Court orders for parenting plans often include vague concepts and confusing or contradictory information that can create conflict, even though they are designed to reduce it. As a result, I hear way too many stories in which parents force their interpretation of the parenting plan by asserting their “legal rights.” Although I respect legal rights and the power of a court order, as a mental health professional, I have to say that the mental health rights of children matter, too.
My rule of thumb when there is a discrepancy in the order is to save the kids first, then deal with the legal issues later. So, it might be unclear about who gets to deliver the birthday cupcakes to the school on Monday morning since, technically, when dad dropped the child off at school to end his visitation time, it should be mom’s right to take the cupcakes that day since it is her time, shouldn’t it? That might sound petty, but I’ve actually had that issue come up in a parenting coordination case! The question is, do both parents defiantly march in to school with their cupcakes in hand and cause embarrassment for the child in front of her classmates and teacher? No, that’s not the answer. If it’s really about the child, at least one parent has to back off and defer to the other parent for the sake of the child IN THE MOMENT. Then, later and privately with your attorney (or whoever is helping you figure out the legal stuff), you work out what the legal rights are and how to address them to avoid confusion in the future.
Here’s a more difficult example. Maybe the other parent is ordered to stay away from your residence because of a past violation. Yet that parent shows up at your house out of the blue, just to say hi to the children. Do you call the police and traumatize the kids, or do you simply let your child see that parent without incidence and then send notice to your attorney later? I hope I don’t have to tell you the answer. Do you have a right to call the police? Yes. Should you do that in front of your child? Unless someone’s life is in immediate danger, parents must be smart about what poor in-the-moment decisions can do to a child’s long-term emotional welfare. Save your child first…then deal with the legal remedies later and privately.