When separated parents share custody of their children, it can be challenging to navigate and agree on extracurricular activities (‘ECA’) that impact the schedules of both households. It can be especially difficult when one parent supports a child’s involvement, but the other does not. In the worst scenario, the family ends up back in court.
Parental Permission for ECA
In shared child custody situations, the challenges that surround a child’s participation in music, sports, theatre, dance, and other ECA can include scheduling problems, fear of injury, diminished attention to academic responsibilities, loss of parenting time, costs, and transportation difficulties. Even amicable co-parenting relationships can deteriorate into tension or hostility over this issue.
In most cases involving a joint parenting plan, both parents are encouraged – even expected – to agree to an ECA involving a child’s significant commitment. Otherwise, the child is potentially condemned to missing all the practices, games, competitions, rehearsals, or performances that fall on the objecting parent’s share of the schedule. Most teachers, directors, and coaches will not tolerate that level of absenteeism for long. Moreover, depending on the applicable State law or language of the governing decree, a unilateral enrollment without joint consent can (in some instances) violate a court order and result in more litigation.
However, the situation is not always clear. An assignment of joint legal decision-making (a/k/a “legal custody”) does not necessarily include the right to veto ECA, especially if the activity occurs only on the other parent’s access time. This can occur when parenting time is already skewed heavily to one party because of voluntary concessions, work commitments, mental health concerns, substance abuse, family violence, or other issues. It can also happen when the parents live in different cities or States and a long-distance plan is in effect.
Vagueness in a State law can complicate things, too. For example, in Arizona, the definitions of “legal decision-making” and “parenting time” do not mention ECA – even implicitly. This forces parents to guess at whether “joint legal decision-making” includes the right to veto a child’s enrollment in ECA. See ARS 25-401(3) and (5). Alternatively, they can ask for court intervention. That experience is often costly and unpleasant.
Court Involvement, Karma & Words to the Wise
If parents cannot agree on their own, a judge may need to decide – either by modifying legal decision-making authority or the child access schedule in a manner consistent with the child’s best interests. The judge will not, however, micromanage the family by deciding the wisdom of each individual activity for a child. Keeping this in mind, a parent would do well to remember these cautions:
- As children age, and especially as they migrate through middle and high school, their cognitive abilities, needs, academics, and interests will grow far more complex. They will expand their peer networks, too, and probably look to other adult role models to pursue those objectives. All of this, by definition, will come at a cost to a parent’s “time” with a child. This is why they call it “leaving the nest,” no matter how many nests go empty! Put more simply, it’s not about what pleases parents or suits their agenda. It’s about accommodating what’s best for the child – even if that defies an adult’s personal wants and needs.
- The judge will look to the motivations of each parent and child’s historical involvement in a particular ECA. For example, if a boy has enrolled at a dance studio for five years with zero parental opposition but, with the divorce filed, his mother or father abruptly declares “dance is bad!” … it is going to be a tough look for that parent. Certainly, the court will want to hear their explanation for such a sudden revelation and why it has surfaced only now.
- The ECA question – more than most – exposes parents who are self-absorbed and petty. We all get one shot at childhood, and then it’s gone. When a parent announces a willingness to ruin a child’s ECA opportunity (especially if scholarships and careers are implicated), it cannot help but affect the judge’s view of that parent. Of course, if there is a good reason to object, then opposition to an ECA can be an example of smart parenting. Just make sure the good reason exists! And on that topic …
- Children rarely forget. With maturity and eventual adulthood, they will understand if their mother’s or father’s objection to an ECA years earlier was truly consistent with their best interests. Superior considerations often intervene. But they will also remember which parent had their back and who thought only of themselves. When they turn 18, no family court judge in the world will be able to tell them where to live, what sport to play, or which parent to value for the rest of their lives.
That is worth a pause or two.