Give the power of choice to our kids

AS the holidays approach, we’re all thinking about what we can give our children. 

Give the power of choice to our kids

Why not a sense of power in their own lives, a realisation they can have a say in how their life pans out in 2015? Encouraging children to make New Year resolutions has multiple benefits, says parent coach Joan Barrett. She believes children who are engaged in their own learning— rather than being told what to do — are more motivated and confident.

“The personal achievement of starting and completing something helps children believe in themselves. It helps them develop the courage to persevere — children feel empowered.”

If parents tune into their child’s wishes for his life — ‘I wish I was better at football/I wish I had more friends’— they can really become the child’s ally. “A child will really feel listened to if the parent can help him take that wish and make it into reality,” says Barrett.

Child therapist Helen Sholdice says parents should be mindful of the difference between parents’ goal-setting and ambitions for their child and letting the child develop his own ambitions. “It’s normal to want your child to succeed but the parent might be over-enthusiastic and the child can feel a failure if they don’t achieve the parent’s goal.”

Sholdice says resolutions set by children must ‘click’ with them. “This is what will give them the passion to do it and the stamina to keep pursuing it.”

Four to 12-year-olds:

Parent coach Marian Byrne recommends the whole family sitting down together and setting goals together. Key questions to ask are: What do you want to do more, less, better or differently? What do you want to start doing, stop doing or continue doing? Dad’s resolution might be ‘I’m going to start getting up 10 minutes earlier in the morning’. Mum’s might be to cut out sugar in her tea. “The child sees the parent being active in setting their own goal — they’re leading by example,” says Sholdice.

Encourage goals around school and interests (ask: what are you good at? What do you enjoy doing? How could you do even better?) and goals around friends and contribution to family life/others. “Encouraging resolutions around contribution boosts children’s self-esteem, a sense they’re a good person,” says Byrne.

Look with the children at the steps required to achieve their goal and get them to write these down, counsels Barrett. “Writing them commits them to paper. Have one column for the goal, one for how to achieve it and a date by which each step is to be completed. Keep these in a prominent place. Some children don’t like their ambitions on display to visitors so they might want to put them on a chart inside their wardrobe.”

It’s important to review progress. “With younger children, this can be as often as every day,” says Barrett. “Say a child’s goal is to make more friends. She’s in a school, where kids with no-one to play with can stand in a circle in the playground and wait for an invitation from another child to play with them. In this case, the child might make a resolution to play with whoever invites them rather than waiting to be asked by one child.

“Reviewing might mean asking ‘how many times did you go out of the circle to play with other children?’” Setting goals that contain in-built rewards is a good idea. Rather than ‘I’ll do my homework every evening’, ‘If I get my homework done by 5pm, I’ll have time to play’.

Families can also set mutual goals, says Barrett, such as saving for a holiday. “Each person comes up with an idea around how they can save. How might they earn extra money? It’s about empowering children to come up with ideas.”


Teens are able to set goals and put processes in place to bring these about, says Dr Patrick Ryan, head of psychology at UL. “Parents don’t set goals for them — they set goals with them. But we need to help them manage their excitement and idealism around a goal — teens can often overestimate their capacity to achieve a goal and underestimate the amount of time and effort it takes.”

He recommends getting the teenager to identify the end result they’d like and work backwards through the various steps to bring that about. “With goals that are personally meaningful to them, there should be lots of components they can achieve without stressful effort but also components that will stretch them.”

Ryan suggests setting goals across various domains of their life – hobbies/interests; relationships with family/friends; school — individual subjects/engagement in extra-curricular activities; contribution to family. “Bear in mind teens are generally task-oriented rather than process-oriented. They like to have a bit of clarity around what might be expected of them.”

If the goal is to become better at ballet and they attend class once a week, ask what they can do between classes — perhaps a half-hour extra practice at home. “Ask ‘what might stop you doing this’. If they say ‘because it’s boring’, ask if it would be a good idea for their friend to come over one evening to do homework and afterwards they could do a half-hour practice in the sitting room,” suggests Ryan.

If it’s a social/friends goal — perhaps they’re finding two members of their group quite overpowering — ask ‘what can you do to change this?’ “Remind them they can’t change other people. But is there a way they can stand up to them? How would they do this? Role-play and practise it with them. Tease out why they want to spend so much time in this group.”

If the resolution is around contribution to family life — helping their seven-year-old brother with his hurling — go through the necessary steps with your teen. “Ask ‘how do you encourage him to come out and practice? How do you talk to him when you are practicing? If you were a coach, how would you praise him and keep him motivated? How would you maintain his enjoyment?” explains Ryan.

Whether they’re teens or younger, teaching young people how to set goals is about helping them influence their own journey in life.

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