Co-parenting during the holidays can be tough no matter how long you’ve been divorced. As I have navigated this journey I’ve come up with some ideas and strategies to help divorced dads shift the focus from the challenges of shared custody, back to the needs of our children.

Divorce Changed Everything

The fireplace is crackling. I’m in my pajamas and robe, a red Santa hat slightly tilted on my head. I can see snowflakes floating gently between the trees through my living room window. The smell of pancakes and hot cocoa drift to me from the kitchen. Any minute now my boys will come rushing down the stairs to see their hoard of treasures beneath the blue spruce.  I love the look on their faces. The hope! The excitement! It makes me feel like a kid again seeing them tear open wrapping paper with a chorus of OOHS and AHHS! I look forward to this scene every year.

Well, not this year. In fact, not for the past few years. This was my dream of what Christmas would be like. For the first few years of my sons’ lives, reality came fairly close. Divorce changed all of that.

Co-Parenting During the Holidays: A Kid’s Perspective

Sometimes as parents we can become almost robotic in our decision making. The logistics of who will take the kids to soccer practice or doctor’s appointments are tackled with businesslike calculation. During the holidays the stakes are even higher. Holidays mean family time and family traditions. Emotions can run high this time of year. Taking the emotion out of things may help you make necessary decisions, but are you missing something?

Your Kids Have Logistical Concerns, Too

If your children are under the age of 10, chances are you haven’t given much thought to how they feel about these day-to-day decisions.  I am not suggesting that we consult with our kids on every plan. This is not possible, and it would not be good for the kids anyway. What I am suggesting is that we take a step back and consider things from the perspective of the child.

Imagine that you are 8 years old. Mom and Dad live in different houses. Which house will Santa go to? How will your elf on the shelf know where you are when you leave for Dad’s house? Which set of cousins will you see for the big holiday meal? You have so many questions and things are happening so quickly around you. The adults around you are acting like everything is normal but you know it’s not the same.

Joy Should Not Be an Obligation

Children need stability. While it may require more work to create that stability as a divorced dad, you can still do it. First, ask your child about how they are feeling. Let them talk. Don’t make them feel guilty for being sad. Even years after your divorce, you children may have to mourn the loss of their expectations. This is especially true during the holidays. Next, ask your child this question: What is the one thing you want to do this holiday season? You may get some bizarre answers and that’s okay. You may also get an answer that doesn’t involve you.

Be Willing to Modify Your Visitation Schedule

Cathy Meyer supports the idea of involving your kids in the decision process in this article: Keep the Holiday Spirit Alive During Divorce.  My oldest son told me his favorite thing is the Christmas Eve party at his best friend’s house. It’s an annual tradition that I used to be part of. His best friend also happens to be the youngest child of his mother’s closest friend, so I am no longer invited to the party. Because he loves it, I choose to let my son go to that every year, which effectively eliminates my Christmas Eve with my sons.

Give them a reason to look forward to spending holiday time with you. Find something that you and your children will enjoy and build the anticipation. It could be a holiday parade, making gingerbread houses, decorating the tree. Whatever it is, build up the excitement. Talk about it often in the weeks leading up the event. Make them feel involved.

Holiday Gifts Are Not a Competition

There is always that one toy or gadget that is the hot item on your child’s wish list. You know how it goes. Your kid rattles off a thousand items they want, quoting every commercial they’ve seen since Thanksgiving, but there that one thing at the top of the list. If you’re anything like me, you want to be the parent who purchases the “it” gift. You want to be the reason for the biggest smile and wow factor.

One year I went online and ordered my youngest son’s hot item within hours of receiving his list. As I waited months to give it to him, I would daydream about hearing him call me the best dad ever. On Christmas, I picked my boys up from their mom’s house late morning, giddy with excitement as we got into the car. Five minutes down the road, my youngest son said, “Daddy I got it!” His mother had beat me to it. She got him the hot gift. I was completely deflated. The boys loved the other things that I had purchased for them, but there was now wow factor for me. I was so disappointed.

I learned a valuable lesson that year. As much as I want to be the one to give the best gift, it’s not a competition. Effective co-parenting  requires me to communicate with my ex. We must discuss what we are going to buy for the boys. It’s foolish not to communicate about these things. At the end of the day, the kids don’t care who got them the gift. Let’s be honest most of these gifts will be in the bottom of a toy bin before the year is out.

Focus your energy on creating the most seamless experience you can for your kids. If you can work with your ex, try getting complimentary gifts. If she gets them a game system, get them games for that system. Things like that make the kids happier. Your personal glory should not cloud your judgement.

Teach Your Children to Give

Holiday time is a time of giving. This is a great opportunity to build character and selflessness in your children. My children were surprised to hear that there are some kids who do not have homes or receive Christmas gifts. They have so many toys that they don’t play with and the idea that there are children with no toys was completely foreign to them.

This year we decided that we would pick a service project for the holiday season. You can search for giving opportunities with local churches and non-profit organizations. This year we are going to buy gifts for kids who wouldn’t otherwise receive them and we are also going to purchase items for a local homeless shelter. The kids will be involved in shopping for and delivering these items.

Activities like this are great for family bonding. It will also teach your children to think of others. This is so much better than lecturing about sharing. By involving our children in these actions, we are rewarding selfless behavior. Find more ideas for teaching your kids to give in this article: 5 Holiday Charity Ideas for Kids.

Merry Co-parenting Starts With a Forward-Thinking Dad

Co-parenting during the holidays can open old wounds. Your dreams of how the holidays should be may be lost. But, you have a unique opportunity to build new holiday traditions and help your child to become an even better person. Remember, it’s not about your vision. It’s about your child. Gifts are not a competition. You win when you think ahead, communicate and coordinate with your ex to create the best holiday possible for your children.

Finally, help your children learn to give. Imagine your kids going to school and telling their friends how they we able to make another child’s holiday the best one ever! That’s much better than getting the “it” toy or having your perfect Christmas morning play out your way. Happy holidays start with being a forward-thinking dad.

Are you an old pro at shared custody during the holidays, or is this your first festive season as a single dad? Tell us in the comment section below.


Ready for more holiday dad tips? Check out our 5 Secrets to Effective Co-parenting on Holidays  and 5 Reasons to Give Your Kids Experiences This Christmas.


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(c) Can Stock Photo / 4774344sean

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