New Year’s resolutions. We’ve all broken so many that they serve more as a punchline for jokes than a way to actually change.
But setting goals, and plugging away at them, is a crucial part of life. So we talked with Dr. Laura Markham, expert in child development and author of Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids, for tips on how to start conversations with kids that will help them set and meet their goals.
For all kids, Markham says it’s important to make sure we’re helping them meet their goals—not ours. “Parents have goals for kids,” she says. But meeting a goal always takes effort, and “if you’re trying something hard, you need to have some motivation to overcome. And that can’t just be to please parents.”
Parents can help elementary age kids start to think about their goals by having low-key conversations, Markham says. “Ask questions like, ‘What do you like doing? What do you like about your life?’” And listen, Markham adds. Often, kids will spontaneously express interest in anything from a sport to an instrument to helping pick up trash at the park.
By the time kids reach middle school, most of them already know what it’s like to miss a goal, Markham says. And it bothers them at least as much as it bothers their parents. So instead of focusing on what’s gone wrong, parents can help kids focus on what’s right, with questions like, “What am I good at? What is good in my life?” A focus on the positive, Markham says, can actually set kids up for more success. “People shift into a positive frame of mind when they feel they’ve been successful,” she says. “It allows us to rise to the situation and fight.”
High school kids are in a position to get practical. For older kids working towards a goal, “it can be worth noticing what got in your way,” Markham says. But parents can help them to stay practical even as they face tough realities: “Instead of beating yourself up about it, get the support you need to do it.” And think small, Markham advises, by breaking big goals down into manageable pieces, with questions like, “What’s gotten in my way? What support do I need to move forward? What’s the next step I can take?”
But setting a goal is only half the battle. What can a parent do when kids get discouraged?
Markham says the research shows that perseverance in children doesn’t come from a “get tough” approach. It comes from empathy. Kids of all ages are less likely to give up when they feel that someone listens and understands their feelings.
So at every age, acknowledging all the feelings kids have as they try, fail, and succeed, is key. In fact, giving them room to talk about how they feel may be just as important than strategizing the next step.
“Your job as a parent is to empathize and hold the light so kids can see the way out of the box they’re in,” Markham says. “You can never see the whole road, but you can see the next step to take. And whether it’s learning to play the violin, or feeding the hungry, when you take one small step, then you’ll be in a new place.”