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Timothy R. Clark: Help children with their summer bucket lists

Published: Sunday, June 17 2012 11:42 p.m. MDT

My teenage daughter just finished a week-long volleyball camp. Every night she came home exhausted and exhilarated. She set goals for conditioning, serving, bumping, blocking and diving. The days were long, intense and highly structured. In this case, a good system combined with great leadership accelerated her development in just a few days.

My other teenage daughter spent the week working. She works in an assisted living center. It’s not a glamorous job. She helps prepare the meals, feed the residents and clean up the area. She’s getting to know the residents by name. She’s learning about their needs and preferences. For example, one elderly woman insists on a straw with her drink. Another needs to be spoon fed. There’s no limelight shining on my daughter in the care center. There are no whistles, no cheering and no high-fives. But guess what? She comes home with the same sweet exhaustion and exhilaration, the same sense of solid accomplishment.

When I see one of my children wearing a tired smile, I smile. Good things are happening. The same is true for all of us. When we set and achieve meaningful goals, we stretch, build capacity, gain confidence and learn what it means to contribute. When we find success, we want to do it again and we're inclined to fill our bucket list with meaningful goals.

We need to help our children do the same. It’s essential. If children don’t taste real success, they may look elsewhere for fulfillment. They may get the idea that pleasurable pursuits are the equivalent of solid achievement. That is of course what our inane popular culture teaches, and children tend to believe what they are taught. The truth is much of the pleasure we seek is a waste of time. It leads to mediocrity, untapped potential and even destructive addiction.

The challenge is made more difficult for teenagers when jobs are scarce and the family budget is tight. It means we have to try harder to help our children create a meaningful bucket list for the summer. The real goal is to help children believe in themselves. If our children go back to school and have amassed nothing but hours on the gaming, Internet and television log, it will be a lost summer. We have a vested interest in our children, and we know the mass media does not.

Remember that goals fire the imagination. They are powerful because they contain both intellectual and emotional content. So how do you help your children set goals for the summer? You have to strike the right balance. Here are some goal-setting guidelines:

  • Easy is not exciting. Don’t aim too low.
  • Motivate but don’t disable. The higher the goal, the higher the chance of failure. Don’t aim too high.
  • Start with small, visible, measurable goals such as reading a book. Small successes are enormously powerful in building confidence. Now string them together.
  • What kind of goal to have depends on your starting point and where you have been. If you have a string of failures behind you, or you simply need to break out of the inertia of inactivity, you need a small success to get some confidence and momentum back.
  • Create excitement, anticipation and a little pressure — but not too much.
  • Teach your children that the grand aim in life is not to consume, but to create and contribute. It’s a whole lot more fun.
  • Create a reading list for the summer. Agree on some kind of reward.
  • Identify projects to complete: service, arts and crafts, music, cooking, gardening, learning a language, sports, home improvement.
My youngest son came to me this week with a look of sheer delight. He proudly announced that he had read 48 pages of Roald Dahl’s "Matilda" in one day. And then he proceeded to tell me all about it. You can’t put a price on that.

“Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?” So wrote poet Robert Browning. Our children need to reach. They need to reach above the kitsch and idleness that increasingly dominate our popular culture. Let’s teach them to reach high enough that they will return at the end of the day wearing tired smiles. And then we will smile.

Timothy R. Clark is the founder of TRClark LLC, a management consulting and leadership development organization. He newest book, "The Employee Engagement Mindset," has just been released from McGraw-Hill. Email: trclark@trclark.net.

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