Ask and Ye Shall Receive

When I dropped my oldest son, Dacha, off for his first day of fourth grade, I tried a little experiment. Instead of being my effusive self, I held back.

While the boys and girls ran around on the playground awaiting the assembly bell, I introduced myself to the teacher. "I'm Chris Thurber, Dacha's dad."

The firm handshake came at once, along with a "Nice to meet you" ... but the sunglasses stayed on. I threw the first imaginary penalty flag on the field.

I waited. "You must be Mr. Wilson," I prompted. "Yes, that's right," came the reply.

I waited again. "So," I added, "is there anything helpful I could share with you about Dacha?"

"Well, we're excited to start a new school year," Mr. Wilson offered.

"I hope it's a good one," I agreed. "My wife and I will schedule a conference with you soon, just to check in."

"Great! Take care," he added.

I waved as I walked away, quickly tabulating the data from my (admittedly) non-scientific experiment.

My conclusion: Mr. Wilson did a few things well, but missed an opportunity to connect better and learn more. And I left feeling a bit empty, like neither Mr. Wilson nor I knew much more about anything, compared to two minutes ago.

I walked the rest of the way to work that morning thinking how important it is to specifically train camp staff on greeting parents.

On the plus side, Mr. Wilson had a warm smile, good eye contact and a firm handshake.

That's a great start, but there was a long list of minuses. I hope that by sharing them, you begin re-tooling the training you provide around parent interactions.

Among Mr. Wilson's shortcomings:

• He left his sunglasses on, which made the interaction feel impersonal. I expect that State Troopers keep their sunglasses on for the intimidating effect (not that I've ever been pulled over, mind you). For everyone else, I expect the sunglasses to come off for the introduction.

• He failed to say his name. That's pretty basic, but a surprising number of people I meet forget to say their own name. In this case, I knew the teacher's name going into the interaction, but he didn't know that. When your staff reach their hand out for that firm shake, they must say their full name, regardless of whether they are wearing a name tag or not.

• He never asked about Dacha and didn't take my prompt to offer information. Forget that parents like to gush about their children; this was an opportunity to share a few things about Dacha's personality and learning style. It will take Mr. Wilson three weeks to figure out what I could have told him in three minutes. Certainly, that information could have been helpful to him during the initial few days of school. His interest also would have impressed me by making it clear how invested he was in his work.

• He missed the opportunity to take initiative. I would have been really impressed if he had responded to my comment about a conference by saying, "Actually, if you give me your e-mail address, I'll be in touch with you with some times I have available." Any chance to save time is welcome.

• The closing "take care" is sparse. It's a small thing, but I appreciate staff saying, "It was nice to meet you" and "I look forward to seeing you again." These are both polite closings that leave parents with a positive and respectful feeling about their child's surrogate caregiver. And for a huge finish, restate the parent's name, such as "It was nice to meet you, Dr. Thurber."

Next spring, I'll renew my efforts to train staff on the finer points of parent greeting etiquette.

Above all, staff should be trained to ask. Ask how the drive was. Ask how the summer has been so far. And, of course, ask parents to share something about their child.

With a few practical and polite tools in hand, your staff can make even the most apprehensive parents feel comfortable and confident at the opening day drop-off.

Of course, maybe this is all just forlorn musings from a parent who blogs about staff training. When I picked Dacha up that afternoon, he said, "Mr. Wilson is so cool. He makes his own surfboards!"

Score one for Mr. Wilson.

Dr. Christopher Thurber is a board-certified clinical psychologist, father and author of The Summer Camp Handbook, now available online for free at He is the co-creator of, a set of Internet-based-video training modules for camp counselors, nurses and doctors. He can be reached via e-mail at