Helping kids stick to their New Year’s resolutions

Here’s how parents can teach children to achieve their goals—and set them up for lifelong success.

A child’s New Year’s resolution to make better grades or clean her room more sounds great—until it’s completely forgotten in a few weeks. That’s why Kathleen Landerholm came up with a 2021 goal the whole family could get on board with: two new desserts every month.

The mom of two in Los Angeles assumed the dessert resolution would simply be a fun family activity, but it ended up becoming much more. “I think Ellie and Erik have learned how to break up a big goal into smaller increments and keep track of our progress, and they've been thinking a lot about how to structure 2022’s resolution,” says Landerholm, whose kids, ages 10 and 8, are now planning a family book club.

The Landerholms’ family project is a great example of how parents can harness the New Year's resolution tradition to teach children how to set and meet goals. “Just introducing kids to this idea—thinking about where we want to go and keeping our attention on what we want—is pretty useful,” says William R. Stixrud, a neuropsychologist and coauthor of The Self-Driven Child.

According to surveys by the Harris Poll, about 65 percent of American adults make New Year’s resolutions every year; upward of 90 percent report at least partial success. Kid and family resolutions are less common⁠, but that might be a missed opportunity, says Philip David Zelazo, a professor at the University of Minnesota’s Institute of Child Development.

“This is a nice context for parents to teach their kids some really important things about how to make a plan for the future, set a goal, and then actually achieve it,” he says.

Setting and keeping a family New Year’s resolution builds what psychologists call executive function⁠—an ability that’s been linked to a lifetime of positive outcomes, including preschool readiness, academic achievement, career success, and overall life satisfaction. But because children’s brains are still developing, complex activities like goal-setting can be challenging.

That’s why experts say parents need to provide appropriate support to help children achieve their goals—and not get frustrated when things don’t go as planned. Here’s how to get started.

The science behind setting and keeping goals

Keeping a New Year’s resolution is hard for adults—and even harder for kids, Zelazo says. That’s because it requires complex links between the prefrontal cortex, which handles goal-setting and progress-tracking, and other areas of the brain, such as the amygdala, where our gut-level emotions reside. And these connections don’t fully mature until well into adulthood.

For instance, the ability to imagine yourself in the future—something necessary for setting goals—involves cooperation between the prefrontal cortex and the hippocampus, a deep-brain structure involved in making and retrieving memories. Cristina Atance, a psychology professor at the University of Ottawa, says this skill begins to emerge around age five but really takes off in middle childhood.

“Kids, especially preschoolers, are really drawn in by what’s going on in the present,” she says. “Even the short-term future, like ‘after dinner,’ doesn’t make much sense to them.”

In one 2005 study, Atance and her colleagues asked preschoolers to choose what they might need if they were traveling to various places. (For example, they could choose sunglasses, soap, or a mirror for a trip to the sand dunes.) In this first experiment, all the kids did pretty well: Three-year-olds selected the correct item 71 percent of the time, four-year-olds 94 percent of the time, and five-year-olds got 97 percent of the questions right.

However, the three- and four-year-olds’ performances plummeted when Atance introduced items that were related to the settings but not actually useful, like a seashell. The children were merely making associations between places and objects, not really thinking ahead.

While many five-year-olds can plan for the future, Atance says they only begin doing it unprompted at about age eight. That’s also the age when other executive function components blossom, such as working memory—the ability to keep a goal in mind while you’re working on something else. So if your kids seem to conveniently forget your family New Year’s resolution, it’s not because they don’t care; it’s because they just don’t have the mental architecture in place to think about many different things at once.

While eight-year-olds may be able to set goals, they’ll probably need help thinking through the steps needed to achieve them. That’s because the ability to make complex plans with interdependent steps doesn’t fully emerge until around age 12, according to 2013 research published in the journal Psychology and Neuroscience.

“Initially it really is going to be the adult who has to help children set the goal and then help them monitor it along the way,” Atance says. “As kids get older, they start to set these goals themselves and need less support from their parents.”

Helping kids stick to New Year’s resolutions

A shared family New Year’s resolution is a great opportunity to help children develop their executive function skills, but there’s one catch: You can’t force your goals on your children. Martin Oscarsson, a psychologist at Stockholm University and author of a 2020 study on New Year’s resolutions, says that externally provided resolutions don’t actually teach kids executive function—and they also tend to fail.

That’s why tying a resolution to something your family cares about will help everyone stay on track. “It can be a cool activity to do with your kids, to actually sit down and ask, ‘What's important to you?’” he says. “You want your New Year’s resolution to be in line with your values as individuals and as a family.”

Even if those values don’t quite line up, you can still find a common goal. For instance, if parents are concerned about their long-term health but kids are more worried about the health of the planet, that family might resolve to eat two vegetarian meals a week, or bike more instead of drive.

“If you're doing a chart, write your values up at the top, so if the going gets tough, you can remind yourself why you decided to start this journey,” Oscarsson says.

To set your family up for success, Zelazo advises making your family resolution SMART: specific (a particular behavior, like playing baseball instead of watching TV after school), measurable (a numerical goal, like two times a week), attainable (nothing too ambitious), relevant (aligned with your values), and time-bound (a set start and end date.)

Before launching your resolution, Oscarsson recommends brainstorming potential pitfalls and coming up with solutions. For instance, if your resolution is to go on a monthly family bike ride but you know that past adventures have been derailed by missing helmets or flat tires, plan to get everything ready the night before.

“You don't want to be setting kids up for failure, because then they might say, ‘Forget it. I'm never doing this New Year's thing again,’” Zelazo says. “Your kids will get a sense of themselves as having poor self-control or a weak will.”

Psychologists also recommend setting “implementation intentions,” if-then statements that support your goals. So if your family’s goal is to make new friends, your implementation intention might be, “If we see a neighbor, we’ll take time to chat.”

When you succeed at meeting your goal for the month, be sure to celebrate. If you fall short, Oscarsson recommends talking about what went wrong and thinking of ways to set yourself up to do better next month.

“A lot of people have this kind of dichotomous view of success in personal goal-setting, like, either you succeed or you don't, and once you’ve failed, you failed forever,” he says. “It's important for kids to learn that you're going to have some setbacks, but you can learn from them and get back on track.”

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