Goal-setting can be a powerful experience for kids, and the beginning of the school year is a great time to start.

Goal-setting can be a powerful experience for kids, and the beginning of the school year is a great time to start.

But watching parents trying to get their children to set goals often makes us smile — because, frankly, our attempts as well-meaning parents are often laughable. The parent says, “Hey, you want to set some goals for the school year?”

“What about in math? You’re pretty good at math, aren’t you? I’ll bet you could get an A. Write that down. An A in math — that’s a good goal. Way to go! Now let’s set a goal for English. Isn’t this fun, setting your own goals?”

The kid hasn’t said a word yet, or thought a thought (other than “How do I satisfy Dad enough to get out of here?”).

We all know that goals set for us by others have little effect on our real desires and hold little motivation. For goals to work positively in our children’s lives, they have to be set by the children themselves. Encouraging and helping them to do this is not an easy or a quick task. It’s a process that requires a lot of patience and a lot of “backing off” by parents. But when it happens — when kids really set their own goals and thus feel ownership of those goals — something magic happens. Those self-set goals provide tremendous incentive. And they throw an amazing “switch” in parent-child relationships, with the parent going from a nagger, a lecturer and a critic to a consultant who is helping the child with his goal.

In watching and analyzing parents’ efforts to help their children set goals for themselves and feel ownership of those goals, we have concluded that there are three keys:


Share some of your goals with your child. List some goals visibly on a chart of some kind and explain them. Do so with some excitement and animation.


To work well and to be motivational, goals need a natural timetable. For kids, the best time span for longer-term goals is a school year. A school year is long enough to allow some “subdivision” into shorter-term goals that lead up to the year’s goals; and yet a year is short enough that kids can make marked progress toward goals and get rewarding, motivating praise from parents.

Once school-year goals are established, semester goals and monthly and then smaller weekly goals can be set that lead up to them.

Charts and categories

Having a big, “permanent” chart that is visible and prominent in a child’s room can do wonders for keeping him aware of and focused on his goals.

“Back in the day” when we were trying to get our kids to set their own goals, I went to the store one day and bought three rigid foam-core boards for our three elementary-age kids. I presented them to the three at a family meeting the week after I had shown them some of my goals. I said something like, “I got you these cool boards so you can write your goals on them.”

We then had a little discussion about what categories they might want to set goals in, and it was actually pretty obvious to them. One said, “Well, grades, I guess.” Another said “activities” and his older brother corrected him: “That’s called extracurricular.” Then one of our daughters said, “Well, there ought to be something on there about being a better person. ... That’s the most important thing.”

We decided to call the third category “character goals,” and each of the kids divided their foam-core boards into three sections, one labeled “grades,” one called “extracurricular” and one called “character.” Something about having that blank, three-category chart in front of them focused their minds, and in an hour or so each had written down some pretty interesting goals. They were not, perhaps, exactly the goals we would have set for them for the school year, but they were their goals, and it started to make a difference from day one.

For parents, the trick is being patient. Let the process unfold. If all that happens when you introduce the goal charts is that a child sits there and stares at it for a while, that’s OK. He or she is thinking at least a little about goals. Talk it up and try it again the next week.

Richard and Linda Eyre are New York Times No. 1 best-selling authors who lecture throughout the world on family-related topics. Read Linda's blog at and visit the Eyres anytime at