Shared Custody? The “First Dibs” Approach To Splitting Holidays


The fall/winter holiday cycle is arguably the most important season to celebrate… with the greatest potential for emotional meltdown.

Everyone wants their fair share of this special time with the kids because relaxation and respite from the regular schedule can recharge relationships like nothing else, especially when planned with care and follow-through.

So, what’s the best way to navigate the emotion-fraught holidays in terms of co-parenting timeshares? Where do we draw the lines between entitlement and empowerment, between what you understandably deserve and what is rational?

When you’re sharing children’s time, start with a positive mind-set and a heart-felt attitude. The big-ticket question is whether to share the big holidays (Thanksgiving or Christmas, Chanukah, Kwanzaa, New Year’s) as parts of days or alternate the full holiday from year to year.  The “First Dibs” approach combines the two.

The “First Dibs” Approach

This approach will hopefully lead to greater happiness all around.  In odd numbered years, one parent would have the right to celebrate the “heart of the holiday” and in even numbered years, the other would do the same.  The parent whose year it is to exercise the time takes what means the most to them and what remains, aka the leftovers, going to the other parent.

In the spirit of flexibility, and taking into account what the children are asking for as well, the parent with the “heart of the holiday” may invite the other parent to attend the planned festivities, without expectation that the invitation will be accepted or the favor will be returned.

The other parent is expected to make the most of their time with the kids.  The idea is to impart a sense of mutual generosity, knowing there’s a pay-off if enlightened self-interest is taken seriously.  For example, if your partner loves Christmas caroling and you need to wrap presents on Christmas Eve, you could let your partner take the kids even though it isn’t “their year” or “their day.” Then the following Thanksgiving, when you really want to go Black Friday shopping with your daughter, your partner will be more likely to agree, even though it’s “their” day.

Why Does It Work?

This negotiation strategy is based on each parent feeling reassured that they will have a chance to feel fully entitled and satisfied at least every other year – with the chance to be more satisfied on the intervening years.

When it’s not your year to have the kids during what many consider to be the biggest holidays (fall/winter ones), then you could get your first choice to have the heart of spring/summer ones, which are Easter and Passover, as well as July 4th and Memorial and Labor Day weekends.  A special case could be made that during the wonder years this means more sharing of days.  Partaking of the magic on Christmas morning that Santa Claus has found you in the middle of the night is priceless.

Things to Remember:

When sharing a really young one’s days, keep in mind that toddlers and infants require at least one or two naps, one in the morning and another in the afternoon.  A tired, cranky child isn’t going to enjoy any holiday anywhere.  When sharing full weeks, there are also natural pauses when children can settle in long enough with one parent to feel securely plugged in before migrating back to their ‘other’ safe perch.

The truth is you’d be doing some version of this shuffle even if you lived under the same roof, trying to make sense of the unique needs and sensitivities of two extended families.  It’s just that now the person you are negotiating with is no longer your romantic partner, but rather, your favorite mistake.

So what’s required for any successful passage through a holiday cycle?  The goal is a kind of “flexible wobble.”  Think of yourself as part of a flow, with nothing worthwhile at the extremes, but rather, all that’s embraceable within the middle range of contingency.  A light touch makes sense.

Remember, your child is regularly on the move, migrating between the very different realities of your two homes.  They rely on your wisdom and grace to help guide them in for a safe landing.



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