Did you set new year's resolutions for 2011? If so, how's that going? If you're like the vast majority of people, they will probably fade to a distant memory before the end of January. The mistake most people make is in setting goals that are too vague ('I really want to lose some weight') or unrealistic ('I'm going to lose three stone in two months').
It's easy to make the same mistakes with your kids – encouraging them to achieve things like 'working harder' at school or 'being more helpful' around the house.
Instead, set your kids SMART goals this year.
SMART stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Timely.
Let's focus on boosting your child's fitness levels, as an example. It's a key area right now as child obesity rates climb ever higher (although, of course, you can use exactly the same approach for eating less sweets, getting better grades, doing more chores, getting on better with their siblings...).
Of course, this depends on your son or daughter's current fitness level, but it will be something like, 'I will be able to jog for 20 minutes around the park without stopping.' It's vital that you get your kids to agree the goal with you and that they write it down, using 'I' so they are making it their own project, not something you've imposed on them. And, of course, it could be whatever sport/activity they most enjoy, whether it's swimming, cycling, dancing, or climbing.
This is already covered, because you know when 20 minutes is up. But you could also use a distance measure ('I will be able to jog for half a mile without stopping').
This is where most non-SMART goals bite the dust. The goal should be just hard enough to stretch them, without being so ambitious it's completely unrealistic. If so, your child will struggle, probably give up and feel worse about themselves than if they had never tried. Figure out with them whether 20 minutes is really doable. If not, go for 10 – it's always a good idea to start small and then build up incrementally, rather than shooting for the moon.
This is partially covered by the last goal, but just make sure their goal is not too unrealistic. Kids, as we all know, can be a tad dreamy. So 'I want to be a Premiership footballer' is all well and good, but that's not likely to happen if they can't be bothered to tear themselves away from the box and run around the park. Of course, fantasy goals can be very helpful as a carrot in getting them to do the nitty-gritty stuff ('David Beckham used to jog every day when he was your age – and look where he is now!')
Work out a schedule with your child, so they know exactly what they are supposed to achieve, by when. So if they are really unfit or overweight, they should start by walking in the first week, then half-walking, half-jogging in the next week, then jogging a short distance, and so on. Set specific (achievable) targets each week as they build up to the bigger goal, which might be in a month or two. Star charts work really well for this, especially for younger children.
When I'm helping my clients set goals – especially if they are trying to change a long-term, entrenched habit – I tell them to expect the odd setback. Think of it this way: if you have been doing something your whole life, how easy is it to change that in a matter of weeks? And even if you do make big changes, how likely is it that you'll slip back into the old habits, especially when the going gets tough?
Very, is the answer. So instead of being disappointed or giving up when they have a setback, tell them it's completely normal and is not a big deal. Then gently encourage them to get back on the programme. You might also need to tweak the goals as you go, if they seem too hard. Remember to be flexible – it's not a fixed, rigid plan, but one that changes and adapts to suit your child.
Praise and reward
Make sure you give your child lots of praise along the way, especially when they hit each weekly target. That praise will be part of the reward they look forward to, and make them feel proud of their own achievements. And there's no harm offering a slightly more tangible reward when they reach their bigger goal. A new computer game, trip to see a football match with dad, whatever makes their eyes light up.
After all, everyone works better when they've got something to look forward to...