Setting goals with—not for—your child: Advice from Parenting Coach Jill Weininger

Since the new year has just begun and many people are pursuing positive change in 2018, we asked our parenting consultant, Jill Weininger, to share some wisdom on goal-setting. Here’s what she had to say. 

No one can set goals for someone else. Ultimately, setting goals is a personal thing. When you try to set goals for someone else, it turns into a power struggle. And when we’re backed into a corner, we dig in our heels: “Even if what you’re saying is right and better for me, and I know it, I’ll show you. You can’t control me; you can’t make me do that.”

When you think of setting goals for your children, what you really have to do is begin by changing the preposition to setting goals WITH your children.

It’s almost a cliché to say that goals have to be realistic and attainable. We all hear that. The important thing is to consider the why. When I can’t reach a goal or it’s too difficult, it doesn’t only discourage me in that one venture. The damage is greater: it discourages me from the whole goal-setting process.

Even if a goal seems really small, still go through the process of setting it

You want your kids to be successful in the goal-setting process, of course, and to be able to repeat it. So, if you’re just beginning this with your kids, even if a goal seems really small, still go through the process of setting it, because—even if they were an inch from the goal line—if they can say, “Wow! Yay, look at me! I really did that!” it’s going to help them the next time when the goal is a little bit harder.

Through coaching conversations, you guide them in developing the life skill of goal-setting—thinking through the detailed steps in getting to a goal.

Look at behavior-based goals and action items

With school-aged children, instead of setting goals that are along the lines of, say, getting all A’s, I would instead look at behavior-based goals that are along the lines of the habits they need in order to be successful in school. They’re figuring out action items: “I’m going to take notes in this class,” or “I’m going to leave my phone in the kitchen when I’m doing my homework or studying.”

A kid who loses a lot of things can’t go for the generic “I’m not going to lose any more papers” or “I’m going to have a neat locker.” The more specific, the better building of good habits: “I’m going to clean out my folders and locker every Friday,” or, “I’m going to get new, color-coded folders and notebooks.” These are the kinds of goals that are really going to help kids build into the future.

Be very selective, narrow down your goals

Being very selective and narrowing down goals is important. The way I would have a conversation with a kid is …

  • Parent: “We’re starting a new year, it’s a good time to set some goals. What do you think are the most important things that you can improve on?”
  • Child: “I’m going to turn in all my homework; I’m going to get an A in Spanish; and I’m going to get A’s on all my tests.”     
  • Parent: Those sound like some really good goals. Which one do you think you could really do?
  • Child:  Well, I think that I can get an A in Spanish.
  • Parent: What do you think you need to do differently to get an A in Spanish?
  • Child: I don’t know. I’m just going to get an A.

And this is the point where the parent becomes the coach—through a coaching conversation, not a directive conversation. It’s not, “This is how I think you should do it” (which is an instinctive thing for parents to say because they often do know). It’s a conversation that’s all question-based and draws out the thoughts of the kids, and we coach them through those thoughts.

  • Parent: Let’s talk about what we’ve been doing that’s working and not working—what we need to continue doing and what we need to change or shift.

Identify what to change and what to continue

You want to get the child thinking, “What do I need to do differently and what do I need to do the same in order to reach that goal?” What’s just as important as identifying the things that we have to change—is identifying the things that are going well and should continue to do.

Let’s say a child says, “I’m going to get all my homework in.” If they’re starting at a 50% rate, it’s not an attainable goal. To make the goal more specific, more attainable, the coaching conversation could be:

  • Parent: I think that’s fabulous. I think you really should be getting all your homework in. Which class are you having the most trouble getting it in … or where do you think it’ll make the most difference?
  • Child: Math
  • Parent: OK, so let’s aim for getting all of our homework in for Math. How much did you turn in last quarter or semester? …

Help kids come back down from a goal set too high

Knowing why something is not happening helps in figuring out those action items and tailoring goals. When a child sets a goal too high, we help them come back down to see some of the parts to focus on and that they can do. For example, your conversation could lead to the behavior goal of doing math homework first before getting tired, or organizing math assignments in the correct folder.

Then, the child can build on the success experienced in one area. In that math example, let’s say that in a month, they’ve gotten in all their homework.

  • Parent: Do you remember you set that goal for yourself? You’ve done an awesome job! Now do you think we can take what you’re doing to Reading . . . or Social Studies . . . or Science?

It’s not just about practicing piano more

In another coaching conversation outside of schoolwork, let’s say a child says, “I’m going to get better at piano,” or, “I’m gonna practice piano every single day.”

  • Parent: Let’s talk about that. I think it’s a great goal that you want to practice piano more. How many times a week have you been practicing your piano?
  • Child: Once.

Is it realistic that they’re going to go from once a week to seven times a week? No. It’s going to be like a diet that starts on Monday and ends on Tuesday by noon. So, you want to help them find a way to be successful in practicing piano more.

  • Parent: Sweetie, if you practice piano now once a week, and there’s seven days a week, how many days do you think you could really really do it, given all your homework and all your other activities?

Maybe they land on three. Then, again, you ask questions to help them get more specific and committed to something—and therefore more successful.

  • Parent: OK, what days of the week are the best times to practice?
  • Child: I don’t know.
  • Parent: Well, let’s think about your week. You have swimming on Wednesday, you have this on Tuesday, and on Saturday, we generally don’t have anything  . . .
  • What you want to get them to realize is that it’s not just saying, “I want to practice piano everyday,” or even, “I’m going to practice three times a week,” it’s nailing it down to the most specific it can be.
  • Child: OK then, I’ll practice on Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays.
  • Parent: Great, when are you gonna practice on those days? Are you gonna practice before you do anything—when you wake up, or 15 minutes before we go to bed? When do you think is the best time to practice?

You’re helping them get more specific because ultimately, it’s not just about practicing piano three times a week and getting better at piano. It’s about learning that when we set goals, we want to think about not just the goal but how we’re going to attain the goal. We’re incorporating that life skill of goal setting that becomes very specific, very measurable, and therefore attainable.

I always say the same thing to parents: The coaching time is 18 years minus however old your kids are. Once they go to college, you want to know with confidence that they can do this on their own—set goals for what they need to accomplish on a semester basis, on a weekly basis, on a daily basis. It starts when they are young and thinking through the details of the goals, the steps of getting to the goal. That’s why we can’t set goals for them. They have to set them for themselves. We get to guide them on the side.

No stranger to children and the challenges of raising them, Jill is a mother of two and was an educator and elementary school principal for more than two decades. Jill is a certified facilitator of the Love and Logic™ program and uses its trusted resources to help parents of kids of any age. She partners with More Than SAT in providing group workshops and individual coaching where parents learn strategies to: build healthy relationships with their children, promote good decision-making skills, and prepare children for future success.

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