Question of the week: What custody arrangement is best for the children?


People ask me this question quite often. Usually, they are children’s ministry leaders or church leaders who don’t have much experience with divorce or single-parenting issues. Nationally, there is a huge debate on this issue. Let’s take a step back in history to help you understand some of the issues in this debate.

In 1969, when then-Governor Ronald Reagan signed the no-fault divorce decree into effect, courts automatically assigned full custody of children to mothers. At the time, it was thought that mothers were the nurturing parents. That was before many women were in the workforce and a time when a majority of homemakers were women. Many courts, lawyers, and judges tossed around the phrase “in the best interest of the child,” and the thinking was the child’s best interest was to be with the mother.

In today’s world, more men are actively involved in the care of their children. Men today tend to be more nurturing than in generations past.

Roles have evolved

More women have entered the workforce. It’s not unusual to see mothers who have higher-paying and more stressful jobs than fathers.

At the same time, fathers are demanding more time with their children after separation and divorce. Many want to be able to actively parent their children—rather than only seeing them every other weekend and maybe a few hours on a weeknight.

Changes in the world of divorce

Over the years, a lot has changed in the divorce world. Terms floating around now that can be confusing are

  • Joint custody
  • Co-parenting
  • Shared parenting
  • Shared care
  • Shared physical care
  • Equal parenting
  • Sole custody
  • Non-custodial parent
  • Custodial parent
  • Unmarried fathers
  • Family mediation
  • Collaborative divorce

It’s enough to make one’s head spin. Every state has its own laws regarding divorce. For instance, some states require a waiting period of a year after a couple has filed and lived apart before divorce can be granted. Other states only require a couple to file and live apart for a month, and then the divorce can be granted in thirty days. Custody arrangements also vary widely.

What are the laws in your state?

For people working with and ministering to divorce, it is important to find out what the laws are in your state. Find out what terminology is used in your area. With the laws changing rapidly in various states, it is important to check periodically what the laws are where you live.

For instance, the site Dads Divorce says that Utah, Maine, Nebraska, Colorado, and Texas all have either passed or introduced bills to regarding shared or equal custody. The Wall Street Journal says more than 20 states are considering changing laws to give fathers more rights to raising their children after a divorce.

Before we go any further in this discussion, let me say that I am not advocating for one situation over the other. I know God hates divorce, and research continues to say that children do better overall in two-parent homes than in divorced situations.

Time magazine reports the most recent research from the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health says that most children have less overall stress when living with both parents. In other words, kids fare better when they have equal exposure to both parents on a daily basis. Of course, there are exceptions—such as when one parent is violent or a drug abuser.

There are a lot of variables in any divorcing situation. If the family is not together, most children will do better in an arrangement where the parenting is shared. Even so, clearly there are situations where kids will do better living with only the mother or only the father.

A few things to consider when talking about custody issues

If you are a church leader, children’s minister, or youth minister, keep in mind it is best that an attorney or mediator take the lead in advising on the best option for custody arrangements.

However, for your background information, here are some things you might want to consider when counseling or talking with parents in your ministry. This information will also give you a better perspective on how the legal system decides custody arrangements:

  • Income levels, such as the poverty of one or both parents. Do both parents work and have equal pay? Is one parent better able to provide a higher standard of living than the other?
  • Work schedules, where one parent has to travel or be away from the home for long periods of time
  • Does either parent have mental health issues that would affect his or her parenting ability?
  • The nurturing capability of either or both parents
  • Are the parents able to converse without fighting?
  • Is either parent addicted to a substance, such as drugs or alcohol?
  • How well does the father communicates with the children, including both sons and daughters?
  • Is the divorce due to spousal abuse or child abuse? Children’s physical and emotional wellbeing may be at stake.

What’s being ignored in the legal debate on shared or equal parenting

The following is adapted from a video podcast Joanie Winberg hosts called “The Divorce Talk Show.” This show’s guest is Mark Baer, who is a family law attorney. He spoke on “Divorce Support—4 Issues that Equal Parenting Advocates Ignore.”

  • The pretense is everyone wants to take care of the kids. This isn’t always true.
  • Kids can’t just be divided up equally. They are kids, not objects.
  • Good parents are flexible, not wanting to get their own way. They want what is best for their children.
  • In high-conflict divorce, the parents are still fighting, arguing, and putting the children in the middle.

What I do know

  • I have known children raised in shared-parenting situations who are doing well in their adult lives.
  • I have also known children raised in sole-custody situations who are thriving as adults.
  • I know some kids who seemed to fare well in joint custody but who never felt they could really unpack their suitcase until they went to college or were living on their own.
  • I have observed many co-parenting situations that do well until one parent starts to date. Then everything falls apart.
  • Children in either situation need the Lord’s people, the church, to reach out to them.
  • Children need to feel accepted, nurtured, and know both parents love them.
  • Children in almost all divorcing situations need help processing the death of their two-parent home.
  • Regarding teens, they like to spend time with their peers more than either parent.

The debate rages on in many states and around the world. While there is a big push for more balanced child custody laws in the court system, our churches need a big push to help children process divorce and heal from the stress it brings into their lives. Also needed is a loving concern for the single parents who attend your church or are in your community dealing with these issues.


This article is updated and adapted from an article originally published on the Kids & Divorce blog on May 18, 2015.

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2 thoughts on “Question of the week: What custody arrangement is best for the children?

  1. It’s always best if both parents can agree on custody/ coparenting plans together based on what’s best for your kids in your family. No one knows them better. Working with a co-parenting coach can help in this regard. Not all attorneys are family-focused. Some are litigation-focused which is not in the best interest of the kids. So take these decisions very seriously and think through the outcomes in advance.

    • Thanks Rosalind and thanks for being a friend of our ministry. I agree that it is best if both parents can agree. And so true what you said about a co-parenting coach and attorneys. Whether parents agree or not DC4K, DivorceCare for Kids, is a great program for the kids to help them understand their own emotions. Thanks for commenting. Much appreciated. Linda

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