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How to talk about - setting goals with your kids

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There’s nothing quite like the satisfaction of reaching a goal – just ask a to-do-list writer, especially the extra passionate sort who secretly write things they’ve already done on their to-do list, just so they can experience the thrill of the tick. Goals are valuable in all sorts of ways and some golden life skills are on offer when we encourage our kids to join in the goal-setting conversation.


The conversation may need to start at the beginning. What is a goal?
Help your kids understand that a goal is an end result you are prepared to work towards – something that is specific and measurable. Your kids might come up with a goal like “Staying focused in class and not getting distracted.” This a noble idea, but a bit vague when it comes to measurable results. In this example, you could ask your child how they would know if they had achieved their goal of better focus. This will help them see the difference between something measurable (the end result) and something that’s just a good idea (the process).

To get the goal-setting conversation started, try asking questions like:

  • What is something you wish you could learn this year?
  • What is something you did last year that you would really like to improve on this year?
  • What would you do if you knew you couldn't fail?

The good ideas are great for building on though – the focus goal could be reframed to something like:
“My goal is to stay focused in class so I can move up three levels in spelling this term and learn my times tables up to 10.”
And then you can put your parent-coach hat on and gently encourage them to think about the ‘How?’… All things being equal, your clever kid will land back on their original idea of tuning out the distraction of chatty Charlie who sits at a desk nearby.


It could be that your kids set themselves one big goal for the term or year, or maybe they’ll set several smaller ones. It could be that your child sets an academic goal, a sporting goal and a social goal. It could be that their goal is to overcome a fear of something.
Some children might have victory in mind – winning the cross country or taking home a particular trophy at end of year prize-giving…
Some children might have victory in mind – winning the cross country or taking home a particular trophy at end of year prize-giving. Still valid goals, but also a good segue into another important conversation:

Let's talk about the 'Why?'

"Because I want to beat James this year."

Yep, still a goal, but perhaps not such a worthy one. Our goals are personal, yes, but they can also benefit others.
While this sounds idealistic and potentially beyond the average 8-year-old who just really really wants to win the cross country, effective goal setting is enhanced by a clear purpose.
The goal needs to matter. If it matters to more than just the individual, all the better. Studies have shown that we are more successful when we can see that our learning benefits others. We’re more motivated if we can see how our efforts will contribute to something bigger than ourselves. That’s a deep conversation right there, but by all means worth a go!
You could try chatting about people who have made amazing advances in medicine, technology or social justice. The benefits of their efforts are experienced far and wide, but the story possibly began with a personal goal or two.

The goal of the goal (mine could be to write less clunky sentences) is a sense of achievement for your child. Goals have potential to boost self-esteem and develop character traits like perseverance, confidence, optimism and motivation.

There is a risk this golden journey could be derailed if the goals our children set are impossible. Help them set an achievable long-term goal and together work out the smaller steps towards getting there.

Without overcooking the whole issue with talk of a five-year-plan, older kids may respond to a long-term goal that has a couple of years’ worth of build-up. I was that 13-year-old who started high school, took a look around to see what was on offer, and then set goals to achieve before I left as a seventh-former.

Clearly that paid off because now I’m employed to write sentences like “The goal of the goal”.

Other kids will turn up for year nine and a worthy goal might be to try a sport they’ve never had a go at before, to get an end-of-year report with A’s for effort or to read one book a month. Success is not onesize- fits-all, hence the importance of goals that make sense to the individual.

Success is not one-size-fits-all, hence the importance of goals that make sense to the individual. It is worthwhile to talk to our teenagers about the options available for school-leavers. The goal of attending med school obviously requires some concerted effort in the lead-up.

Other tertiary education or vocational training options may not be as demanding in terms of prep, but it’s worth starting the conversation early about what life might look like once school is out for good, and what you need to have on your CV in order to get yourself into certain places. What better place to chat about such a big issue than in the car! Nothing like a
healthy dose of reality to enhance a road trip.

But speaking of journeys, that really is what it’s all about. Getting from A to B requires putting one foot in front of the other. And loads of other motivational clichés that I’ll save for another day.

While you’re in the car you might catch the radio news and hopefully some of it’s good! Talking about the great achievements of others can open the door for some subtle goal-setting talk.

I wonder when Taika Waititi first got interested in filmmaking?

I wonder what sort of leadership roles Jacinda Ardern put her hand up for at high school?

How many hours of training do you think Sophie Pascoe does each week?


Comparison is the thief of joy so we do well to steer our kids away from goals that are directly relating to someone else. Instead, we can help our kids recogniSe their own strengths and focus on developing those, while at the same time admiring siblings and classmates. Comparison and admiration are different; admiration is the one we’re after.

Without bursting bubbles or raining on parades, it does fall to the grown-ups to help kids set realistic goals. This may require all the tact you can muster – it’s not about crushing dreams, it’s about gently averting eyes to attainable goals that still require a healthy amount of challenge.

Kid, you’re an awesome rugby player, but the All Blacks don’t recruit under-ten-year-olds.

“You can’t do it yet, but you will be able to do it one day.”

I reckon with some training you could make the school’s first
fifteen though. Ultimately goals encourage us all to pursue the ‘Not yet’.

Goals are hopeful!