To me co-parenting means two parents who, though no longer together, are able to cooperate with each other in jointly parenting their children.
Many separated parents seem to operate in different spheres – each is parenting during their time with the children entirely independent of the other. Each parent has their own house rules (bedtimes, expectations as to homework and chores, approaches to food and communication, etc.). The children are expected to behave one way when at one house, and another way when at the other house.
This lack of consistency of course can be confusing and even upsetting to the children. It also means the parents may even be working at cross purposes to each other, as the lessons each is trying to teach to the children may be undermined by the very different lessons the other is trying to instill. It can even lead to the children learning how to play one parent off against the other.
When parents co-parent, they find ways to work together to increase the consistency in their children’s lives. Even though the parents may have different styles, they spend time working out agreements on goals, rules and expectations. In that way they are able to present a united front in dealing with the children. If they see academics as important to their children’s futures, they might agree that homework is handled the same way in both households.
It also means keeping the other parent informed and each supporting the other. For instance, if a child has acted out in one home, the parent who has observed the behavior can let the other parent know what happened, and both parents can agree on the consequences to be imposed by both. It can be as simple as not criticizing the other parent in front of a child.
It may be tempting for each parent to just go their own way, to say “we’ll never agree” or “I don’t want to have to talk to HIM/HER”, but I really believe that when parents can find ways to co-parent with each other effectively, the children will be much better off.