We all want our kids to have happy, fulfilling lives. But that isn’t something we can simply give them or that they’ll accidentally stumble into—it’s something they have to create for themselves. In short, they need to have agency: to be able to envision something they want, believe they can achieve it and go after it.
How can you help your kids effect change and build a life they love? One foundational step is helping them learn to set goals.
Why Set Goals?
It might seem obvious, but it’s important to remember that setting goals can be a helpful practice everywhere, not just at the office or in our adult lives. Here’s why:
Goal setting is an essential everyday skill.
It’s easy to think of goals as big, huge things, like New Year’s resolutions, but they can happen every day in all kinds of ways. From wanting to build an amazing Lego tower to mastering a new sport, learning to set and work towards goals big and small can get kids (and their parents) in the habit of making things happen in their lives, instilling confidence and important life skills.
It clarifies your objectives.
There will always be things you want to do, be or achieve. Identifying what those things are and breaking down the steps it will take to reach them can help you set priorities and determine where to spend your time and energy.
It motivates you.
Goal setting provides a boost of motivation, propelling you closer to what you want. Rather than letting the day pass by unremarkably, goals help you measure progress towards the things you care about.
Where to Practice Goal Setting in Everyday Life
There are all kinds of opportunities for practice with your kids. Here are a few that come up pretty regularly.
Achievement or aspirational goals
These come up all the time, and are probably the types of goals that pop into your mind first: your kid wants to get a solo in the choir, earn a place on the honor roll, make the swim team, perfect a song on the piano, and so on.
These also come up all the time! If a not-so-great situation keeps happening at home—your kid procrastinates and regularly stresses to finish homework at the last minute, leaves their soccer bag at home on practice day, forgets to feed their fish—you have a great opportunity to set some habit-changing goals.
Kids love to assert their independence. And if they’re dying to, for example, use a real kitchen knife by themselves, have their own pet or get their learner’s driving permit—these are goals you can help them work towards.
How to Set A Meaningful Goal
We’ve all had the experience of setting a goal only to abandon it later because it wasn’t important enough to us, we couldn’t realistically make it happen or we encountered some other pitfall. When the opportunity arises for goal setting, here’s how to set your kids up for success:
Get them on board.
The process of setting, working towards and achieving any goal will be infinitely easier if your kid is bought in. Even if they’re not very excited about, say, a getting-homework-done-earlier goal, they probably like the idea of feeling less anxious and time-crunched on school nights. If it isn’t a goal they’re already bought into, find the outcome they do care about. Kids are much more likely to feel invested—and be successful—in pursuing intrinsic goals rather than extrinsic ones.
Make your goals SMART ones.
This acronym is commonly used in business, but we find that it comes in handy for goal setting at home, too. Here’s how you might use the elements of SMART goals in a conversation for an achievement goal like helping your kid make the swim team:
S – Specific: Perhaps the most important letter of the acronym, S is all about specifics. The goal might be making the swim team, but achieving it will certainly take more than just showing up at tryouts. Goals feel more attainable when they are broken into specific action steps. Start by asking your child what they think they’ll have to do, offering some suggestions if they need them. Do they have a friend on the team they can ask about what’s required? Even better, can they talk to the coach about the best way to prepare? After a little research, they’ll be able to identify the specific pieces of the larger goal (e.g., being able to do the freestyle, breaststroke and backstroke or doing a certain number of laps in a certain time) so they know precisely what they need to do between now and trying out.
M – Measurable: Measurable means identifying exactly what success looks like. In this case, it’s not only making the swim team but also measuring and achieving specific action steps to get there. Perhaps it requires shaving a few seconds off their time each week or simply logging a certain amount of practice. Identifying these incremental indicators of success (and celebrating them along the way!) makes the larger goal feel more manageable.
A – Achievable: Even if your kid really, really wants something, it’s important to pause and make sure it’s a goal they have the capacity and resources to achieve. If they’re not a particularly strong swimmer and tryouts are next week, or there’s no nearby pool where they can put in the practice they need, this simply might not be an attainable goal.
R – Relevant: It’s also worth considering if a particular goal makes sense within the larger landscape of your child’s life. If, for example, they’ve also expressed an interest in playing soccer, there may not be time for both teams. If practices or meets conflict with other activities or take time away from other goals, you may need to reassess if this goal is the right fit. A relevant goal will have a clear benefit once achieved.
T – Timely: Time constraints are super helpful in creating urgency and making process of working toward a goal more concrete. They’re easy to identify with something like a tryout, which happens on a specific date, but it’s important to set end date for any goal. Help your child determine a realistic timeframe (relatively short and specific is best!) and work backward from it to figure out what needs to be done when to achieve the goal within it.
If your kids are in middle school or older, it can be helpful to share these SMART elements with them to help them fine-tune their goal. If they’re younger, they can simply serve as a good reference point for you as they set and work toward goals. Bigger goals will require a bigger investment of thought and planning at the outset.
Talk about possible outcomes.
Even when a goal is as SMART as can be, there’s no guarantee that things will turn out the way you hoped. Encourage your kids to brainstorm potential obstacles along the way to their goals and think about how they’d address them. Gently remind them that failure is a possibility. If they don’t make the swim team after a lot of hard work and preparation, for example, there’s still plenty to be proud of and learn from in the experience of trying. And they likely made great improvements from when they started. The road to something meaningful is rarely smooth, but helping kids reflect along the way and find benefit, even in the face of failure, will build resilience and make them more likely to try again.
How to Stay in the Habit
No matter how great our intentions, it’s easy to let goals slide and even fall away completely. Here are a few tips for keeping up good goal-setting behavior:
Make it a family affair.
Practice setting SMART goals together as a family. Maybe it’s volunteering together or going on a family walk once a week. Be specific, discuss the steps you’ll take, set a realistic timeframe (perhaps a month), measure your progress and reward yourself when you achieve your goal with an incentive you all agree on (like a family dinner out). Working together through the process will keep everyone accountable and build good goal-setting habits.
Be a role model.
As is often the case, one of the best ways you can teach your kids something is by simply modeling the behavior you want to see. Talk to your kids about your own goals and the steps you’re taking to achieve them. Be transparent about the incremental wins and setbacks along the way so they understand that achieving goals requires sustained effort. Doing this will help your kids see good goal-setting behavior in action and you might get to check a long-dormant goal off your bucket list—a win-win!
Put your goals front and center.
Once you’ve set a goal, put it in writing and display it somewhere where you’ll see it every day, like taped to the mirror in the bathroom, posted on the refrigerator or displayed on the home screen of an electronic device. If your goal is about setting an ongoing habit, try an app like Streaks to keep you on track.
Whatever the goal, it’s important to celebrate progress and success. Whether it’s letting your child put a marble in a jar every time they successfully finish their homework before dinner (and going out for ice cream after a certain number of marbles!) or simply recognizing how hard they worked once they’ve made the team, stepping back to reflect and rejoice will keep their goal-setting going strong.
Goal setting isn’t an easy skill—most of us are still working on it well into adulthood—but the more you can build it into your kids’ routine, the more likely they are to envision, work toward and achieve the life they want.