Choose Your Own Custody Schedule Adventure
March 14, 2010 9:14 AM   Subscribe

Should we let our child choose the terms of his joint custody?

We've been divorced for over a year and have joint legal/physical custody of our young son on a 50/50 basis. For anonymous purposes, he's between the age of 5-7. Our son seems happy with the custody arrangements and there is little to no problems when he switches from house to house.

His Dad has been extremely stubborn on which days of the week he will take him and which days he won't (extracurricular activities). I've argued with him over this in mediation, but keeping the schedule as it is has brought the most peace and we're both very dedicated for the best for our kid.

Friends have told me that if our son starts getting annoyed with the schedule (we split weekends, which has bothered me but never seems to bother him and he switches houses in the middle of the week too), he'll bring it up or it will start to be noticeable.

But part of me thinks that he's too young to talk about it that specifically and that he looks to us for cues on changes. Also, he hates changes and when we do have to shuffle days around, that's when he gets most anxious. He also recently told me that he wanted to give his "divorce books" to another kid "because I don't need them any more." He seems happy and healthy when he's with either one of us.

Should I just wait until he's old enough to tell us if it's a problem? I have a throwaway email address at fiftyfiftyforever at Many thanks.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (16 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
It sounds like things are going well for your son. Yes, you can ask him if he likes the schedule, but you have to be sure to phrase it without pushing him toward any particular answer.

I think what you're really asking is if you can get a full weekend with him and if this is a priority you can ask his dad for a full weekend every other week.
posted by sciencegeek at 9:31 AM on March 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

But part of me thinks that he's too young to talk about it that specifically and that he looks to us for cues on changes. Also, he hates changes and when we do have to shuffle days around, that's when he gets most anxious. He also recently told me that he wanted to give his "divorce books" to another kid "because I don't need them any more." He seems happy and healthy when he's with either one of us.

This is all the answer you need. He's happy. Don't push him for a change.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 9:36 AM on March 14, 2010 [2 favorites]

The best thing you can do is determine a reasonable schedule that is as least disruptive to his activities, life style, school, friends, etc. as possible. Model peaceful problem solving with your ex, and be consistent with arrangements, pickups/dropoffs, times, expectations, etc. I would also advise that the two of you work closely in determining limits (bedtimes, toys, do's and dont's, etc) so life is consistent and fair.

And, in answer to your question, your 5-7 year old is too young to make these kind of decisions, I think you know that.
posted by HuronBob at 9:38 AM on March 14, 2010

No, absolutely not. If he has needs or wants, take them into account, but letting him "choose" is bad news.

You never want to put a young child in a situation where he has to pick between his parents, is responsible for one parent's happiness/sadness/disappointment, etc.

Really--do you let him choose what he wants for dinner?

If you think you can get your child to choose a custody schedule that you want as a way of making an end-run around Dad's stubbornness, well, don't.
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 9:43 AM on March 14, 2010 [6 favorites]

Don't make him choose until he's much older. Right now it will just seem like choosing between doing what mom wants vs doing what dad wants and that's a really unfair position to put your kid in. Don't act like the schedule bothers you and it won't occur to him that it's something worth being annoyed by.
posted by martinX's bellbottoms at 9:48 AM on March 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

Should I just wait until he's old enough to tell us if it's a problem?

Yes, this is almost a no brainer question.

This doesn't sound like it's about him, it's about YOU and what you think is best for him, despite him being happy and pretty adjusted to things.

You're over thinking it, let it go. If things because difficult for him, he'll either tell you or you'll be tell yourself.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 9:49 AM on March 14, 2010 [2 favorites]

He's happy, well adjusted, and doesn't like change. Why are you questioning the arrangement?

If, someday, he need to have the schedule changed, then work it out with your ex. Like Internet fraud says, you don't let him pick what he has for dilnner, do you? (But you do take his likes and dislikes into account, or declare a free night sometimes, don't you?) You don't put a child in charge. He is a child and needs your wise guidance.
posted by SLC Mom at 9:58 AM on March 14, 2010

If you want your kid to play off whichever parent is treating him better, then sure, let him pick. This week he likes soccer. But next week, if he doesn't, don't worry, he'll want to be with whatever parent can't manage to get him there/back.

Kids should have structure. Left on their own, they'll do whatever has the least resistance. Bonus: You'll be giving him a weapon. If you start to try to give him structure after this, he'll try to punish you for it. "Oh, mom makes me go to music practice so no, I don't wanna to go to her house for Xmas."
posted by filmgeek at 9:59 AM on March 14, 2010

I wouldn't go inventing problems if he seems comfortable with the current arrangement. I think the key is to continue to be flexible.

In a few more years he will start moving towards a social life that becomes increasingly independent of either of you. He may want to switch houses less frequently (that seems to be the heart of your question, though I'm still not entirely sure what you think your child might chose differently). This is part of a natural progression that takes place over time, wherein kids in the 5-7 age range will mostly follow your lead like puppy dogs--happy to go on excursions to the places you chose, participate in the activities you enroll them in, and follow the custody schedule that you've established.

In the middle school years this willingness to be "led" starts to erode, and they also start to shift the focus of their social life from doing things with mom/dad towards doing things with friends. By the time they reach high school, you're basically just an afterthought, even if you do manage to hang onto a few "family togetherness" rituals like family dinner or vacations. And by that age, as well, you will *not* have to worry about reading them for subtle clues about how they feel about the custody arrangement. Or anything else, for that matter. If you maintain even halfway open communication with your kid over the years, when they are 12-13-14 you will be hearing their opinions on every little detail of your shared lives. The custody arrangement sucks. Your car sucks, and furthermore smells like crayons. The color of the carpet in your living room sucks to the point of embarrassment, and that's why he spends all his time hanging out at his friends' houses. But I digress....

In other words, follow your child's own cues about when he begins to have an interest in having more say in the patterning of their schedule. This doesn't mean that you necessarily capitulate to the child in all matters (really, there's nothing wrong with the carpet). But if/when the child begins to express things like "I wish I didn't have to switch houses so often," the child is probably old enough to have such feelings taken into serious consideration, and to be engaged in a dialog that covers all the pluses and minuses of various alternatives, including which alternatives are simply not feasible for whatever reason.
posted by drlith at 10:06 AM on March 14, 2010

I have 50/50 custody of my kids (now 11, divorced since they were 3). We were on a 2 switches per week arrangement (with a weekend switch that sounds similar to yours). Eventually, when the boys were about 8, we switched to a week/week arrangement. That single change (with them moving houses 4 times a month instead of 8) evened out a lot of bumps that had formed re: the schedule/confusion etc.
That being said, there was a long period of stability regarding the twice-a-week switch. Until there wasn't. And then we switched it up.

I wouldn't let the kid choose, for all of the well-spoken and cogent reasons given above.
I'd work on the ex-not-wanting-to-change-the-schedule thing. That could be a real killer later.
It's good that you're in mediation. Might I suggest a co-parenting counselor?
My ex and I see one monthly, and it's a great mechanism. A mediator is there to get you to compromise, but a co-parenting counselor is there to get you both to be clear about what's in the best interest for the kid.
That's a big difference.
posted by asavage at 10:31 AM on March 14, 2010

He's too young to make any decision that could impact his life outside of does he want a chocolate or strawberry milkshake.

Work out a set schedule with the ex and is mildly flexible so you're not getting in fights if someone is an hour late but it sounds like you both have things under control. If you want a full weekend once in a while then just ask for that.

Good luck.
posted by zombieApoc at 10:54 AM on March 14, 2010

I think I'm missing something here-who wants to make a change and why? Because it sounds like both your ex and your kid are content with the existing arrangement. Has anything indicated that your child is unhappy with the current schedule? If you're not okay with it, and there is a reasonable motivation for changing the arrangement, that's entirely valid, and something to explore and decide between grown-ups. Of course you want your child's input, but ultimately you and your ex need to settle on what's best. If you are just trying to head off problems before they appear, then I would leave things be until there is an obvious and sound reason to change things. Good luck!
posted by katemcd at 11:14 AM on March 14, 2010

My daughter's had a 50/50 middle of the week, every other weekend type arrangement for more than 5 years now. When we switch it up to accommodate something (business travel, anniversary with our current partners, etc.), she gets thrown off her rhythm.

Basically, too much time with one parent without the other makes her feel like we're forcing her to play favorites or something. So come hell or high water, we don't switch. Even down to the fact that when we "switch" days, we call it babysitting, or I'm "covering for a [EX's NAME] day." That ownership/responsibility for the time has been very important to giving her a sense of stability (as we've learned through years of trial and error). If an extracurricular is on my night, I take care of it. In the end, it balances out. Not every afterschool thing is always on a Wednesday.

At 10, I still won't ask her point blank about the schedule, because she's still trying to figure out what the "good kid" answer is, rather than prepared to give me her real preference.

If your kid is unhappy with the arrangement, you'll know it. If he seems happy and well-adjusted, just seriously let it be. It won't really be an issue until he's socializing with other kids anyway -- just because it's harder to plan sleepovers and let parents know who to call.

Your kid has come to accept this as the new normal. Be happy for that. If it's not working for you, bring it up like that. It's OK to want to arrange it more seamlessly for your life and convenience. But don't put the kid in the middle of it.
posted by Gucky at 11:30 AM on March 14, 2010 [2 favorites]

I'm a child of divorce, and also have two younger sisters (5 and 10 years younger), so I have personal perspective on custody issues.

I would say that 5-7 is waaay to young to let your kid have a say in the custody arrangement. When he is 12-13, you should start to give him *some* say in the issues, and when he's 15-16 he can have a lot of say (but not all). When he starts having an independent social life, then you can start making the custody arraignments on a more ad-hoc basis. Come high school, he'll have to go to Lacrosse practice and will want to play video games with his friend John afterwords, etc., so you and Dad will have to work on being more flexible. But that is far away.

For now, I think its really really really important to have a set structure and rythym of custodial arrangements. Kids need this, and function better with it. I went with my dad Wednesday, and every other weekend. When I expressed that I wanted to spend more time with him, we added Monday nights. But it was always really important for me to know that every Monday, every Wednesday, and every other weekend, was "dad" time. I think I felt better cared for and appreciated that way. From watching my sisters grow up, that kind of regularity was really important for them too. I never had trouble "switching houses", only switching schedules. I think injecting too much randomness into the arrangements can be stressful for the child.

I think I turned out really well, as did my sisters. Having a stable set of family relations-albeit one that involved separate visitation- was REALLY important for my development. It also sounds like both of you put the kid first, which is great. My parents had their issues, but they would always unite in common defense for their children's issues, and I took note of that. It's really good that you and your ex-husband seem to have that type of relationship, even if you think he's a douche for other reasons. Try to foster this working relationship- it's really good for your child.

Note that I'm a guy, and that I think gender definitely plays a role in how kids relate differently to each parent. Also, realize that there will be phases where your child wants to hang out more with one parent, and less with the other. Accept that, and don't be upset. It balances out in the end.

I'm just a data point, but feel free to MeMail me if you want my opinion of what works well in divorce, and what doesn't.
posted by HabeasCorpus at 2:59 PM on March 14, 2010

What you are asking him is way too much for his age. My parents (while not divorced) used to ask me "who do you want to live with" at that age and it cause a huge amount of pressure, guilt, anxiety. Don't do this to your child. You're the parents, your husband needs to work it out. If the child protests, however, find out why and work from there. Don't give him the choice initially.
posted by stormpooper at 6:57 AM on March 15, 2010

He also recently told me that he wanted to give his "divorce books" to another kid "because I don't need them any more." He seems happy and healthy when he's with either one of us.

It seems like he's making a choice - he's happy with the arrangement. It sounds like you aren't. Are you sure you aren't trying to push him to express your wishes?
posted by rodgerd at 3:21 AM on March 16, 2010

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