A Co-Parents’ Guide to Planning Ahead for Summer Holidays

When it comes to negotiating who has the kids at which times over summer vacation, it helps to start well in advance.

March 13, 2019

There can be some real upsides for kids whose parents live in two different households.

One of those is that their parents take separate chunks of time off work to be with them over the school holidays. This can add up to more summer vacations, or simply more fun times with their parents to let summer’s long days unfold the way kids love. That means lots of time to play or just relax — nobody bugging them to do homework, no early morning drop-offs at day camp.

But negotiating who gets the kids for which weeks over the summer can be tricky business.

What if a command-performance family reunion for one parent falls on the same long weekend that another has always taken the kids camping with friends?

Having a system for working these things out is especially important when you consider that it takes time to arrange camps or other childcare for the weeks the kids are not with either parent.

My kids’ dad and I plan months ahead to identify major travel as well as the sleepover camps that start to fill up as early as the fall before. Once we know major blocks of time like which two-week sessions one or both of our boys’ are going to be at summer camp, and any travel that has to happen at a particular time, we can then fill in the remaining weeks with day camps or other plans.

We’re fortunate that we both see the value in working together to sort the summer out sooner rather than later. Not everyone is so lucky. If one parent tends to take the ball on camp registration and planning, and the other lags behind on identifying their preferred time off, it can be a real source of tension. Each year there are numerous conversation threads about this issue in the Facebook group I run, Positive Co-Parenting After Divorce.

The good news is there are steps you can take to make this planning process go more smoothly.

Sarah MacLaughlin, a licensed social worker and parent educator who has worked with families to address conflict around separation and divorce, says good communication is the key.

“Start early, write out your ideal, aim for win-win and land at compromise when you can’t,” says MacLaughlin, who is also author of the book What Not to Say: Tools for Talking with Young Children.

Here are some principles that can guide you through the summer vacation planning process.

Follow procedures outlined in your separation agreement

Well crafted separation agreements include measures for how holidays are handled and how preferred dates are communicated. Departing from your regular shared custody schedule, an agreement might allow for each parent to have a two-week stretch with the kids over their summer vacation time. It might also start with one-week vacations and extend length of these visits as the kids get older.

Your agreement should also establish a date earlier in the year by which all summer-vacation preferences are shared with your co-parent. If both parents respect that deadline, it removes a lot of the stress of planning a good summer for everyone.

Alexandra Lukas and her former spouse have successfully used that system for the last 10 years. “Summer holiday weeks need to be figured out by February 28, at the latest, to allow time for booking camps or vacation days. From year to year, there’s not much left to discuss.”

If your separation is relatively new and you don’t yet have a formal agreement, you may wish to propose some of the guidelines used here and follow those on an interim basis.

Alternate who gets to pick first

For equitability, many people also establish a system for who gets first pick of vacation weeks with the children.

“Our agreement states that we each get a full week with our girls over the summer,” says Allyson Ashley, a mom of two girls, ages four and five. That’s in contrast to their usual schedule, a 2-2-3 split throughout the week. “On odd number years, he gets to choose his week first, and on evens I do, but we have to let the other parent know by March 31. This gives us time to make arrangements for time off work, and to make plans for the time we have them — and also for the time that we don’t!”

Respect workplace holiday-planning policies

Many people have to work within holiday-planning procedures that don’t give them a lot of choice about when to take their vacation time or the flexibility to move those weeks as needed. Things like seniority, precarious employment and seasonal demands at work can dictate the terms of any time off.

That’s the case for Shannon Marie’s partner. “My spouse gets his holidays announced in January — they bid for it. So by the end of January we know exact holidays and they can’t be moved. Luck of the draw.”

Thankfully the other co-parents in the mix respect the fact that his holidays can’t be moved. “My ex is very flexible so it hasn’t been an issue to have mine when my step-daughter is here.”

Be flexible where you can

If you do have flexibility, try to guide yourself by what would make the summer great for your kids. Sure, it may be your traditional thing to spend the first week of the summer at a cottage with your kids, but if they have a rare opportunity to see visiting relatives or take a memorable trip with their other co-parent, try if you can to make it work.

It’s also important to understand that you can’t really account for every summer-holiday scenario when crafting a separation agreement. Things will come up, and as the kids get older, they’ll have much more to say about how they want their summers to unfold.

Open your mind to the possibly that summer plans — if both parents are their best co-parenting selves — will evolve and develop over time.

That’s what Ted Wilson has found with his teenaged son. “For those of you who believe your future course of action around this is to strictly stick to the letter of the law around your separation agreement, I would strongly encourage you to open your mind to the possibly that summer plans — if both parents are their best co-parenting selves — will evolve and develop over time as your kids get older,” he says.

Kids may get summer jobs that require them to stick close to home, or pursue sports or other extra-curricular activities with a greater time commitment. We’ve found that to be the case in our household now that our oldest is in his teens and plays basketball competitively. Travel to tournaments is a significant part of the picture when we’re planning our summers.

As Wilson points out, new circumstances for the parent could require flexibility. Either of you could find yourself with a new job, new boss or new guidelines for how vacations are set at work. Not to mention a new partner with or without their own kids and more stars to align to make a family vacation happen.

With patience and cooperation, you’ll arrive at a plan that allows everyone to have some memorable times together over the summer.