I was recently introduced to a study by Walter Mischel that was conducted at Stanford in the 1960s. In a controlled environment, children ages four through six were given a treat such as a marshmallow. They were told that they could eat it immediately or choose to wait in the room (for up to twenty minutes) until the researcher returned, at which time they would be given a reward of two marshmallows.
Some children were able to delay gratification by resisting a present desire in exchange for achieving and receiving something better in the future. Self-control is a vital, learned skill that can be a valuable asset in attaining goals. In fact, a correlation was found between children’s level of self-discipline in the study and their abilities and attributes years later in areas such as academic success, IQ, social functioning, and even body mass index.
Another interesting aspect of the study applies to goals. Children were introduced to various mental devices that could strengthen their self-control and help them achieve their goal.
For instance, children were encouraged to close their eyes or cover the treat. Some were encouraged to imagine the food as if it had a frame around it and consider it an inedible picture. These various strategies, which influenced children’s perception of the task, demonstrate the importance of visualization and clear mental focus in imagining and reaching one’s goals.
With these concepts in mind, here are a few tips for helping your child dream big and look purposefully toward the future.
1. Talk About Dreams
Talk with children about what is important to them and what they would like to be able to do and become. Goal setting is most effective when children are involved. Discuss the internal and external rewards of reaching a goal.
Use a few of the following conversation starters to begin a discussion with your child about aspirations:
Tell me about something you are good at.
What did you do to become good at it?
How long did it take?
What is something you would like to be better at?
Why is this goal important to you?
Try your own version of the marshmallow experiment to assess your child’s current level of self-control. Then, talk about the child’s dreams and how self-regulation and effort might help your child meet a chosen goal.
Ask your child to choose a goal and mentally picture it as already accomplished. Help your child draw or cut out and paste a picture of the completed goal. Label the goal with a title. Discuss what the goal might look, sound, and feel like when it is reached. Write the child’s narrative of the dream or goal on the back of the picture.
2. Make Plans
Once the child has a clear goal in mind, listen and talk about strategies for achieving the goal. Discuss small, manageable steps, and then make a plan together to implement them. Talk about resources that are available as well as people who might be willing to assist the child. You may wish to set a time frame together and a deadline for when the goal might be completed. This is for motivation and accountability. If the deadline is not met, help the child understand that obstacles are part of the process. Adjust plans and expectations with the child to avoid discouragement.
Using the child’s picture from Activity #3 as a reference, make a chart on a separate paper that lists up to five steps or micro-goals for achieving the goal. For each step, write a completion date and draw several boxes that can be checked as progress is made. The child could also draw simple pictures to help imagine and remember the micro-goals. Help the child imagine and visualize each step as if performing it. Then, ask the child to verbalize the entire plan.
3. Encourage Effort and Progress
A variation of the marshmallow test was later conducted. In this experiment, an adult came into the room with the child and offered to return with a treat in the next few minutes. In some cases, the adult did return with a treat. In others, the adult broke the promise to return with a treat. Then, the original marshmallow experiment was performed with all the children. In the group where the adult delivered on the promise of a treat in the first part of the experiment, the children did a better job of waiting for two marshmallows.
This second study points to the significant influence of parents and teachers who are consistent and reliable. When we demonstrate that we can be trusted, we have an increased ability to encourage and direct children toward positive outcomes.
Using the goal chart in Activity #4, talk about the rewards for completion of the goal. Offer the child stickers to place on the chart as goals are met. Give lots of sincere “warm fuzzies” on a consistent basis. As children see and hear positive feedback about themselves and their good choices, they become motivated to internalize the skills.
4. Celebrate Accomplishments!
Children will be excited when they reach their goals, and they will want to share that enthusiasm with you and others. Praise and acknowledgment will solidify the importance of the accomplishment in their minds and spur them to future achievement. (This type of positive feedback is not to be confused with bribery, which is offered when a child is noncompliant.)
Children are also motivated by rewards for progress. When achievement does not appear to be within a child’s control, we can wisely reward effort and encourage keeping a positive outlook, which are within the child’s power and our influence.
Celebrate the child’s success by ceremoniously awarding the predetermined reward, which could be a small item or game, a special trip or activity, a special treat or dessert, an outing with a friend, or anything that is rewarding to the child, when the goal is met. You might also include an achievement certificate, balloons, a slideshow or picture of the child, or a Skype call to share with other relatives. At any time and for any reason, you could also surprise your child with an “Unbirthday” party to let the child know of your unconditional support.
Setting and achieving goals involves more than just following a formula of steps and charts. To a large degree, children’s growth and progress is influenced by their own perception of themselves in relation to their goals. We have an unrivaled role in nurturing and shaping internal traits like attitude, self-concept, confidence, and self-control as we help guide children toward their dreams.
Cheri J. Meiners, M.Ed., has her master’s degree in elementary education and gifted education. A former first-grade teacher, she has taught education classes at Utah State University and has supervised student teachers. Cheri and her husband David have six children and enjoy the company of their lively grandchildren. They live in Laurel, Maryland. Cheri’s many books include: