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Realistic Resolutions: Goal Setting for Kids Made Simple

A six-step guide to helping your child set — and achieve — goals

Published on: January 02, 2024

mom and daughter high five

Setting goals is nothing new for many grown-ups (I’m looking at you, New Year’s resolutions!), but goals are not just for the new year — and they’re not just for adults. Kids benefit from working toward something they hope to achieve or attain. Whether it’s a cleaner room or less screen time, kids can benefit greatly by setting age-appropriate goals.

The secret is setting them up for success. Here are six ways to help your kids set and achieve goals:

Talk about the details right off the bat

Set a start date and an end date. Kids often need quick wins, so defining shorter timeframes works best. Have young kids set a goal spanning over a few days and then build up to a week. Older kids can manage progress for longer stretches, but usually no more than a month. Quick wins give kids the confidence and momentum to stick with it.

Another important detail is how your child will keep track of their progress. You can try an app or the classic chore chart. Even a simple star on the family calendar denoting milestones works.

Decide on a realistic goal

As parents, we can think of a few things our kids could work on! But what will improve their daily life and offer them a chance for success?

If they’re working on being more active, don’t start with walking a mile a day. Start with something fun like taking the dog for a family walk after school. If a clean room is the goal, try starting by making the bed daily. Once they have succeeded at that task, they can build on it.

Walking the dog twice a week becomes four times a week. Making the bed progresses to putting dirty clothes in the hamper. Allow each goal to incrementally grow over time.

What you focus on matters

A negative approach won’t get you far. It’s true for us and our kids. While we may want them to stop eating junk food or to spend less time on screens, focusing on the positive yields better results.

So, instead of stating the goal of eating less junk food, try framing it as eating an extra veggie each day. Similarly, cutting down on screen time becomes playing a new card game.

Finding something good to do is more enticing than stopping a less desirable behavior or habit.

The secret to success

We all want our kids to be successful, not just for the sake of goals but for our sanity. I want my kids to get off their screens, tidy up their rooms and clean the house from top to bottom. While we might not get the whole house cleaned for us, we can help them find success with the one thing that always helps: Doing it together.

Kids have a hard time saying no when mom or dad sits down to play cards with them or challenges them to race to the mailbox. Even a contest to see who can make their bed the fastest motivates kids to do the work.

Interaction is a surefire way to help kids make progress on their goals.

How to handle setbacks

None of us want to believe there will be setbacks in setting and attaining our goals. The whole point is moving forward. But perfection isn’t realistic. There will be days when things don’t go perfectly. The key is how you handle it.

Here are three productive considerations when confronting a setback:

1. One missed opportunity isn’t a failure. Give grace and keep going.

2. Losing steam feels frustrating. Look back at the progress that has been made.

3. Things sometimes go haywire. Make a fresh start with a shorter timeframe.

Regardless of your method, your kids will learn that goals are not a pass/fail system. It’s all about progress.

The key to rewards

If the satisfaction of a clean room were enough of a motivator, I wouldn’t have three books, a random recipe cut out from a magazine and a screwdriver on my nightstand. We all need a reward to motivate us to keep striving toward the finish line. Our children need one, too.

Before kids even start working on a new goal, decide how they will celebrate at the end of the timeframe.

Will it be going out for ice cream or watching a favorite movie? Maybe a campout in the living room or a trip to the bookstore? What about an extra story at bedtime? Whatever reward you give, make sure it doesn’t undo the hard work your child has done or contradict the spirit of the goal. The eventual reward should be clearly stated at the beginning and it should be finite. Having ice cream every night now that your child is eating more veggies doesn’t support the goal. The reward should be a singular, appropriate and motivating experience that celebrates the progress they have made. And for most kids, the reward should be given right away to best associate it with their successful efforts.

So, for instance, after a week of making their bed successfully, they earn an extra bedtime story on the seventh day. Or when they have walked the dog twice a week for a month, they get to walk to the ice cream shop for a treat on day 30.

Defining an achievable goal, tracking progress, and giving a timely and appropriate reward are all key steps to helping kids successfully set and achieve their own goals, now and into the future.

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