A few months back, I began to set up a plan for my 8 year old to increase his understanding of the multiplication table. Knowing that his class was working on multiplication, I thought I’d help him get a jump on the material so that he could be successful and and as a result, feel accomplished. I created a chart that had some clearly defined goals and then inserted some rewards for accomplishing those milestones. When I introduced it to him, he was all for it. He began practicing right then and there in order to achieve his first reward, which was going out for ice cream. Fast forward two months, and the chart hasn’t been touched since that first day.
Now, I realize that the easy thing to do would be to blame myself for not enforcing a strict routine or plan for him to follow or to blame him for not following through. In reality though, I should really be blaming that chart that I made. That’s not to say that the idea behind the chart was wrong as extrinsic motivation is still a proven method to drive people to succeed, but the main problem with the chart was that it was born from my goals and not his. I didn’t consult with him about the milestones of the multiplication table or even the rewards, and so to think that he would be motivated to achieve it seems a little silly now.
This realization got me to shift my thinking from setting particular goals for my kids to being a part of the goal setting process with them. Through talking with other parents and reflecting on the teaching practices that have been successful in my classroom, I have put together a plan of sorts that hopefully will help us move from telling kids what they need to achieve and focus more on how to get them to develop realistic plans and value the accomplishments that they do achieve. After all, if we want our kids to be independent and critical thinkers, sometimes we have to get out of our way and allow for that to happen.
Here are 5 ideas to help begin setting goals with your kids
1. Voice & Choice (Ownership)
One of the best and worst things about my children growing up is the fact that they no longer base all of their decision about what I want. Obviously this change is great, but a part of me misses the days that my kids wanted all the things I wanted and loved all the things I loved. Now that they are becoming more independent, both physically and in regards to their wants, I find myself needing to listen more to what they want as opposed to what I think they should want.
This isn’t to say that they have final say on what they want/don’t want as there are definitely things in our house that aren’t negotiable. Things like working hard at whatever you choose to do, being kind and caring to others, and a strong focus on education are universal goals in our family, as I’m sure they are in yours.
However, when it comes to determining things they want to achieve, I’ve realized that listening to what they value is key in developing a sustainable and attainable plan. The more choice they have in the things that they are doing, the more ownership they will take on, and ownership is one of the driving forces behind intrinsic motivation. Think about us as adults, the more you and I feel connected and validated in the things we do, the more likely we are push ourselves to achieve the things we want, and I believe our kids are no different.
2. Prioritize & Normalize (Reduce Stress)
I don’t know about you but when I have 18 things on the go, I get stressed, bogged down, and as a result, I become much less efficient and effective. I think the same can be said about our children. If they have several things that they are trying to accomplish at once, I feel that they are less likely to celebrate their accomplishments and more likely to dwell on the next thing they need to get done.
I think as parents, we can assist by helping them prioritize their goals based on what they think is important, rather than setting the expectation that certain tasks need to get done. I have also found, at least with my own kids, that normalizing goals has been really important. We always try to have something that they are actively trying to accomplish. Whether it is reading, bike riding, catching a baseball, or learning math, we are always working towards a goal.
My hope is that this will help to create self motivation within them as they continue to mature and rely less on us for guidance. We all want our children to be driven and motivated, so making goal setting a normal way of life for them should help them for when they’re ready to make those choices for themselves without the input of others.
3. Be the Guide on the Side (Realistic & Attainable Goals)
My 8 year old son recently told me that he wants to play professional basketball when he grows up. Now, this is a great goal for a lot of kids and it definitely is always fun to dream big, but I couldn’t help but chuckle at this due to the fact that he’s never played basketball. There were a number of ways that I could have responded to this, and trust me they all ran through my head at the time. I could have easily dismissed the idea and told him that the goal of playing professional basketball wasn’t realistic. On the other end of the spectrum, I could have also told him that playing basketball at a professional level is a wonderful idea and that he can do anything he puts his mind to.
Personally, I don’t think either of these responses would have been appropriate, but I did feel like I needed to redirect his goal and guide him in order for him to feel validated but also to remain somewhat realistic. In the end, we discussed ways that he could start playing more basketball and get better at some of the fundamental skills. We decided that we would get a net for our driveway and if he liked it, we would look at getting onto a team in the fall.
I never want to tell my kids that their goals are unrealistic, but at the same time I want them to set goals that are achievable so that they get that feeling of accomplishment and want to set more goals for themselves.
4. Shared Visions & Decisions (Identity)
I’m not the kind of parent who normally goes around bragging about their kids, but I will step outside myself for a little bit here and say that I think my daughter is a great dancer. She has been in dance since she was 3 (she’s 6 turning 7 now) and we have seen tremendous improvement in her ability and confidence. She has been invited to perform with older dance groups and she even won a small dance scholarship last year. I only assumed then that she would want to continue dance in the fall.
However, recently she came to us and said that she really wants to try gymnastics this year. Knowing that it would be difficult both time and money wise to participate in gymnastics while keeping her same dance schedule, we asked her which one she would rather do, if she had to pick. Considering the amount of time and money we have spent on it over the past few years, part of me was really hoping that she’d choose dance.
As I’m sure you can guess though, she said she would want to do gymnastics if she had to pick. As a result of this, we had reached a place where her wants and goals didn’t quite line up with what we had envisioned for her. Rather than forcing our agenda on her, we felt it was now time to discuss and adapt our original plan for her in order to accommodate for a new goal she wanted to explore. Due to the fact that she still really likes dance, we decided that she would continue on with it, but at a lesser pace than before in order to fit gymnastics into her schedule.
As much as we thought that dance was an important part of her life, we needed to adjust our perspective of her in order to ensure that her vision of herself was taken into consideration. We didn’t necessarily allow her to make a drastic change, but we did give her the opportunity to try something new even though it came at the expense of something that we valued for her.
5. Celebrate & Appreciate (Recognition)
Throughout my time as a teacher and parent, I have found that nothing makes kids happier than when they get that special feeling of accomplishment. As adults, we are usually able to provide that for ourselves and it is rare that we need validation or acknowledgement from other people when we accomplish a goal.
Kids and teenagers, on the other hand, definitely need more verbal acknowledgement and positive reinforcement when they accomplish something. That’s not to say that we need to teach them that all accomplishments warrant a celebration, but recognizing and supporting their achievements will definitely provide them with some added value to the goal setting process. Too often we are focused on what’s next, rather than reflecting and validating the great things that our kids achieve. In time, the hope is that they start to find that validation within themselves but until then, take the time to help them enjoy that feeling of a job well done.