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How to parent smarter not harder.

Helping children set goals

Helping children set goals has huge benefits for their self-esteem. It also teaches them an essential life skill that underpins much academic and workplace success. And, at a time of huge uncertainties (like the current coronavirus pandemic), goal-setting can bolster mental health by giving children a much-needed sense of control and purpose.

You might be thinking, that parenting in a period of radical uncertainty is not the best time to be encouraging children to set goals. And when it comes to investing in ‘process’ goals around specific activities – such as “I will go to the gym three times a week” or “I will get an A in my exam” – we need to be careful. Because process goals depend on factors (like gyms and schools being open) that we can’t control and which are currently highly vulnerable to disruption.

But outcome goals are much more adjustable. Things like “I want to get fitter” or “I want learn more about modern history.” These can be refined and broken down into specifics that can be adjusted according to circumstances. So they are more empowering and flexible and resilient.

Today’s children have a lot of goals set for them by adults. School targets, targets attached to their hobbies and activities, targets dictated by parents. Encouraging children to set their own goals is a brilliant way of building children’s self-esteem. Setting their own goals (and achieving them) is empowering – whereas goals set for children by adults can be daunting (especially if your child lacks self-belief). When children achieve their own goals (no matter how small), they experience a sense of competence and are more likely to try again and to extend their goal.

Helping children set goals (and reach them) requires parents to use lots of coaching questions. It’s best to support the goal-setting process through facilitation rather than direction. Here’s a few key pointers that might help:

Help children break big goals into smaller steps

Outcome goals are really important because they tell you where you are heading. But to stand a chance of success, they need to be broken down into actionable steps with progress regularly reviewed. Breaking goals down into small (even daily) steps or mini-goals makes it much more likely that the big goals will be achieved. It also helps create a positive mindset. Questions like “What could you do today/this week that would take you a little closer to that goal?” are really useful here.

Book cover of How to Get Your Teenager Out of Their Bedroom by parenting expert Anita Cleare

Help them anticipate obstacles

Depending on their age and temperament (and whether they are optimists or pessimists), it’s quite likely that your child will over-emphasise or under-estimate the difficulty of the journey ahead and the likely obstacles they will have to overcome. Helping them anticipate obstacles and put contingency plans in place is really helpful. Questions like “What might get in the way and what could you do about it?” can help get them thinking.

Talk about purpose

Evidence shows that when we see our goals as part of a bigger or higher purpose, we are more likely to persevere with them. So, for example, wanting to study geography so that you can help save the planet is more motivating than just wanting to get a good grade. Feeling that you are part of something bigger gives greater meaning to our actions and is an important part of creating a mentally healthy family life.

Get them to write down their goals

Writing down their goals is another important part of helping children set goals. Because when goals are written down and shared with others, we are more likely to keep going. It also helps track progress, which can be really motivating. And it can also serve as an early warning sign that plans are off track and need to be adjusted. You can find lots of free printables to support children’s goal-setting online (try Activity Village).

Praise effort and persistence

Good goals take a bit of effort to achieve. Learning to keep going and persevere in the face of difficulty or challenge is hugely important. Parents can really help by praising children’s efforts (even if these are small) and pointing out what they are doing well (rather than making them feel they are not doing enough). Self-motivation will always be a determining factor in achieving goals. And helping children feel good about their small achievements is much more likely to encourage them towards bigger efforts. So point out role models who have succeeded despite initial failure and applaud your child for keeping going.

Help them bounce bank from setbacks

When plans go awry, it’s okay to be disappointed. Or upset. Or angry. Listen empathetically and hold a calm space for your child’s emotion. Once the heat of their reaction starts to subside, you can support problem-solving and assist your child to adjust their plans.

Those are my top tips for helping children set goals. Good luck!

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