When your kids set and reach their goals, they gain more than a short-term boost. Studies show that setting and working toward goals helps build important life skills like resourcefulness, problem-solving, and autonomy. But your enthusiasm to encourage your kids toward their goals can sometimes go awry, motivating you to use negative, counter-productive, or even damaging strategies in the quest for achievement. Here’s how you can help your children nurture the skills they need to set and reach goals large and small, now and for years to come.
Early Years: Ages 1 to 5
Toddlers and preschoolers may be ready to begin working toward goals with help from the adults in their lives - think small, achievable milestones in keeping with tots’ physical and emotional capabilities. Tasks like learning to get dressed in the morning or make the bed are within the grasp of many four year olds, while more complex skills, like tying their own shoes, might be years away.
Parents often use rewards to help young children reach goals, and this can be effective when rewards are used properly, says licensed therapist and accredited Positive Parenting Program coach Lakisha Harris, MA, LPC, of Harris Counseling and Coaching. “Rewards are effective when a child is aware of what is expected, advised what the reward will be in advance as well as the consequence for not achieving the goal.” Don’t confuse bribes for rewards, warns Harris. By offering a short-term reward for compliance, bribes teach your child that they only need to perform when they get something in return.
Elementary Years: Ages 6 to 12
School-age kids have lots of opportunities to set goals - from mastering a 10-speed bike to earning a top score in math. But building the internal motivation and persistence required to reach these goals doesn’t happen overnight. Encourage growth by helping your child break goals into smaller, more manageable tasks, says Harris. After each smaller goal is met, ask your child how they feel about their achievement: “Do you feel proud of yourself?” to build inner motivation and self-esteem.
Visualization is another powerful tool to help kids work toward goals, says registered nurse, author, and national expert on neuroplasticity Anita Lesko, BSN, MS. “Visualization and neuroplasticity can help children build a lasting foundation for a successful future.” To use visualization at home, help your child settle into a quiet space without electronic distractions. After breaking a goal down into smaller steps, ask your kid to visualize themself achieving each smaller goal, along with the final, larger goal. Ask your child how they’ll feel when they reach their final goal. Drawing, painting, or creating a collage of themself achieving their goal enhances the exercise and serves as a lasting visual cue.
Teen Years: Ages 13 to 18
Help; don’t hover
As kids grow into teenagers, their goals get bigger and the stakes get higher. Objectives like getting into post-secondary education, landing an internship, or winning a scholarship are indeed significant, and achieving these goals can have a lasting impact on your teen’s transition to adulthood. It’s understandable, then, that you might often step in to help steer your teen toward important achievements. But experts say the weighty goals of adolescence are the ones your teen should navigate mostly on their own, with you serving only as a guide, instead of steering the course.
Encourage skill-building by asking your teen to develop a workplan for their larger goals, with required check-ins along the way, says Harris. “By giving teens the opportunity to develop their own plan, parents are comforted knowing they have check-in times for accountability. It is also very helpful for you to talk with your teen about the challenges, and some possible solutions, for resolving each ahead of time.” Guiding your teen toward their goals without pushing paves the way for your teen to feel an incredible sense of achievement once those goals are met - which, for you, is the best reward of all.
Malia is an award-winning health and family journalist.
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