Four Tips for Helping Children to Set Goals

My mother was a wonderful cook. Roast beef simmering in sauce, cinnamon rolls dripping with glaze, tender sweet potatoes dusted with fragrant nuts—she made it all. I’m sure she hoped her daughter would share her passion for cooking, but I didn’t.

I wanted to write.

My mother was a wise woman. Instead of forcing me to like what she liked, she allowed me to explore my own interests and learn skills that were more interesting to me than how to season a Bolognese: she taught me how to make and set goals.

As a parent you have the same opportunity. Here are some pointers for you to help your children set and achieve their goals.

1. Don’t set your children’s goals for them.

When it comes to your children’s goals, you might think you know what’s best—they should get good grades, or they should be kinder to their siblings. But your child’s goals are not about you. These goals need to be meaningful to your child. Instead of telling them what goals to set, help them look at what interests they have and guide them to set goals that are meaningful as well as what they would like to pursue.

Ask questions about their interests. You can also help them think about qualities they admire in others. Have them fill in the blank: “I want to be more ___.” Kind? Studious? Brave? Can your child think of a goal to develop that trait?

But what if you don’t like your children’s goals or think they should have different goals? If they have chosen a goal that is honorable and worthy, showing support by encouraging them will help to motivate them in their goal. Or, if necessary, you could invite your child to consider and set a different goal or to take a different approach. For example, when one young man wanted to create his own YouTube channel, his mother was somewhat apprehensive. She worried about him being exposed to inappropriate content on the site. And yet, she valued his desired goal to learn video editing. As a compromise, they worked together to create a private channel that only she and her son could access. In this way, he learned valuable skills in a field that interested him while staying safe.

Remember, part of the purpose of setting goals isn’t solely meeting the goal itself. It’s helping children learn the skill of setting and achieving goals. This skill will bless them throughout their lives, no matter what goal they work on now.

2. Help the child identify the incremental steps to success.

You can help by teaching good goal-setting habits, including the ones mentioned here. For example, teach the difference between a long-term goal and intermediate steps. Once again, stay curious. If your child has a goal to run a 5K, you might have ideas about the best way to achieve that goal. However, let your children think through their ideas first. Ask more questions. It might be appropriate to offer less advice, listen more, and guide where appropriate.

Try this question: “What is the next step you can take to work toward your goal?” The next step might be reading an article or lacing up the running shoes. No matter the answer, an insightful question can help your child get started in the right direction.

3. Find opportunities to check in and encourage.

When I was in high school, my mom made blueberry muffins on Sundays. We’d sit at the table, munching on muffins and talking about goals. These conversations weren’t a cross-examination but an encouraging check-in. Create opportunities for these discussions in your own home.

You also might try being like a mirror. Instead of solving problems, reflect your child’s thoughts back to them. Listen and then say, “I’m hearing you say ___,” or, “Am I getting this right?” Repeating your child’s words back to them to ensure you understand allows your children to process ideas and feelings and think through solutions.

When your children encounter obstacles, give them time and space to work through failed attempts. Resist the impulse to step in and solve the obstacle for them. Instead, let them know you are always there to provide support, while still letting them try.

If your children become frustrated, remind them that even Jesus learned little by little, or “grace for grace” (Doctrine and Covenants 93:12). If you become frustrated, prayerfully seek the Lord’s help as you strive to be more patient and understanding. Your modeled patience and loving support—even when your children stumble—will encourage them to press forward and try again.

4. Be a cheerleader.

So, how did my own story about goal-setting end? Instead of forcing me to focus on her goal, my wise mother encouraged me in my writing efforts. I took classes, entered contests, and submitted stories to literary magazines. She was my first editor, first reader, and biggest cheerleader. She validated my strengths and successes. Writing ended up being very important to my life—it even helped support me and my family.

And as for cooking? Well, my husband and I lived off of pancakes for the first year of our marriage. Eventually (when I was ready!) I became interested in cooking. More importantly, I knew how to set a goal and stick with it. And that is a sweet skill, indeed.