Helping Kids Set Goals for Learning and Improvement

I met a mom recently whose two kids are as different as night and day. Her daughter Isabella is a perfectionist. She constantly frets that her schoolwork isn’t good enough and stays up well past midnight revising her assignments. Her brother Aiden is the opposite. He’s barely scraping by in

school and doesn’t seem to care. “He needs to learn to step up, and she needs to learn to relax,” their mother told me. “But how do I teach them to do that?”

Every child is born with a unique personality. Even siblings in the same family can have very different approaches to work and relaxation. Some children are like Isabella. They set unrealistically high personal standards and push themselves to do whatever it takes to be “the best,” even though they often feel overwhelmed and exhausted. Other children are like Aiden. They cruise through school at an easy pace, doing a minimal amount of work and focusing on fun. For kids like Aiden, avoiding stress and hassles is their top priority in life, even at the cost of wasting their talent and accomplishing very little.

As their mother is noticing, both children have yet to learn how to strike a reasonable, productive and happy balance between work and relaxation. Helping children learn to find this balance isn’t just a matter of teaching better work habits. It also means encouraging children to be less afraid and more courageous about dealing with success and failure.

Aiden, for example, needs to develop courage to help him get past his fear of failing and “looking bad.” Right now, he feels more anxious the closer he gets to completing his work and turning it in for grading. Fearing the shame of getting a poor grade means that he’d rather not finish or turn in his work at all. It also means hiding those feelings from his teachers and parents. Courageous kids do not like mistakes or poor grades either, but when they are disappointed, they keep going. They learn from their mistakes and continue learning to improve without becoming scared, getting upset or just giving up.

Kids like Isabella also need to learn to approach their work more courageously. In her own way, Isabella is just as afraid of “not being good enough” as her brother, which is why she drives herself to be “perfect.” Her fears compel her to work nonstop because she, too, dreads the shame she might feel for a less-than-perfect score. Braver children are able to find the courage to set and work toward reasonable goals. They like success as much as anyone, yet they also have the courage to say to themselves, “This does not have to be perfect. It’s good enough.”

If it seems that your children are unduly afraid of “not being good enough,” here are some suggestions of how to help lessen their fears and grow their courage:

  • Notice and appreciate the many little improvements your children make, recognizing that most change happens very slowly.
  • I heard you say, ‘It doesn’t have to be perfect,’ about your essay tonight. You are making progress!” (said to a child who is still editing her essay)
  • I noticed you finished your math sheet tonight. I can imagine you’ll do well in class tomorrow.” (said to a child playing video games)
  • No one likes mistakes, but we can encourage children to feel more courageous by how we respond to their mistakes.
  • You forgot your book in your locker. Well, mistakes happen despite our best intentions sometimes.” (said compassionately, with a friendly look)
  • You left your sandwich here and the cat took a bite – I’m guessing you’ll remember this and not leave your sandwich out next time!” (said kindly, with a smile)
  • We can even teach our children to deal more positively with their fear of failure by responding more positively to our own mistakes.
  • Oh, darn, I forgot to return this library book on time! Oh well, I guess that just shows that I’m human!”
  • Notice and appreciate when your children complain of being tired all the time or not getting good grades like other kids:
  • It sounds like you would like to feel more rested. Maybe you’re ready to start giving yourself permission to sleep more?”
  • It sounds like you want better grades for yourself … maybe you’re ready to start working for better grades?”
  • Encourage your children to set reasonable, realistic goals for themselves. Instead of focusing on the grade, encourage them to focus on what they want to learn to do better.
  • What would you like to improve in your essay writing? Is it the ideas or your vocabulary or something else?”
  • Encourage your children to set their own goals for improving their grades. Small steps for improvement are usually achievable and help children steadily build their confidence.
  • Most kids improve their grades a little bit at a time. Would you like to change that C- to a C?”
  • It takes practice to learn to become more comfortable with this ‘not being perfect’ thing. Would you like to start by giving yourself a reasonable limit for how long you’ll study for your test?”
  • Encourage your children to be fair to themselves.
  • High school can be a fun time for kids. Do you feel like you are getting your fair share of fun this year? Would it be okay to give yourself some more fun sometimes?”
  • It feels good to learn more and do well in school. Would you like to have more success for yourself?”
  • Encourage your children to challenge themselves.
  • Do you imagine that you can be a pretty good judge of what’s ‘good enough’?”
  • What are the grades that you would be proud to see on your report card?”
  • What would you be willing to do to move in a better direction?”

Whether it’s coping with schoolwork or facing other challenging life tasks, parents can help children by teaching that it’s OK to make mistakes. By reducing their fear of failure, we can help them develop the courage to take the risks necessary for learning and improvement.