Of course Father's Day is usually about our kids giving us presents, but how about using the day to think about giving our kids something that they will desperately need to negotiate our ever-changing and ever more difficult world? Giving children the incalculable gift of self-determination is essentially about helping them learn to set goals.
We are going to spend our next couple of columns here talking a little about the goal-setting process and how it can be applied to and taught to fairly young children.
When children actually set goals for themselves, two quite wonderful things happen: 1. They overcome the attitude of entitlement because they learn that accomplishment and satisfaction take work and sacrifice. 2. As a parent, you become their consultant, helping with their goals rather than the nagging manager trying to get them to do what you want them to. Let's think first about very young children and the kind of goals they can set. Then next week we will think together about goal-setting for older kids.
Young children are really quite amazing when it comes to goals because goal setting in its simple forms is a very natural and very instinctive process. Kids can quickly see the connections between what they do and what their results are, and they are empowered by making those connections.
The "Joy School" preschool curriculum (see www.joyschools.com) that we created many years ago has a unit called "the joy of order and goal-striving," which focuses on giving 3- and 4-year-olds experiences that lead to a sense of personal accomplishment and control over parts of their environment. We have had quite remarkable feedback about preschool goal-setting experiences from parents and teachers.
One 3-year-old set his goal to stop sucking his thumb. The time frame was two weeks, and after the first week he was pretty discouraged. "I just can't help it!" he said. The second week, we were showing the kids how to make a plan to reach their goal, and this little guy brought his little piece of tattered blanket that he rubbed when he sucked his thumb and said, "Put this up on the refrigerator, and don't let me have it because if I do, I will never reach my goal."
Another Joy School child, a 4-year-old girl, set a goal to learn to tie her shoe by herself. We made her a pie chart with eight wedges, and she decided to color one in each time she worked on the goal. By the time she had colored in all eight wedges, she could do it, and you have never seen a prouder face.
Once a child has really set a goal of his own — one that has come out of his own head, one that he feels ownership of — a magical transformation takes place; and it is a transformation not only of the child but of you. Instead of his manager (or his drill sergeant), you now have become his coach and his helper, and you are in a position to ask, "May I help you with your goal?"
The initiative has shifted. Because it is his goal, he is responsible for it, he is invested in it, and he cares about it and is motivated to work for it. And your help becomes something he begins to appreciate and even seek rather than something he resents or is intimidated by.
We usually think of goals as something we write down, and we assume that kids too young to write are also too young to set goals. But by telling preschoolers simple stories about someone who set and worked for and accomplished a goal, you can plant wondrous seeds that will flourish into real achievement.
Small children can still "write" their goals — in pictures. We still have a piece of paper with one of 4-year old Saydi's goals on it. It is just a drawing of two stick figures holding hands. We wrote under it what she told us the goal was, "To make a new friend this week at preschool —see, this is me and this is — well I really don't know who it is because it is the new friend I am going to make."
Don't assume that preschool kids are too small to understand or set simple goals. Realize instead that it is the best time to start.
The Eyres are the founders of Joy Schools and of valuesparenting.com and the authors of numerous bestselling books on marriage, parenting and family. Their mission statement, developed while presiding over the England London South Mission, is "FORTIFY FAMILIES by celebrating commitment, popularizing parenting, bolstering balance and validating values."
Their newest book, now available in stores and online, is "5 Spiritual Solutions for Everyday Parenting Challenges," and their blog can be found at http://www.deseretnews.com/blog/81/A-World-of-Good.html. Visit the Eyres anytime at www.TheEyres.com or www.valuesparenting.com.