Co-Parenting Through Separation and Divorce: Making Sure your Child Wins

By Julie Baumgardner

Karen’s son lied about his homework, so she grounded him from weekend activities. Her son was scheduled to be with his dad that weekend so she called her ex to ask him to honor the grounding. He refused, saying that was his only time with his son and he wasn’t obligated to fulfill her decisions. Karen was furious. 

Was Karen right to ask her ex to do this? Was her ex wrong not to honor her wishes? 

“The ultimate goal is to have Karen and Ted strive to enforce similar rules and cooperate regarding the children,” said Ron Deal, author of The Smart Stepfamily. “If you can achieve this level of cooperation, terrific, but the reality is, in many instances, they aren’t there. So, what we work toward is each household being autonomous, but sharing the responsibility for the children. Co-parenting does not mean sharing all decisions about the children or that either home is accountable to the other for their choices, rules or standards.” 

Probably the most important question one could ask in this situation is, “What do the children need from their parents?” 

“I think it is important for the parenting team to understand that following a divorce, children live in two countries,” said Mr. Deal. “They hold citizenship in each country and are, therefore, invested in the quality of life found in both. The parenting team should do everything they can to help children thrive and enjoy each of their two homes. An old African proverb says, when two elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers. Biological parents who fight and refuse to cooperate are trampling on their most prized possession- their children. Elephants at war are totally unaware of what is happening to the grass, for they are far too consumed with the battle at hand. Little do they know how much damage is being done.” 

According to Mr. Deal, there are some guidelines parents can follow to help their children move back and forth between their two homes as smoothly as possible.

  • Work hard to respect the other parent and his or her household. Make space for
    different parenting styles and rules as there are many healthy ways to raise a child. 
  • Schedule a monthly “business” meeting to discuss co-parenting matters. 
  • Never ask your children to be spies or tattle-tails on the other home. 
  • Children should have everything they need in each home.
  • Do not disappoint your children with broken promises or by being unreliable. Do what you say, keep your visitation schedule as agreed, and stay active in their lives. 
  • Make your custody structure work for your children even if you don’t like the details of the arrangement.

“I encourage ex-spouses to ask themselves this question, ‘Can you let your desire to provide the best situation for your child take precedence over your personal issues with each other?’” said Mr. Deal. “Give your ex-spouse the opportunity to be wonderful with the kids, even it he/she wasn’t wonderful with you. The key is to separate your marital past from your parental present and do everything you can to make the co-parenting relationship work. While parents may not be willing to share the discipline strategies of the other home, you should try to agree on how to approach developmental tasks of childhood such as potty training, taking responsibility for feeding a pet or getting their backpack to school with all the necessary materials for that day. If both households can support the training of the child then the child wins.”

Biography: Julie Baumgardner is the Executive Director of First Things First, an organization dedicated to strengthening marriages and families through education, collaboration and mobilization. She can be reached at

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