Tell it Like it Is!

By Zach Mural

If you’ve read my columns in the past, you might remember me quoting a presenter I saw several years ago at a conference (unfortunately, I remember the statement but not the presenter!) who said, “If you ask parents what matters most to them, if they are being honest, their kids would be number-one, followed closely by their money.” If we accept this statement, then, as providers of youth programs, we are in the unenviable position at times of taking the second-most important thing a parent has in exchange for providing a service to the most important thing in their lives. Certainly a tall order, and in my opinion, one that demands that, as youth professionals we keep expectations real, shamelessly tout our accomplishments, and do not be afraid to admit our mistakes.

To accomplish this, I present seven truths that will make for successful youth programs:

Truth #1
We are only as good as the people we recruit to deliver programs, and none of the people are perfect. As parents of two children under five, my wife and I have shelled out serious dollars for all manner of parent-and-me classes, swim lessons, gymnastics programs, etc. And, at this point, I can safely say that what makes or breaks the likelihood of our being satisfied customers has less to do with what our child actually learns and much more to do with how the adult(s) who lead the programs interact with our children. If you’re nice to my daughter, supportive of her effort, quick to respond to bad behavior, and open to talking to us, then I am honestly not that concerned if she can or cannot do a perfect ballet step or tumbling pass. With that in mind, when you fall short of responding quickly or appropriately, please, please, just tell us what happened and what you plan to do to ensure that her needs will be met in the future. We don’t expect perfection but we do demand accountability.

Truth #2
In a similar vein, we teach young people to say they are sorry when they have made a mistake, but all too often, whether it is to try to limit liability, shape opinions, or just preserve an ego, we are frequently too reticent to admit our own shortcomings. If you or your staff members fail to deliver on a stated goal or objective, starting with a sincere “I’m sorry” can go a long way to remedy the situation. Another benefit of being willing to apologize is that by doing so, you are likely to de-escalate a situation before it becomes too tense (avoiding raised voices and exhibiting behavior and language that is not appropriate in front of children), and you will be modeling the very behavior that we want to encourage in young participants.

Truth #3
Over-promising in order to increase enrollment or participation is a recipe for long-term problems. If you sell a program as a stepping-stone to future athletic scholarships, Olympic appearances, or admission to Juilliard, you can only disappoint. Instead, use phrases like “introducing,” “practicing,” or “encouraging” to give the impression of promoting skill development and effort rather than promising a specific outcome. By being realistic about the goals and likely benefits of participating in programs, you can increase the probability that both parent and children will be happy with the programs you offer.

Truth #4
With all of the available means of communication at your disposal, there is NO excuse for poor communication or follow up. Need to cancel a class or practice? Don’t just post it online; call or text, send emails, and post messages on Facebook or Twitter. Few things get under a parent’s skin faster than herding children to a scheduled event, only to find that the coach or instructor is sick and the event has been cancelled. While you may not have every parent’s email, by going above and beyond in your efforts to communicate, you can go a long way to calm frayed nerves in the event of a missed message.

Additionally, if a parent has a question, comment, or concern that to share, respond in a timely manner. Younger parents in particular are accustomed to receiving nearly instant communication, and the old “24-hour rule” for getting back to someone is antiquated in their eyes. Even if  the message is that you’ve received their inquiry or comment and that someone will be getting back to them, a quick response shows you and your organization take the issue seriously.

Truth #5
OK, that’s enough talk about how to handle our limitations and parents’ concerns! Another key is to leverage every form of communication in sharing your successes and participants’ accomplishments. Do you have an accomplished coach? Say so! Did your art instructor just have a piece at a local show? Post a picture of the event on social media. All too often, we wait for others to sing our praises and we are hesitant to “brag” or “boast” about all that we do for young people. Just as there is no excuse not to communicate when something doesn’t go as planned, there is also NO excuse not to shine when you and your team are providing rock star-level programs. And, in the case of bragging, the old saying, “A picture is worth a thousand words,” is definitely true. Photo/video releases are your friend, and sharing as many action shots and smiling/laughing child videos as you can goes a long way in boosting a program’s profile and public perception.

Truth #6
You are NOT your best marketer! The only thing that is better than your sharing photos or pictures of happy and satisfied children wearing your program’s T-shirt is a parent sharing them with their friends. There are a number of programs that will help you blast out pictures and videos, or you can task a staff member with doing it the “old-fashioned” way. Regardless of how you do it, by sharing pictures and videos of their children having great experiences in programs with parents, you are increasing the likelihood that they will repost them on their personal social-media pages and, as a result, attract new participants.

Truth #7
Parents rightly expect a great deal from us as providers of programs for their children. By being strategic about what, when, and how we communicate, we make everyone’s life a bit easier. If you take nothing else away from this column, remember that, when it comes to communicating with parents, it’s hard to overdo it; be sincere, be honest, and don’t hesitate to toot your own horn!

Dr. Zachary Mural is an executive-level leader, youth-development professional, and father. He holds a Ph.D. in Educational Psychology, is the owner of Youth Development Consulting, is VP of Education for The Minnieland Academy Family of Schools in Northern Virginia, and is an ExpertOnlineTraining faculty member. If you have questions or comments, or would like to discuss a possible workshop or training, visit