Two terms that seem interchangeable but are not are joint custody and co-parenting. The difference is one is a legal term, while the other is a parenting style chosen amongst divorced parents. One can have joint custody, but not co-parent.
Legally, parents can try to split custody in a fair way so both are parenting, providing for, and spending time with their children as sanctioned and settled by the court. This is joint custody, which we explain in further detail in another blog—physical custody and legal custody are explored. Joint custody is seen as more beneficial for children because both parents are active in their lives.
The idea of co-parenting takes the benefits of joint custody further. This goes beyond the decree. Co-parenting is a lifestyle agreed upon by both parents. Parents communicate more fully, make decisions about the children together, even spend family time together. The idea is to retain as much of the former parental feel to the custody situation, rather than simply splitting time and resources fairly between parents. Co-parenting takes a good deal more time, forgiveness, communication, and even therapy—the benefits for the children are worth all of the extras.
Parents may come together in a family space for parties, dinners, weekly family time, parent-teacher conferences, vacations, etc. All of this gives children more security and stability.
The main difference between joint custody and co-parenting is simply legal vs. relational. There is no shame in adhering to the divorce decree, especially if the relationship was toxic. Every family needs healthy boundaries. Co-parenting can be as little or as much as is best for your relationships. The choice is completely up to the parents after the divorce, but if any form of co-parenting can take place, your children are worth the effort.