Middle Georgia schools will be closing their doors for the summer soon, and students will be going home for summer vacation. Many children will spend the next few months visiting with their non-custodial parents (the parent that they don’t live with most of the time). Parenting plans vary: some children will keep their regular schedule of weekend visits with the addition of one or two-week long visits; some children will alternate from one parent to the other on a week-to-week basis; and some children will spend many weeks, or even months, with their parent who lives out of town or in another state. How do you know which visitation your child will have? You can always ask your child’s other parent, or check in your custody papers. If neither one of you are sure of what the plan is, you can contact the courthouse where your child custody case was handled, or your attorney’s office, and ask them for assistance in getting a new copy of the custodial papers.
Regardless of what kind of visitation plan your child will have for this summer, and whether you are the parent with primary custody or the parent with secondary custody, you will want your child’s summer visits to be a success. It’s important that children have the best relationship possible with both of their parents, and even when it is difficult to do so, it helps your child to have your support and encouragement of their relationship with their other parent. The primary custodian (the parent who a child lives with most of the time), especially, plays an important roll in preparing children for summer visits.
Communication is always the most important element in co-parenting. Of course, if communication were easy, many parents wouldn’t be working out their child’s summer schedule of visitation through the court system; nevertheless, if you put it in the framework that what you are doing is for your child, it can be a bit easier. Even if you and your child’s other parent have not gotten along or maintained positive communication in the past, it is never too late to start.
If your child’s other parent lives near you, and he or she will be expected to keep your child in activities like summer school, summer camps, athletic activities, or play groups, it’s important that you let them know what you are expecting, but also remember that this is their opportunity to spend time with their child, and be flexible with your expectations–unless your child’s participation in summer school is necessary for grade progression.
If you are the secondary parent, and your child will be spending more time in your home than usual this summer, reach out to your child’s primary custodian. Ask about your child’s typical schedule: what time your daughter goes to bed during the summer, what time your son wakes up, what kinds of bedtime routines they might have at home. If your children usually only spend the night on Friday and Saturday nights, it’s easy to skip story time, but if they’ll be with you for a week at a time, or more, then it’s an opportunity to interact with them in a way that’s emotionally and educationally fulfilling. Even if your child’s primary custodian doesn’t read stories to your child, you should consider starting this tradition: children whose parents read to them in the summer (or children who read to their parents, if they are old enough) are better prepared for the beginning of the next school year than children who don’t read at all from the end of one school year until the beginning of the next year. Board games and card games that involve numbers and counting are also a fantastic way to spend time with your children and keep their math skills sharp.
As far as summer enrichment goes, check out your local public library for summer programming, including reading programs where your child can win prizes for reading books! County parks and recreation departments have many fun and free activities, as well, including summer movie programs. Raising a child while maintaining two separate households is difficult and expensive, but making summer memories can be as easy as throwing blankets over your sofa to make a pillow fort, or spending a day at the park.
If your child will be traveling to a different county or state to visit their non-custodial parent for an extended (more than one week at a time) visit, prepare your child for the time apart. Discuss your child’s hopes and fears for the visit, and include your child’s other parent in the conversation. Discuss both parents’ expectations for telephone or video chat time with the child during their visitation. For children who can write, send paper, pens, envelopes, and stamps with your child so that she or he can write to you if they want to do so (but don’t push it, especially with older children), and send them mail that lets them know you are doing well without them, and that you hope they are having fun.
Be sure that you help your child pack clothing that is weather-appropriate, including some of your child’s most comfortable outfits. Many parents struggle with clothing more than any other issue: brand new clothes get lost, stained, or forgotten; children grow in big spurts and a secondary custodian may have a hard time anticipating what size is the right one; a parent who pays child support often struggles with the feeling that they are already spending “their fair share;” and the parent who receives child support often feels the same. Compromise: send some favorite outfits that are well-fitting and in good condition, and be prepared that when your child arrives at the beginning of the summer, you’ll need to make a shopping trip. Although flip flops are cheap and seasonal, they are not the most practical footwear for active kids, so do your best to send or buy sneakers.
If your child has special comfort items, like pacifiers, stuffed animals, or blankets, it is worth the effort to have a duplicate at both parents’ homes. If it’s not possible, though, be sure to send those items with your child — and to communicate to their other parent how important these items are. No matter how much he or she begs, your child’s seven-year old, one-of-a-kind Booboo Bear should not go with you on outings to the park, grocery store, or library. (This is actually true even in families that live under the same roof year-round! There’s lots of crying–and blame–when that most important toy is lost forever. It’s not worth it, and I remind my own child of this every time she wants to sneak her blankie out of the house.)
Children’s tastes, allergies, and sensitivities change frequently. If your child has food allergies or seasonal/environmental allergies, makes sure that the secondary custodian knows what allergies your child has developed and how to treat them. If your child has had a scary experience with a dog or pet, be sure their other parent is prepared for what may happen when Rex the Dog runs up to her. When it comes to likes and dislikes, though, encourage your child to keep an open mind to new foods, new activities, and new experiences during his or her summer visitation.
One of the most important pieces of information that you can share with your child’s other parent is whether or not your child can swim. If you are not certain of your child’s skills in the water, it is always best to check her abilities in a controlled environment, where there is a lifeguard present. If your child is very young, be certain that he always wears an appropriate floatation device near the water. That means that you need to know your child’s weight, too. On open water bodies like lakes, rivers, and oceans, it is always safest to put children and adults in personal floatation devices, even if you don’t plan to get into the water itself.
When family schedules change during the summer, come up with a system to remember younger children are in the car with you. Infants, toddlers, and even preschool-aged children are at risk for accidental death in parked automobiles, and those incidents are most likely to happen when your normal routine is changed. A cell phone in the backseat of your car or one shoe set in the backseat floorboard are good ways to remind yourself to check your child’s car seat.
Whether or not your child’s summer time visitation is a memorable experience is up to you, the parents. Placing your child’s best interest first means communicating with his or her other parent, sharing expectations, compromising, and being safe.
Lauren Deal is a family law attorney for Deal Law Firm, and she handles divorces, adoptions, legitimations, and custody issues.