The essence of parenting is preparing children for adulthood. Parents must therefore protect their kids, feed them, keep them healthy and teach them the skills they will need during their independent adult life. But which skills are those? What do we want our kids to achieve with the skills we teach them anyway?
Most parents, given enough time to ponder this question, agree that the answer is “Happiness”. When offered the choice from success, money, love, fame and other things people desire, parents overwhelmingly choose happiness.
The problem is that most of our daily parenting ends up being about other things, like academic success, winning competitions, behaving politely, earning money and so on. Children’s future happiness is only used as an assumption, as in “If you do well at school, you’ll have more options in life and be happier” or “If you learn how to keep a job and save money, you’ll be able to afford the things that will make you happy when you grow up” (excuse me while I catch my breath).
Focus on happiness
I believe that focusing directly on being happy changes what we choose to do for/to our kids, motivates them more and will ultimately make them (and us) happier. Rather than assuming that happiness will be the indirect result of doing homework every day, why not start with what makes (or will make) our kids happy and then tie that to things we can all do every day to accomplish that happiness?
Kinds of happiness
Current positive psychology experts distinguish 3 kinds of happiness: thrill, flow and purpose.
Thrill is very powerful, but short-lived and has no lasting effects. It starts when the theme-park ride starts moving, intensifies as it accelerates and ends when the ride stops and you have to get off and back to un-thrilling life. Other examples are using drugs and having sex.
Flow is when you lose track of time, because you are so engaged in what you are doing and you are doing it with ease and complete focus. It lasts longer, but not long enough. At some point, you have to stop and do something else that requires effort. You know you have had a good time only when you stop and become aware of your surroundings again and for a while, you have the pleasant feeling that you have used your time well. Examples of flow can be found in most hobbies – painting, singing, playing music, putting a puzzle together, etc.
Purpose is when you do things that may not be pleasant or easy, but they serve some distant goal that makes everything worthwhile. People on a mission travel to remote places, fight fatigue, hunger and sickness or give their money away, but all that time, they see themselves stepping closer and closer to their destination and to sublime fulfillment.
To create a winning combination for ourselves that maximizes all 3 kinds of happiness, we would begin by finding a great purpose that inspires us and that we can feel motivated every day to work towards. From that purpose, we would derive some long-term goals, then some short-term goals. We would split those into milestones and each milestone into action steps. Then, every day would be clear, out progress would be easy to track and we would live a happy life indeed.
But this would not work with kids, unfortunately, because finding a purpose at the age of 5 is far beyond what they can do. Finding that purpose for them, of course, has little chance of success and is more likely to result in daily friction than in inspiration. In fact, it would be similar to what happens today.
What we need to do for our kids as parents is to teach them how to set and achieve goals and milestones that reward them emotionally and to expose them to many different experiences in life, so that they can choose their purpose wisely. As they grow beside us, we should also pay attention to what they like and what they do well and gently direct them towards life experiences that are most likely to help them make a wise choice for themselves when the time comes.
Good goal setting
A good goal is focused on happiness. The actions taken and the results achieved are just vehicles. The true aim of setting and achieving goals is a great feeling of accomplishment and a massive boost to the self-esteem.
A good goal meets the following guidelines:
- Specific – the outcome must be clear. “I want to be popular” is no good. “I want to have 10 friends at my next birthday party” is much better. In particular, the goal should specify an end date. In reality, that date may change, but the mental deadline provides powerful motivation. The question here is “What do you want to accomplish?”
- Achievable and inspiring – the outcome must be attainable within the given timeframe. Making a new friend every day will be intimidating for a shy child, but making a couple of new friends in a few weeks should seem doable and therefore encouraging. The questions here “How much can achieve in <3 months>?” and “Is this enough, or do you want to set a longer goal and achieve more?”
- Measurable – progress should be easy to track. This can be done using steps leading up to the goal, like “I will attend every party I’m invited to”, “I will invite 4 friends to go ice skating” and other steps leading up to the birthday party. It can also be done using a numeric outcome, like “I’ll have 3 friends in 4 weeks, 5 friends in 3 months and 8 friends in 6 months”. The question here is “What are some steps long the way?” or “How will you know you’re making progress?”
- Responsible – the only person in charge is the owner of the goal. Sure, Mom can talk to other parents and organize the birthday party, but for the child to benefit, every action and change done along the way, should be done by the child. The above goal may be better written as “I will make 10 new friends, organize a birthday party, invite my friends and have lots of fun”. This way, the child is responsible for making friends, organizing a party, inviting and having fun, whether the friends choose to arrive or not. The question here is “How can you do or feel everything in this goal yourself?”
- Positive – the goal statement must use only positive terms. “I don’t want to be lonely” will trigger thoughts of loneliness and inhibits creativity. The image of a party with lots of friends and fun creates a positive mental state and brings out wonderful ideas. The question here is “What’s the opposite of this? What do you want instead?”
- Present tense – the goal should be stated as if it is happening right now. Our mind cannot tell the difference between imagination and reality, so if we keep imagining good things, we get used to them as if they were real. The above would be best written as “It is the 31st of May, 2012. I have invited 10 friends to my birthday party. I am playing games with them and having lots of fun”.
- Emotional – remember, this is the real aim of the goal. Besides having lots of fun, you could add “I feel popular and liked and I know I’ll always be able to find friends to play with”. The questions here are “How will this make you feel?” and “How will you feel about yourself then?”
With coaching clients, most goals range between 3 and 6 months. Since children cannot see too far into the future, start with shorter goals with very clear outcomes and rewards and work your way up from there.
Goals provide the purpose-like happiness for as long as they last. With experience and practice, teenagers can set long-term goals for 1 or 2 years ahead and keep themselves amazingly motivated and happy.
Milestones and rewards
Working towards a goal is hard, because we always try to achieve something we have not been able to achieve so far. It takes us out of our “comfort zone”, so we need to build in some resting points along the climb. To squeeze even more happiness from goal setting and achieving, each goal can be broken down into milestones.
A milestone is the combination of a result (a “deliverable”) and a reward. For example, going to a party when invited is an event your child can count and the reward can be a big hug, a chance to tell everyone proudly at the table about the party, one less chore or anything of value to the child that is equivalent to the (emotional) effort.
Milestones reinforce the purpose-like motivation and provide more changes for thrills.
Most goals and milestones are achieved in little steps. In order to make friends, the child may have to approach someone, help someone with their homework, join a game or count to 3 before raging. When something big and scary is broken down into little steps, there is no more anxiety. The child should be able to say, “Oh, that’s easy. I can do that”, about every one of them.
Ideally, the list of action steps should also build on the child’s strengths and the things the child likes. That is where flow comes in.
If your child likes to paint, making friends at a special art camp does not seem like an effort anymore. You paint, you enjoy yourself, you make friends who like to paint too. Nothing to it.
Eden hangs out with friends who like to dance Salsa. Tsoof spends most of his time with musicians. Noff likes girls with a strong character who like to be active. Each one of them gravitated naturally towards friends and activities that most support who they are and what they enjoy. This way, when they are with their friends, they are in flow. It is effortless and fun.
I know this is rather technical, so maybe go over it again and talk with your partner about it. The challenge is making it work for your particular child, but the rewards are so great, it is well worth your time.
As a bonus for you, consider that goal setting can become an activity that connects you to your children. You learn to know them in a deep way. You win their trust through some of the most challenging times of their life. You celebrate their joys and help them overcome difficulties. And you develop a common language.
Please come back and share your story of goal setting for happiness.