Helping Children Set Meaningful Goals

Purpose is an important aspect of a healthy spiritual life. Children have hopes and dreams. They want to make a difference in the world. To realize their potential, they need adults to show them how to set realistic goals and develop the motivation, skills, and habits they need to meet them.

Children aren’t born knowing how to set meaningful goals. Instead, they learn goal-setting skills through practice. And researchers suggest that caregivers can begin teaching such skills early. Ask preschool children about their hopes and dreams regularly. Follow up with more questions linked to what they say, e.g., Why do you want to be a doctor? How do you think painting pictures will make the world a better place? What things do you imagine doing to take care of the earth?

It’s also important to help kids set and keep simple goals. Take a few minutes in the morning to talk about a goal each of you wants to work on. It might be something like “share my toys”, “use my words when angry”, or “listen to others more”. Write or draw pictures of your goals on sticky notes and put them somewhere you will see them throughout the day. Then check in with each other at night to share your progress.

For loftier goals, help children break them down into smaller steps. Say your child hopes to become CEO of an environmental cleanup agency. Brainstorm skills that they might need to achieve this goal, such as knowledge of ecosystems and an ability to read spreadsheets. Then encourage them to identify things they can do now to build those abilities, like reading grade-level ecology books and creating spreadsheets to track everyday tasks so they become comfortable using them.

Visualizing their dreams can help children stay motivated. Invite your child to create a vision board with images that represent the future self they hope to be and things they hope to accomplish. They can do this online (using a site like Canva) or on paper (with cut-outs and drawings). They might make the board their background on a laptop or tablet, or post a copy in their room. Suggest that they return to the board periodically to update it with new images representing additional ideas that they have.

To help children recognize the value of challenging themselves, introduce the concept of ‘stretch goals’. These are goals that require extra effort to achieve in a short time, but can be accomplished with persistence. A child who wants to move through life with gratitude might set a stretch goal of saying ‘thank you’ a hundred times a day and then work toward noticing all they have to be thankful for in that timespan.

Research also shows that imagining the hurdles we might face related to a goal helps us overcome those obstacles. Help children note the positive and negative consequences of pursuing a goal. For instance, they might realize that volunteering at an animal shelter means they don’t have time to play a sport after school. But because they want to become a veterinarian, they decide the tradeoff is worth it.

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