Editor’s note: This story was originally published Dec. 30, 2021.
Jan. 1 of any year kicks off the start of the Great Resolution: I’ll lose/gain weight. I’ll work more/less. I’ll prioritize finance/romance/exercise. And history says that’s typically followed shortly by massive resignation as people flub up once or twice and then give up their goals for the new year and settle back into old patterns.
Despite adults’ struggles with New Year’s resolutions, experts say the tradition provides parents an important opportunity to work with their kids on setting goals. Making resolutions can teach children lessons that will serve them well their whole lives.
Among other benefits, experts told the Deseret News that making and working on resolutions helps kids:
- Decide what they’d like to change.
- Feel more control over their future.
- Talk to parents about goals and what they’d like more or less of in their lives.
- Organize both thoughts and actions.
- Learn to break tasks down to achieve big goals.
“Children often mirror their parents and want to create their own resolutions,” said Matt Grammer, founder and CEO of Kentucky Counseling Center in Louisville, Kentucky. “This is a great opportunity for parents to sit down with their kids and discuss goal setting and planning.”
Goal setting helps parents learn what’s important to their children, and bond with them as a child explains why a goal was picked and how he plans to achieve it, said Grammer, a therapist and dad.
“By setting New Year’s resolutions with your kids, you’re taking the time to show them you’re invested in their future and you teach them how to set themselves up for success in life by discussing how to gain opportunities and overcome challenges,” he said.
His children love writing their resolutions in crayons after they’ve discussed them. And they have a whiteboard on the fridge to mark the milestone dates.
Parenting blogger and mom Elizabeth Hicks said planning resolutions sharpens children’s decision-making skills.
“The more they practice making choices and thinking about their significance, the better they get at it,” said Hicks, who co-founded Parenting Nerd.
Sam Nabil, CEO and lead therapist for Naya Clinics, believes making New Year’s resolutions helps kids form good habits.
“Setting healthy goals with kids is very important, as long as those goals are realistic and enjoyable to do,” he said, noting rewards include learning the power of follow-through and accountability.
What resolutions represent is as important as the individual goal, said Rabbi Shlomo Slatkin of Baltimore, Maryland, a certified Imago therapist and co-founder of The Marriage Restoration Project. They signal that things can be different than they were, which can be motivating,
“The brain actually enables you to enjoy the future in the present by anticipating the experience. This is a powerful motivator. I have seen children who have been depressed who, when informed about an exciting event months ahead, changed their mood instantly. When one has something to look forward to, they can escape the pain they are experiencing and see that something better awaits,” Rabbi Slatkin noted.
And because resolutions are not accomplished in a day, they also set the stage for a more sustained sense of accomplishment, according to parenting expert and dad Mo Mulla, who offers parents advice online at Parental Questions.
“They allow kids to plan for their future and feel as though they have helped shape it,” he said.
Kids that know how to delay gratification and work toward goals from a young age “become more successful and have better life outcomes, greater educational attainments, a lower body mass index and other positive life measures,” said Tyler Wall, a dad who runs a precious metal e-commerce retail business in Toledo, Ohio. Teaching kids the essentials of planning while they’re young improves their impulse control in many areas of life, he added.
Helping — and then getting out of the way
But resolutions — and the process of creating them — aren’t all equally valuable, experts warn.
“New Year’s resolutions can be good, meh or downright bad for kids,” said Jill Leonard, mom of a teen and tween in Portland, Oregon. “It really depends on the way they create them and whether they have some kind of parental guidance or support in the process.”
Parents should not be making the resolution, but should offer feedback, she said.
“The thing is, if a kid chooses a goal too abstract or risky or elusive — I’ll find a boyfriend this year — they may easily end up disappointed or feeling less-than. So parents should encourage them to choose simple things that are easily attainable with the right kind of effort, like helping out a friend in need at least once a month, cutting down on junk food,” said Leonard, who founded the older-adult-focused ImPowerAge.
Parents can facilitate making and keeping resolutions by teaching “the characteristics of good goals, how to write them and how to reach them. Since children, because of their age, are more likely to set unrealistic goals, it’s the parents’ job to tweak those goals to make them attainable,” said Nabil, who lives in Boston.
Parents must not decide the child’s goals. A parent who tells a child to resolve to help with chores will likely not see much work around the house. “Worse,” Nabil warns, “your kid may never want to make resolutions again.”
Being dad to a preteen and two teens has convinced Will Kesselman, a special victims investigator from the Newark, New Jersey, area, that children need goals to fuel a sense of purpose.
“With children and resolutions, you want to give them direction because it’s a way to prime them to achieve. And the more the parent guides or helps the child to focus, the more likely the child is to achieve the outcome,” he said.
Because children want to please their parents, it’s important parents not push too hard or impose their own goals “because goal-setting helps children develop faith in themselves and confidence in their own abilities. It also helps with decision-making and teaching children to learn to push through whatever fears they may have, to act on the decision they make,” said Kesselman, who leads the consulting services company Control and Power Strategy.
Parents miss the point — and may lose more than just the benefits of helping kids understand resolutions and setting goals — if they are too rigid or heavy-handed in the process, experts said.
When a parent chooses the child’s resolution, “you may get a compliant kid or you may get the opposite,” said New York psychologist and psychoanalyst Therese Rosenblatt. “But if you get a compliant kid, it’s not going to stick or they’re going to be very unhappy. It won’t become theirs. You want to help them discover their best way of being successful, which may be different from your best way.”
Break it down
Planning is a life skill that parents should help their children cultivate so they can succeed in life, said Rowena Murakami, a mom and co-founder of the Tiny Kitchen Divas blog.
“Writing a New Year’s resolution is a great way to prepare our kids for the year ahead. It helps them realize what they want to achieve and what they have to improve. These resolutions are healthy for them as it helps them determine the small steps they need to take to accomplish their goal. Also, this kind of activity empowers kids that if you want to do something, you can do it,” she said.
But crafting a reasonable resolution may be hard.
Resolutions work best with small, achievable goals, rather than a single big one. That’s true for adults, and it’s true for kids. A 2017 study by researchers at the University of Chicago and published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found people are more likely to be motivated by small rewards and achievements and stick with a plan or resolution.
“When a child picks a goal that is a little too large or unobtainable, this gives the parent a chance to discuss setting smaller goals with measures along the way to track progress,” said Grammer. Children learn they are capable of achieving big dreams and how to plan.
Instead of “I’m going to be popular this year,” a child might resolve to make a new friend. And after that, another. Resolutions can come in stages.
After figuring out a goal, “you can break it down further into mini-resolutions building up to bigger ones,” said Daniel Lawson, a community manager at Babysits, a platform that connects families and child care providers.
Lawson, of Springfield, Virginia, said a child’s resolution might be to practice violin for 15 minutes every day, which is very doable compared to announcing he’s going to play a difficult piece of music. With that daily practice, he eventually will.
“So beyond goal-setting, setting resolutions can also be helpful to show kids the results of even small actions and how they make a big difference in the end,” he said. That’s an approach that can help kids plan or learn to organize their time and deal with challenges without a lot of stress. It can help them understand flexibility and self-care, too, he added.
Parents can set children up for success — or failure, said Rosenblatt, author of the book, “How Are You?” “If you want your kid to be a good student, set up a household where they see their parents taking an interest in learning. … And let them see it be joyful.”
Kids ages 7-12 are especially adept at learning how to form new habits — old enough to know what resolutions are about, but young enough their habits aren’t firmly established, Nabil said. They’re also unlikely to stress unduly if they fail to keep their resolutions, “which means they are likely to focus on the process of making goals, rather than the outcome, which is a good thing.”
Children change constantly and their goals and interests likely change, too. Rosenblatt believes children need to know they have that freedom as they grow.
She was a shy kid. But a new job gave her a shot at a fresh start, with strangers who had no expectation that she would be shy or gregarious. She set out to make friends in that new role.
Resolutions are like that, she said. She said it’s healthy for parents and kids to talk about what they might want to do differently going into a new year. What’s nice about a resolution is that you have to think about the future and what you’d like to see change and having something to work toward is both healthy and empowering.
But modifying or dropping goals that no longer work is fine. Being flexible is a positive skill, she said. What matters is the goal is true to the child.
“Most people would rather do something for themselves than when they’re being told to do something,” said Rosenblatt.
For the past four years, family and marriage therapist Heidi McBain of Dallas, Texas, has taken a slightly different approach to the new year with her children, who are now 13 and 16. Instead of traditional resolutions, they choose a word for the upcoming year for each family member. They’ve used adventure, calm, wellness, health, among others.
“We’ve found that it’s easier for each of us to stay focused on a word versus a whole phrase,” she said. “I like to take this a step further and create a vision board for the upcoming year with the word in the middle and then connections through pictures for the visual reinforcement.”