Summer Planning (or how to be your own mediator)
With the abundance of snow we received in the Toronto area over the last week, you may be longing for summer yet thinking it is far away. However, parents living separately know that as the daylight lasts longer it is the time to start making plans for their and their children’s summer break. Separated parents often have a process to plan summer schedules and activities, but if you don't or if your process is open-ended here are some ideas to make that planning enterprise more manageable.
Preparation Phase - Devote time to this step.
Set a date with the other parent to finalize your plans. Many of us work better with deadlines, and some activity registrations are just around the corner.
Individually consider your primary goals for your children this summer: relaxation, childcare/supervision, wilderness experience, learning something new, exploring somewhere new, academic enrichment, family connection, fostering independence, or learning to entertain themselves. Ultimately the summer schedule should support meeting these goals.
Make a wish list. The list may be specific activities you want to do with your child, or that you know are important to your child. Once you have your list, rank your "wishes" in order of priority. Neither parent is likely to have all their wishes come true, so knowing what your preferences are will help in the negotiation.
If there are events scheduled that are on a date(s) that you don’t control note that down too; for example, a relative’s wedding or sleep away camp with a best friend.
Map your wish list on a calendar and consider how it interacts with your parenting schedule. Will your wishes mostly fall during your regular parenting time, or will several switches and swaps be required? If you got all your wishes would your children spend too long away from either parent or would they be changing residences too frequently to feel settled? These are very individual considerations so look at the calendar carefully with each child in mind.
If there are conflicts on the calendar, now is the time to assess the importance of the “wishes” that are in conflict. Ask yourself how important your wish is. Is there any flexibility in your plan? How will your child feel if the opportunity with you or the other parent is lost?
Exchange the wish list with the other parent. You do not need to justify why you are asking for certain periods, just share the list. Identify opportunities on both lists that would meet your goals for your children. Identify any conflicts where both parents want to care for the children over the same dates.
Discussion Phase - Remember to breathe
Set aside a time to discuss the summer calendar and any conflicts with the other parent. Ahead of time, make an agenda and agree to explore the proposals and wishes. Take the pressure off by building in time to think before deciding.
If your children are 8+ older, discuss with the other parent if the children’s thoughts should be canvassed. If you agree, consider how you want to do this. Children will often tell each parent what they think that parent wants to hear. Do not put the responsibility for “breaking a tie” on your children.
Discuss the plans in conflict so that both parents understand the benefits and reasons for a particular plan. Consider alternatives to the plan – is an alternate time possible, are other camps available, can a plan start early/end later to accommodate each other? Be creative and look for ways to move beyond either /or proposals.
If you are stuck go back to your list of goals and identify which opportunities will meet your goals for the children, and yes some of the other parent’s requests may meet your goals. Be open-minded.
When all else fails and there remains a conflict over dates, use a tie-break mechanism. One parent may get to win the conflict this year, but the other parent gets the first choice next year, or additional time during the year. Or toss a coin, draw straws, etc…
Finalizing Phase - check the small details.
Put your agreed to schedule and activities in writing. Confirm that there is a common understanding to which both parents agree.
Clarify the details. Perhaps, your regular parenting schedule has a Friday transition day but cottage rentals usually begin/end on a Saturday or Sunday. Will you adjust the transition day to accommodate this? Be specific. If one parent is taking the children on an early or late flight the parenting exchange may need to be a day earlier or a day later. Plan for packing, will children’s camping or sports gear be in the right home at the right time? If not, how will this be managed?
If your agreement or court order does not address costs for camps or other activities, make sure you have clarity about who is paying what amount for which activity.
If you do not have a co-parent willing to work through this type of process, that’s ok too. Complete the preparation phase so you are clear on your own and the children’s wishes. Follow the summer planning protocol in your agreement or court order using your wish list to maximize your opportunities as much as possible.
Many parents struggle to follow this kind of process on their own, past hurts and poor communication patterns can get in the way of understanding and decision-making. A mediator or collaborative family professional who guides you through this process can be the key to meeting your and your children's summer goals. Now, where is my snow shovel?