By Beverly K. Bachel, author of What Do You Really Want? How to Set a Goal and Go for It! A Guide for Teens
This summer, turn your get-to-it-later kids into real goal getters with the help of behavioral science, a burgeoning field designed to nudge people of all ages toward success.
Even if you’re not familiar with behavioral science, chances are you’ve used its techniques to help your kids make better decisions. For instance, you may have encouraged them to eat healthier by putting fresh fruit on the counter or to save more of their allowance by offering to match it at the end of the summer. (Those are both examples of what behavioral scientists call nudges.)
You can use these and other nudges to get your kids to set goals and take action toward them. Here are ten of my favorites:
- Get SMART. SMART goals—those that are Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-bound—are a great way to get kids to set goals that are the right fit for them. SMART goals also help turn kids’ vague ideas and unrealistic daydreams into well-defined statements of intent. This worksheet can help.
- Limit choices. Just as a body at rest stays at rest, so does a goal getter when faced with too many choices. So instead of allowing your kids free run of their days, take a lesson from behavioral scientists and offer up only a few options: “You can either walk or bike to the park.” “You can either go at ten or at two.” Not only will such well-defined options limit “choice paralysis,” but research also says your kids will feel more satisfied with their choices.
- Encourage the right friendships. Like all of us, kids take on the behaviors and moods of the people they spend the most time with. As a result, friends have a big impact on what goals kids set—and how much time they spend working toward those goals. According to research, this “contagion effect” plays out in a variety of ways: It can affect everything from how much people weigh to where they go to college, from how they respond to stress to when they go to bed.
- Enlist the help of a goal buddy. Going for goals alone can feel like eating soup with half a spoon. Set your kids up for success by encouraging them to buddy up with a sibling, friend, or trusted adult. Research shows that when others are involved with our goals, we’re far more likely to follow through.
- Support long-term thinking. According to research, the ability to imagine our future selves has a huge impact on how we behave today. Even grade-school kids who envision themselves in college save more money than those who’ve never thought about their lives after high school. A growth mindset can also help kids stay engaged with their goals.
- Stay positive. Kids should see goal setting as an adventure, not a chore. So while you’ll want to encourage your kids to achieve their goals, be careful not to nag. And if you do? Be sure to amp up the positive, as research shows it takes about three positive comments to offset the effect of one negative comment.
- Break up the pieces. Imagine eating an entire apple in one bite. That’s what going for goals can feel like—especially to kids—if you don’t first break them into bite-sized pieces. I recommend using a Goal Ladder to help your kids develop a step-by-step action plan.
- Spark a sense of healthy competition. Whether mastering a new skateboarding trick or baking the perfect chocolate chip cookie, kids want to be as good as their friends and siblings. A little competition can help keep them engaged. Who can do three perfect varial kickflips in a row? Who’s the first to separate an egg perfectly?
- Focus their attention. Visual and physical cues can have a big impact on your kids’ actions, so use these cues to your advantage. Encourage foreign-language vocabulary practice by keeping flashcards in the car, or urge kids to be more active by inviting them to go for a bike ride. Asking questions is another simple yet often overlooked way of keeping kids focused on their goals. “Are you still thinking about trying out for the football team this fall?” “Any more thoughts about where you’d like to go to college?”
- Offer rewards. When your kids make progress toward their goals, add a bit of excitement by honoring their effort with something that will make them feel special: a sundae bar, a day without chores, or a trip to their favorite bookstore. And remember, the best rewards aren’t always material, genuine compliments, encouraging words, and pats on the back all go a long way toward helping kids feel they have what it takes to succeed.
By employing these nudges and the science of behavior, you can help make summer goal setting fun for your kids—and even yourself.
Bev Bachel has helped thousands of get-to-it-later teens (and adults) become real goal getters. She set her first goal—sell twenty-five glasses of lemonade—at age five and has since used the power of goal setting to make new friends, buy a car, run a marathon, read a book a week, and buy an island beach house. In addition to writing and speaking about goals, Bev owns her own marketing and communications company and writes freelance articles.
Bev Bachel is the author of What Do You Really Want? How to Set a Goal and Go for It! A Guide for Teens.
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