It’s the time of the year where many of us make resolutions and cast a vision for what new opportunities the new year will bring to our lives. For some of us it is to do more and for others, it is to do less. Nevertheless, setting goals are about effecting change. And because change is difficult, not meeting a goal can feel disappointing and discouraging. As children start to develop their independence, is it healthy to introduce them to goal setting?
We explore this question with Erin Tarr, mom to 3 smart girls aged 3, 8, and 10. She is also the founder and head coach at Be the Benchmark, an organization that helps girls and young women make better life decisions and grow in confidence by developing great relationships with themselves and their community.
Q: Should you set goals for and with your child? At what age should you start?
A: I believe that we should set goals with our children. I have been talking about goal setting with my kids since they could talk. Literally that young. For me, it is about helping them have a positive and accurate view of how their thoughts, words, and actions can impact their well being and life.
Q: So let unpack that some more. As you know, we serve three age groups; pre-school (3 – 5), school-age (6 – 9), and pre-teen (10 – 12). So let’s start with pre-school. How do you set goals with kids that young?
A: Absolutely. So for my preschooler, I focus on waking hours goals. By that, I mean that it is best to set goals that last just for the day or until the next time she sleeps. if we wake up in the morning and we want to work on something during that day, I try to chunk it down to a specific action. For example, when we were potty training, I would say let’s try to work on going to the bathroom three times before lunch. Other examples of age-appropriate goals for this age group would be drinking more water or being more active or making kinder decisions. But the goal attainment period has to span a short period of time and it is important to be very specific with what actions they should try to take within a given time period.
Q: What does goal setting look like for school-age kids?
A: School-age kids can handle goals that span a couple of days or even a full week. Some examples of age-appropriate goals are “I’m going to get my homework done first thing when I get home every night” or “I’m going to practice my instrument 5 times this week”. While they can handle these types of short term goals, they might not be able to remember on their own. It is important to be intentional with reinforcing goals with this age group. Offering gentle reminders can be very helpful.
Q: How about tweens (10-12)?
A: This is the age where I think you can start to introduce longer-term goals similar to how adults set goals. They are starting to have some independence; goal setting gives them an opportunity to own their own progress. Where a younger child might need frequent reminders, with tweens it is better to have regular check-ins and give them the freedom to manage their own goals in between the check-ins. At check-in, your job is to listen, celebrate both wins and failures and offer guidance where they seem to be stuck. At this age, the goal is to help your child focus on consistency and making an effort and less on the outcome.
Q: What do you do if your child becomes “overwhelmed”?
A: This is something that I experience with my 8yr old daughter. She gets overwhelmed very quickly and it shows up as outbursts where she goes from zero to 20 very quickly. Two tools we ask her to use are to (1) communicate with calm words and (2) ask questions. Many times when kids react emotionally, it is because they don’t understand something. So we teach her to ask questions instead of freaking out.
How each child uses these tools will look different for each situation but it is important that they are age-appropriate goals/requests that are easy for children to remember and use.
Q: So even as adults, we tend to be hard on ourselves about our goals. How do you help your child apply grace to themselves when necessary?
A: This is really important especially in the older age groups as they start to set and own their personal goals. I teach my kids to cut their goals in half and extend the timeline (Thanks Jon Acuff). We mostly think of applying grace after failure but I think a beautiful form of grace that we should extend ourselves is in setting goals that are realistic and leave plenty of time to fail and recover.
Thank you for your wonderful insights, Erin! Please check out Be The Benchmark and follow her on Facebook and Instagram. Join the conversation by leaving a comment below!