Last weekend provided one of those parenting moments for me that you need to tuck into your parenting suitcase to pull out when you need a boost. It has always been a parenting goal of mine to teach my children how to set goals that are important to them and then be able to achieve those goals. As my three sons all crossed finish lines in running races, I too felt that I was crossing my own mini finish line. And even though some days I wonder how they leave the house intact (race morning my son did forget his bib number and had to go back for it), watching them reach their running goals got me thinking: How do we teach our kids to set and reach goals?
Different Types of Goals
In order to help our children learn to set and reach goals, we need to know a bit more about this whole goal-making process. Researchers have identified different types of goals depending upon several different factors.
- Absolute Goals – These are concrete, such as running one mile, reading 2 chapters, losing 10 lbs. etc.
- Normative Goals – These goals depend upon the achievements of others, such as finishing the race in the top 100, reading the most chapters in class, or losing more weight than your partner.
Goals are also differentiated according to their time frames.
- Proximal Goals – These goals are more immediate, such as running 1 mile today. These goals can be directly related to goals that are more long-term, and are part of the overall goal-reaching process. Children most often understand and achieve these types of goals more easily because they often have more difficulty delaying gratification. Therefore, children are usually more motivated to reach proximal goals than goals set further down the road.
- Distant Goals – These goals often rely on achieving smaller proximal goals along the way as stepping stones to reaching a large goal in the future.
Goals can be even further classified according to the specific requirements and standards that are needed to meet the goals. Specific goals such as complete 20 math problems tonight are more motivating to kids than general goals such as put forth your best effort. When it comes to our kids it seems that there is a delicate balance between all of these factors and successful goal setting and reaching.
- Specific goals are more motivating.
- Difficult tasks are more likely to see more efforts exerted by kids unless the kids feel that the goal is so difficult that it is unobtainable.
- Goals that depend on acquiring new knowledge, a skill set, or behavior are known as process goals. On the other hand, goals that relate to a task being completed are known as outcome goals. Often these two types of goals will work together – a process goal of learning new vocabulary words can help an outcome goal of reading something by Shakespeare.
What Can I Do to Help My Child Reach Goals?
Understanding the types of goals and the motivation and commitment needed to reach different types is important. We can help our kids learn to identify these types of goals and why they may or may not be beneficial in specific instances. Then, for parents, the next part is about helping our kids find the tools they need to reach their goals.
Whether it is running, learning a new skill, achieving an academic milestone, or just keeping a bedroom clean, goal setting and reaching is a tool that we can help our kids develop.
- Teach kids that failure doesn’t mean the task is over. It simply means that there was likely something wrong with the process taken to reach the goal, or the goal wasn’t realistically set or clearly defined.
- Encourage goals that are doable, as well as ones that you think are about as likely as not having any dirty laundry in the house. If our kids are only setting those really high goals, they can become frustrated and less likely to try setting goals in the future. But they do need permission and encouragement to think big!
- Don’t take steps for your child. If these are truly his goals, he needs to be the one making the progress.
- Help him monitor his progress. We kept a running training chart on the refrigerator for all the boys to see. Maybe you can create a behavior log or chart with your kids. Just make sure that your kids are the ones who are marking off the progress.
- Encourage bite-sized goals. Running a 10K can’t be done well if you never run and then just one day decide to get up and do it. Help your child come up with smaller, proximal goals.
- Praise the effort. Before and after each race for my boys we talked about how proud I was of their training, and I asked them how it felt to know that they had reached their goals – which was always an amazing emotion for all of them.
One son wanted to run a 10K race for the 3rd time and set his goal a year in advance, so it was definitely a distant goal. This goal, however, required many proximal goals – smaller goals in training, beginning months before the 10K with weekly training. It was also an absolute goal – he knew the time he wanted to have – 50 minutes would be an improvement from his previous two runs. (He came in at 47.01.)
My next son wanted to run his first 10K, and also set his distant goal the year before the race, and also with an absolute goal of 60 minutes or less. (He came in at 58.42.) However, we did provide him with a bit more support because he is younger and this was his first 10K.
Our youngest son decided he wanted to try his first 5K but he was unsure if he would be comfortable running it solo (and we agreed because of his age). So while the training and goal setting were his own, we provided the additional tools of having my husband also train and run with him, and spent more time discussing with him proper stretching, cool-down methods, etc. This son, however, also set a normative goal – run faster than Dad! (Those little legs sprinted to the finish and came in 0.1 second faster than Dad.)
As I stood with cow bells in hand (tradition for cheering them across the finish line), I was honestly overwhelmed with contentment and relief. They all surpassed their own goals, and they all had to do it on their own. Now they are planning goals for next year’s races – and trying to determine how to raise the bar for themselves. I just got one step closer to my own parenting goals, and I didn’t have to break a sweat.