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Process Over Outcome: Goal-Setting with Your Children

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Sean Slade;
Thomas Hoerr

The beginning of the year is a good time to set goals (sometimes called resolutions) for how we hope to change and what we want to accomplish. Chances are we vow to lose weight, develop a hobby, and be more patient with those around us. Or maybe we hope to gain a new skill or do better at work. Setting directions and making plans are good, even though we know we won’t always succeed. But going through the steps of planning and starting the processes allow us to learn the steps of goal setting. Achieving longer term and larger goals often come about only after you’ve learned and practiced (read trial and error) the steps a number of times.

But setting goals shouldn’t be limited to adults. The start of the year offers a great time to help your children focus and learn the lessons of perseverance and grit. Regardless of their age, it’s important for children to realize that good things don’t happen by accident. We do better and we get better through intention and effort. Working with our children to develop goals and set resolutions can be wonderfully beneficial not only for their trajectory and what they accomplish, but also for solidifying our relationship with them.

READ: Perseverance and Grit Can Be Taught

Here are five thoughts for thinking about setting goals with your child. The goal-setting process should be:

A positive experience.

Kids should see this as a bit of an adventure, taking a risk by sharing a goal that they might not accomplish. We want our kids to be excited about being part of the goal-setting process, so they should choose goals that are important to them.

While there may be a reward for success and for making progress along the way, there shouldn’t be a penalty for missing the target.


Large successes come via small steps. What do we want our children to do – achieve a huge goal or learn the process? For most of us it’s the latter. It’s necessary for us to help them seek out achievable but stretchable goals. If they achieve the goal too easily then we can readjust and extend. In fact this may even make the process more natural – occurring throughout the year as opposed to only once a year.

Don’t aim for too many targets - two to three is ideal. And like Goldilocks’ porridge, goals should be not too hot and not too cold. In other words, goals should be challenging enough to require effort, but not so ambitious that they aren’t likely to be met. Talking about how the goal will be accomplished is an important part of the process. The best goals have strategies and progress-points that can be monitored throughout the year. All goals aren’t going to be realized, and that’s OK.

Owned by the child.

Sure it’s great to set goals for our children, but it’s better that they set their own goals. With all our experience we could easily write down a dozen goals that could be beneficial, but then they wouldn’t be our children’s goals, they’d be ours. They won’t value the target and they won’t commit to the process. They need to own their goals so they become meaningful to them.

Our role should not be to establish the goal, but to encourage and to help them decide on a goal that is achievable. We are the coach on the side helping to ease the way not the ringleader in the center cracking the whip.

Done collaboratively.

A good way for you to introduce this idea is by sharing your goals – what you hope to achieve, how you plan to do it, and why that is important – and serving as a role model. It’s important that children see adults using grit, so it may be helpful for you to talk about your previous years’ goals, sharing where you succeeded and where you did not, and also talking about the effort and tenacity that success required. Children of all ages need to see that the truly important goals in life aren’t achieved in one year and, in fact, many of them are never truly realized because success always requires attention and effort.

Goals – those generated by children and parents – might be displayed together in a way that shows progress. Whether posted on a kitchen cabinet or on a small easel on the living room, a sign could include everyone’s goals and indications of the progress being made. So when setting goals, you’ll want to build in periodic times to meet and check on how everyone is doing. Younger children will need to do this more frequently, perhaps weekly, but in all cases, gathering at least monthly to share progress is a good idea. Children and parents can remind and reinforce one another throughout the year. It is important to be able to monitor if the strategies discussed are being used.

Focused on intent and effort.

We hope our goals are met; that’s why we set them! But setting goals can be beneficial even when we don’t succeed if their pursuit helps us improve. It’s great to achieve our goal but it’s good to make progress even if we ultimately fall short.

This is also a great time to talk about grit in planning your paths. Regardless of whether or not the goal is achieved, children should understand that working toward it can be a way to develop the resilience and tenacity – the grit - that everyone needs. Explaining this up front-so it’s not seen as a rationalization if the goal isn’t met-- is important. Kids need to realize that important goals aren’t achieved easily and that we all benefit when we focus our efforts.

READ: Improving Decision-Making Can Serve as a Child's First Lesson in Goal Setting

The goal-setting process can help all of us do better at something we value. More than that, it is an opportunity for parents and children to come together to share their hopes and support one another’s efforts. We are teammates and should celebrate when we achieve our goal, just as we should celebrate when we gave our best even though we didn’t quite make it. The goal-setting process affirms that a family is a team!

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