What are your goals for 2020? For adults, the most popular resolutions include exercise more, quit smoking, learn a new skill, and manage money better. What about for kids? Should they also be making New Year’s resolutions? Studies show child goal-setting can build their resilience, confidence and motivation. Yet it is important that we understand how goal setting is different for children. With the right approach and tools, building our children’s ability to set appropriate goals can put them on a path to long-term success.
As caring adults, we can set the conditions for our children to learn the benefits of goal setting. In fact, experts agree that most children learn how to set goals by continually watching their parents and mentors. Teaching children how to set and achieve goals helps them learn the values of reflection and self-improvement. And reflective self-improvement, also called a growth mindset, has been found to be a better predictor of future success than IQ.
To be effective, children must drive the goal-setting process. To ensure that the goals are truly those of the child and not a reflection of adult overreach, caring adults must play a supporting role, allowing the child to identify their unique goals. One approach, the ABCs of Goal Setting, from Psychology Today, highlights that goals should be achievable and believable, while involving personal commitment. EdWeek proposes a simple “noun plus verb” structure, such as “read every night” or “attend homework groups.” With any approach, it’s important to review plans regularly and to anticipate that setbacks may occur and adjustments will be needed.
While goal setting can be started with children as young as 3 or 4, it is important to adjust the approach based on the child’s age. At any age, start the conversation by simply asking children what they would like to do this year. Michelle Borba, parenting expert and author of the book “UnSelfie,” suggests then using this formula: “I will” plus “what,” “when” and “how.” For younger kids, the formula simplifies to “I will” plus “what.” Goals such as learning to tie shoes or memorize simple addition facts are realistic for little ones and can later grow to be more complex.
Psychology Today says a key in goal setting is to listen to the child and focus on the process of improvement rather than the product. We also can help by ensuring that our kids don’t set too many goals or select goals that are too complex or too simplistic. Many experts suggest that by selecting goals that are just out of reach we can teach children to try new things.
At the same time, kids need to see and understand that self-improvement takes time and that setbacks are normal. Show them the struggles you’ve encountered to reach your own goals. There are many great biographies, such as those of Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Edison and many Olympic athletes, that highlight the essential connection between goals, failure and success.
Goal setting holds the promise of helping kids in many parts of their lives, and experts recommend looking beyond academics. When youth are overscheduled and stressed, they may need to identify goals and action steps that foster relaxation and fun as part of their lives. Borba recommends we promote this balance by helping children set and achieve character goals. Character goals aim at cultivating “we-thinkers” instead of “me-thinkers,” helping kids become better individuals and community members through building traits such as caring, courtesy, respect, patience, generosity and truthfulness. Another way to reinforce the importance of these character goals is for the entire family to identify and work towards a shared goal, such as listening more or reaching out to elderly relatives.
In 2020, instead of just telling your child they are smart, you can teach them that they are capable of taking on challenges that can result in growth. Listen to their goals, help them define the larger strategy and necessary daily actions, then provide lots of cheering, encouragement in the face of setbacks, and unconditional support. As we aim to grow and nurture our future leaders, goal setting may be the key to building motivated, resilient and hopeful kids. And it’s a goal we can all share.