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How to Parent From Two Homes

When co-parenting fails, parallel parenting can guide you to success.

Key points

  • Co-parenting requires significant effort and collaboration.
  • Instead of co-parenting, divorced parents with different values can choose "parallel parenting."
  • Parallel parenting empowers each parent to establish independently the rules and values in their home.
Source: Sebastian Leon Prado / Unsplash
Source: Sebastian Leon Prado / Unsplash

When I was recently interviewed for The Puberty Podcast, hosts Cara Natterson and Vanessa Bennett Kroll asked me a question they get asked frequently by their audience: What can a divorced parent do when the other parent does not follow the same values about parenting?

My answer, which may have surprised them, was that parents who do not share the same values should give themselves permission to not cooperate with the other parent in agreeing and implementing the same values. Obviously, it is great when parents align their values and parenting philosophies, which can often make raising kids together easier. But for some separated parents, finding this alignment isn't feasible or comes with a cost. In those cases, I said, the answer is parallel parenting.

To understand the value of parallel parenting, we have to appreciate its more prevalent counterpart, co-parenting, the model many of us see more frequently.

When is Co-Parenting a Fit?

If parents were generally on the same page while living in an intact marriage, a structured co-parenting process may work for them. These people can sometimes easily align on divorce terms and resolve issues out of court.

The co-parenting model is a fit when parents can communicate respectfully and regularly about their children and commit to working together to accommodate their children's needs over their own. An example of effective co-parenting is when parents agree that their children will play a sport with frequent practices and games that span both parents' parenting time. This means that:

  1. both parents are committed to getting the child to practices and games regardless of whose parenting time it is, and they both share the burden of transporting the child to and from such activities;
  2. the parents cooperate to make sure the child has his uniform and equipment so the child has it for each practice;
  3. and the parents and their significant others or extended family can all attend the child's games without tension or conflict.

In an intact family, ensuring our kids get to the right places, with the right stuff, is hard enough; doing it from two different homes requires serious collaboration.

Other examples of quality co-parenting are when parents communicate to ensure that a child completes a month-long school project from both homes, parents who implement the same rules about bedtime and screen time, or parents who regularly share their observations about their child's emotional and physical growth. They inform one another when a conversation about puberty, drugs, or pornography is had in their home.

There is no exact co-parenting protocol. Some parents may elect to have a meeting once a week; some parents hire a professional to help them structure their communications; and some parents co-parent with their former spouse's new spouse. Regardless of how it works, the general idea is that children feel the same encouragement, reinforcement, and continuity while residing in each parent's home.

Co-parenting requires an immense amount of grace and conciliation from both parents, and it comes with a significant burden of forcing ex-spouses to stay in regular, consistent contact with one another and to agree on and implement the same parenting rules and values.

When Is Parallel Parenting a Fit?

Parallel parenting is effective when contact between the parents must be minimized. Under parallel parenting (which one parent can unilaterally effectuate), a parent sets forth their rules, routine, and values in their home, irrespective of what happens in the other parent's home. This allows parents to "rule the roost" as they see fit in their own homes without worrying about the other parent's interference, judgment, or the need to collaborate.

It may be hard to imagine, but children living with parents practicing parallel parenting will adapt to having separate activities and different bedtime or homework rules in each home. If their parents are healthy and appropriate, the children will thrive from having relationships with both parents without exposure to their parent's conflict.

The concept of parallel parenting may not have been the answer the Puberty Podcast audience was expecting from me since, as parents, we are taught that consistency is critical for our children. But there is a reason influencers and other public personas—most recently Ashley Darby of The Real Housewives of Potomac—are openly discussing their decisions to parallel parent their children.

Parallel parenting is protective of parents and their values, especially those still recovering from the wounds of a rough marriage or an unexpected divorce, and, as such, this model benefits their children by shielding them from parental conflict. Crucially, parallel parenting allows parents to establish and develop relationships with their children, separate from the other parent.

Which Post-Divorce Parenting Model Is Right For You?

Just as many people don't find easy alignment on their marital issues, many people cannot simply transition from a divorce to a workable, respectful co-parenting structure. In fact, it would serve us well to deemphasize the need for divorcing parents to align in general, as this shouldn't be the de facto goal for estranged couples.

A recent New York Times article about the affordability of divorce serves as a great reminder of just how much emphasis is placed on aligning with a former spouse—without acknowledging the problematic reality of doing so.

For many people, the end of a marriage comes with financial complexities and a heavy emotional toll, especially when their decision will impact their children forever, making an easy "alignment on the issues" impossible.

Post-divorce, parents should be kind to themselves and patient in deciding which method works best for them and their children. No parent should be afraid to parallel parent if that works best.

More from Sophie Jacobi-Parisi J.D., M.S.W.
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