Kids are back in school whether it is remote, hybrid, or full-time. This has made me feel as if life has returned a little bit back to normal. But, how much back to normal can we really be right now? Is it safe for our kids to be playing soccer or taking dance lessons? What if you think it is safe, but your ex does not? Or you think it is unsafe, but your ex thinks it is safe?
One thing is undeniable, it is not an easy decision for many of us. I weighed the benefits of participating in activities (exercise, socialization, confidence with new mastery of skills) with the risk of the coronavirus. For my family at this moment it was the right decision, but 6 months ago, it would not have been because we had a high-risk family member living with us.
A friend of mine recently admitted that she was overcommitting to sports and activities for her children, but she wanted them in activities that they enjoyed for as long as possible in case New Jersey shutdown, again. I get it. I also understand parents who are not comfortable with this decision. I have friends who are high risk and they are doing remote learning and have very limited and only necessary exposure to people who are not in their household.
What happens if your child wants to take dance class or play soccer, you agree, but your ex says no? The first step is knowing the why they are saying no. Is it because of the coronavirus? Is it because they do not want to pay for it? Is it because the class is during their parenting time? Or is it because if you say the sky is blue, they disagree?
What if your ex is using the coronavirus as an excuse, but your ex has a history of not wanting your child to participate in activities, regardless of the reason? (money, time, to annoy you) If your ex or a member of their household is not high risk, this concern should not be a barrier to participation. If your ex or a member of their household is high risk, you should weigh the risk versus the benefit of the activity. All of these activities benefit children, swimming helps with focus and attention, dance helps with balance and core strength, yoga also helps with core strength and mindfulness, and sports help kids maintain overall health, including a healthy weight. There are also significant benefits to socialization for children and the positive impact that this can have to their mental health. Remember that courts consider the best interest of the children when they are making decisions concerning children.
Special needs children may benefit greatly from involvement in activities. Occupational therapist, physical therapists and special education teachers often recommend children participate in various activities to assist with upper body and core strengthening, attention, and social skills, among others.
You can also propose outdoor activities. Outdoor activities have been deemed safer than indoor activities. There are outdoor dance, yoga and marital arts classes for children offered through various studios. Many sports are also outdoors. Even if an activity is indoors it does not mean its unsafe if precautions are being taken with social distancing and mask wearing. Many studios have marks or boxes taped on the floor to ensure social distancing. Another option is to get a few families together from your pod or neighborhood who you are comfortable with and see if you can hire a teacher or coach for a small group of kids. If your ex will not agree to any of these or other solutions, you know that the issue is likely not the coronavirus.
If your ex does not want to pay for an activity, you can still enroll your child, pay the expense yourself, and take your child during your parenting time. Interesting fact – while many parents share the cost of activities under an agreement or court order, under the New Jersey Child Support Guidelines lessons, sports, and activities are included. See www.njcourts.gov/attorneys/assets/rules/app9a.pdf (pages 8-9).
If your child wants to participate in an activity during your ex’s parenting time, you usually cannot require your ex to take your child. This was true pre-Covid-19 and it remains true. Judges will usually prioritize parenting time over activities; however, this is not a hard and fast rule. A judge would likely consider the type of activity, how long the child has been involved in the activity, if there are alternative activity dates and times, whether the parent previously agreed to the activity, the child’s desire to participate in the activity, the parent’s objections to the activity, the impact the activity has on parenting time, and a few potential other factors that vary depending on the activity type, experience level and age of the child (i.e. scholarship potential).
The parenting time schedule and how much time your ex has with your child is particularly important. If your ex only sees your child once or twice a week, it is less likely that a judge will agree that your child should participate in an activity during their parenting time, than if you have a true shared parenting time schedule (50/50). One thing to explore is whether the parenting time schedule can be modified to accommodate the activity.
If you reach an impasse with your co-parent and you are unable to resolve this issue on your own or you just need some advice to make sure you are on the right track, give me a call. As a parent of young kids, myself I understand the emotional aspects of this decision, not just the legal arguments. I assist many of my clients with their co-parenting issues. Courts are open, even if it is on Zoom, and mediators are readily available to assist resolving issues. I can help you plan how to proceed forward for the benefit of your children and your own peace of mind.
Melissa Knoerzer, Esq. is an Associate with ALBFRM in Haddonfield, New Jersey. Melissa has dedicated her law practice to representing clients throughout New Jersey in their family law matters, especially families with special needs children.