It may sound like a cliché, but I really do love the feeling of “getting a fresh start” that comes with a new year. No matter what has happened in the previous 12 months, no matter the disappointments you may have had or the goals you didn’t achieve, the minute you open that new calendar to its first page, you get to re-set your internal timer to zero and begin again from scratch! I find that truly hopeful.
If you have children, this is the perfect time to launch a fun and meaningful family tradition: reflecting on the past and planning for the future. I suggest calling a family meeting (this can also be known as “dinner”), during which each person shares highlights from the previous year—their accomplishments, proudest moments, happiest memories. Then take turns sharing the activities you’d like to continue and the changes you’d like to make in the coming year. As a parent, this is an opportunity to demonstrate for your children the importance of setting goals—a skill that they will rely upon for the rest of their lives.
I don’t like to use the phrase “New Year’s resolutions,” because that has come to represent a no-win exercise in wishful thinking. Sure, everyone wants to “lose weight,” “eat better,” and “organize the basement” (well, maybe not everyone). But who can actually achieve those over-sized goals? The key, especially for children, is to set realistic benchmarks that will require some discipline and responsibility while being specific enough to provide a sense of accomplishment once the goal is attainted. Even the youngest child can feel pride and gain a sense of competency when a job is well done. Here are some suggestions that should help make this an enjoyable experience for the whole family.
An older child is able to take responsibility for himself and therefore be better able to set goals involving managing stress, resolving conflict, taking care of his physical and mental health. A younger child should set fewer goals and will need help formulating them. Her goals should be simple: Brush teeth twice a day. Wash hands before meals. Be nice to your sibling. Say please and thank you. Younger kids can also practice their listening skills and learn simple ways to help around the house—putting napkins on the table, filling the dog’s water bowl, or picking up their toys when they’re done playing. They will need gentle reminders, along with lots of praise and encouragement.
Getting exercise as a family, for example, is a fun goal to set together. It feels good, relieves stress, and builds stronger family connections.
We sometimes forget that our children are like sponges, observing and absorbing everything we say and do. Take the lead and talk to your children about the goals you have set for yourself and how you are doing with them.
And when they do occur, try to be understanding and patient. Let your kids know that no one is perfect, then help them get back on track. Encourage your children to try again and make sure to let them know that you appreciate their effort and hard work.
Acknowledge even the smallest successes. Kids feel good about themselves when they are praised for a job well done. Physical signs of progress are extra encouraging: Younger children love stickers, and can have fun recording their own progress by placing stickers on a calendar. When the calendar is full, you can celebrate with a special treat such as going to a movie, having an ice cream cone, or doing something fun with a friend.
Remember that the goal of New Year’s goal-setting is to establish a positive environment of anticipation and achievement. Children learn so much, and feel so good about themselves, when they have realistic expectations to live up to and then accomplish those goals. So I wish you and your family a very happy and very productive 2016!
Denise Daniels is a Peabody award-winning broadcast journalist, parenting and child development expert and author who specializes in the social and emotional development of children.