The new year is (almost!) here and that means one thing: new year’s resolutions. Some 68 percent of us set a goal (though we often give them up, too), and most of us vow to eat healthier, exercise, and save (more) money. But since 91 percent of Americans surveyed say that family is the most or one of the most important things in their lives, I was pretty surprised that none of the most common resolutions are related to family.
Why is that?
Perhaps, we think, if we get our own stuff figured out an improved family life will follow. Or perhaps we don’t see family life as an area where we should set goals. Or maybe we just don’t know how to set goals for our family life?
All these thoughts are valid, but so is the research that supports goal setting. In fact, some psychologists think that the process of setting the goal and working toward it is just as important as achieving the aim.
Three reasons to set goals
The anthropological and psychological research on this topic suggests three main reasons to set family goals:
- Many of us are raising children away from our own families. As a result, we are missing the cultural and historical context that informed family life in past generations. Think: we are the Smiths, we are cobblers. Alternatively, some of don’t agree with the messages our family or culture sends or discover that scientific evidence tells us these messages do not support raising our children in the way we want. Note: I have discovered such messages in every one of the almost 80+ podcast episodes I’ve recorded, including telling girls they’re pretty doesn’t support their body image, granting dessert in exchange for eating vegetables helps a child to learn how to eat a balanced diet, improving a child’s self-esteem will help to improve their life outcomes…
- Having a sense of direction in life is a key indicator of psychological and social well-being. According to the body of research, having a plan and working toward a goal are generally more important than actually reaching the goal. Family dynamics being what they are, you may find that the original goal isn’t achievable or doesn’t fit your family after all, but the act of goal setting is valuable progress in itself.
- Having parenting goals does impact parent’s behavior and thus children’s outcomes. One study found that parents who said they valued long-term academic goals talked more on academic topics with their children; another study of Central American parents found that mothers’ goals explained 29% of the variance in children’s scores on a measure of social cooperation and 18% of the variance in children’s scores on a measure of their ability to learn in school.
Convinced? Now what?
How to set family goals
- Have a conversation. Discuss your values with your partner (if you have one, or perhaps work with a friend if you don’t). What kinds of qualities do each of you hope to imbue in your child? What kind of adult do each of you hope they’ll grow up to be.
- Hold a family meeting (if appropriate for your family). Ask your child(ren) to contribute ideas about the kinds of values that are important to your family (e.g., community service, kindness, the value you put on learning new things…). Write them all down and work together to refine them. *Remember, there are not right answers, just what’s right for your family.
- Think about where and with whom your child spends their time. Are they spending it in ways and with people that support these values and qualities? For example, if you want your son to grow up being comfortable expressing all of his emotions but his caregiver tells him “boys don’t cry,” then you may not achieve your aim. If community service is important but you don’t make the time to volunteer or include your child in charitable giving, your child is not likely to take on this value. In what ways could you make adjustments to help you work toward your goals?
- Think about the ways you interact with your child related to your goals. Are your interactions aligned with your goals? For example, if you would like to raise a child who is independent, but you step in and ‘help’ your child every time they struggle, your interactions may not support your child in achieving that goal. How could you shift your interactions?
- Print out your goals and display them prominently. This will remind your family of what you mutually decided was important to you.
Don’t feel as though you need to get the goals 100% right and carve them in stone on the first go-around. Your priorities might change. You might refine your ideas and update some of the goals. As long as you’re not making a 180 degree shift, the work you’ve done on the old goal still has value.
Conversation starter cards to uncover values and support cognitive development
One tool that you can use to uncover your family’s values is a set of conversation starter cards.
While you can purchase these in many places, the majority of these sets ask questions like “what is your favorite movie?,” a question with a single answer that makes it difficult to “strive for five” (five conversational turns, which supports your child’s language development through a high quality conversation).
I’ve developed a unique set of conversation starter cards based on the thousands of books and peer-reviewed articles that I’ve read to help you have exactly these kinds of meaningful conversations. They contain questions like “Is it ever right to tell a fib?” that both young children and adults can answer (and debate!), and that will both support and reveal your child’s cognitive and social development as they grow.