completely and even in cases of dominance by one side in the long run co-parenting is about compromise.

I am reminded by a friend who once told me that in terms of divorce and children there are two options; either the lawyers win or both parents set aside ego’s and try do what is best for their children.

Should children have an input into how they are raised or should that be purely left to the parents?

The Courts and this whole process is driven by what is best for the child. As the child gets older their views and needs become more and more valid, often the Courts will listen to older teens 16 and up and take their views and needs into consideration depending on the maturity and intellectual ability of the child. In terms of Court the voice of the child is always reflected through the reports from the Social Workers, Family Advocate, and any professionals appointed by the courts. Ultimately, we parent to develop a child until they are able to care for themselves, thus all co-parenting needs to recognise the growing agency (ability to direct your own life) of children.

Positive Parenting means you always communicate, listen and take the views and wishes of your children into consideration.

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