By Stephanie Bernaba

Sometimes we commit to activities we cannot complete, due to scheduling, illness, or other family circumstances. And sometimes businesses create policies to help protect themselves and their business.

I’d like to talk a little about what we need to be mindful of when making commitments, and what we can do to protect ourselves and our families in the event we are unable to follow through. Also, how we can ensure the safety of our campers and partygoers.

The first tip should be fairly obvious – read the contract. Read ALL policies. Ask what the cancellation and change policies are, because you never know (especially with camps, music lessons, or sports programs) if or when a child will fall ill or get injured.

Ask about the makeup policy. Do they allow you to make up a missed class? Do they credit your account? The main piece of information you need is If my child is unable to attend, are we still financially responsible?

In the event of ongoing activities, like sports or music, it’s my recommendation that you find a school that charges only for lessons or classes taken, unless it’s a package that you can live with (example – my gym, where I pay a flat fee once for a certain number of classes).

Things get hairy when you’re asked for deposits, especially nonrefundable ones, as you are giving the organization that money whether or not the child partakes in the activity.

Many karate and dance studios allow kids to come in and try it out before they’re asked to pay, and never sign up for a long stretch of time (i.e., a year) without asking first whether or when you can cancel. Don’t ever pay up front for a free trial, and if they insist, find another provider.

Take your time. I know it’s hard to listen to spiels when your kids are running circles around you, or you have 10 other things on your mind, but remember, if a decision needs to be made that second, it’s probably a bad one. Take the paperwork home, peruse the website, make comparisons before you sign up. Most mistakes are made by people who didn’t take the time to read the fine print.

Some places are flexible, and others are not. And it never hurts to ask. Some, with manager approval, may be able to work with you if your circumstances change, but in general, be cautious, don’t assume, and always read the policies before you sign.

As for parties, I’d ask the venue how they charge party hosts. Do they let you bring in additional kids? Is the charge per guest or per period of time? What happens if your party runs past the allotted time? What are you allowed to bring? Will your guests face unknown charges when they arrive, such as for equipment? What if there’s a food allergy? Can they accommodate children with special needs? What’s the cancellation policy for weather or family emergency? Is there a deposit?

On a similar note, do mind the safety of the chosen activity. Does the venue make children sign waivers? What’s the worst thing that could happen to a partygoer? And, as a parent, if you feel your child may be unsafe participating in the activity, or is too unfamiliar with it to enjoy it, don’t be afraid to decline.

Party rentals are similar. I’ve received some stellar recommendations for rental companies that I’ve had to turn down because the delivery charge from the northern part of the state to our home amounted to almost $100. If possible, find a local rental company. Some companies don’t charge fees for local deliveries, and a few don’t charge at all. And pay attention to their policies. Can you eat near the equipment? What are you liable for if it breaks? Is there a cancellation fee? If you don’t like their policies, find another place.

And lastly, if you’re looking for equipment for a sport or activity your child hasn’t done before, always shop secondhand, at least until you know they intend to continue, or at a sports equipment store with a forgiving return policy. There’s nothing worse than shelling out a few hundred bucks for classes, and a few hundred more for equipment to participate in an activity the child doesn’t like.

Just remember that it’s your hard-earned money and time you’re trying to protect, along with your children. Ask questions, read policies, and don’t be afraid to say no if it’s not best for your kids.

Stephanie Bernaba, of Richmond, is an independent journalist specializing in life in the digital age and entertainment. View her recent work and digital portfolio at www.whiteorchidmedia.com.

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