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Daditude: 6 Reasons Kids Should Not Make Big Promises

—and What Really Inspires Change

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Encouraging your children to make vows they may not be able to keep—at the start of the year, on a birthday, or in the heat of the moment—is not the best use of anyone’s time or effort. There are smarter ways to your motivate kids.
6 Reasons Kids Should Not Make Big Promises—and What Really Inspires Change

Want a child who accepts responsibility, keeps promises, honors commitments, and willingly seeks self-improvement?

Then put an end once and for all to once-a-year vows and get-me-out of trouble proclamations. These methods don’t work for most children. Read on to learn why kids should avoid such self-defeating traditions and how to find better ways to promote growth.

1. Asking kids to pledge good behavior once a year usually ends in failure. According to one study, at least half of all adults abandon New Year’s resolutions within six months, and one quarter bail in one week. So why push empty promises on children?

Instead, ensure that your kids’ goals, whenever they make them, are realistic, personally meaningful, and focus on aspirations they’ll be motivated to achieve and take satisfaction in doing.

Consider pairing declarations, such as improving their foul-shooting abilities or seeing more movies, with more serious ambitions, such as boosting math scores or being more helpful around the house.

2. January is the wrong time of year for kids’ resolutions. For children, other milestones are more likely to inspire meaningful promises and spark feelings of renewal and new beginnings.

Instead, use another important date, such as a birthday, the start of spring soccer, the beginning of summer, or back-to-school time, to launch a conversation. Ask your kids what they feel they can do differently, or better—and how you can be better, as a parent and person, as well.

Consider framing their goals as a chance to increase responsibilities and privileges. For instance, you might say, “Now that you’re in third grade, let’s resolve that you will take responsibility for feeding the dog. If you do that regularly, I resolve to give you the privilege of choosing what’s for dinner one day each week.”

3. Self-improvement isn’t a once-a-year commitment. It’s important to teach kids how to refine their goals, values, and behavior on a year-round basis. Confining this task to one short period during the year sends the message that resolutions are not that serious or important.

Instead, make growth and self-improvement an ongoing family activity by checking in regularly to see how well your kids are keeping their vows—and to honestly assess your own performance.

Consider turning this quest for growth into a game or a friendly competition to see who is achieving his goals and aspirations. Your kids may enjoy coloring a chart or marking off days and months to track their progress.

4. Resolutions can be an invitation for ongoing nagging. Pestering rarely works and can just as often lead kids to do the opposite of what you’re seeking—and spark conflict and resentment.

Instead, keep the conversation collaborative and light-hearted, making clear that achieving goals is no easier for adults than for kids, and that the journey always involves its share of backward steps and false starts.

Consider having a set time each week to chat to see how everyone is doing, but pair that with, say, movie night or dinner out. Make sure to start the conversation with your own honest self-assessment before turning to your kids for theirs.

5. Kids can’t break old habits or launch new ones without tools for implementation. Asking your kids to make a promise is easy; expecting them to change—without support—is just wrong.

Instead, work together to boost chances that your child will be successful. Offer guidance, and suggest ways to take charge of the process.

Consider setting incremental goals that lead to big achievements. For example, if your child promises to go to bed every night without argument, break that into steps: First, focus on getting into pajamas without incident, then move on to fight-free lights out. Work on this until the entire routine is, well, routine.

6. Getting the hang of the introspection and planning that resolutions require is challenging for most children. Kids tend to focus on the here-and-now, not the distant future.

Instead, focus vows on small, easy-to-understand behavior modifications or tasks with clear benefits. Less fighting with a sibling will lead to more fun together. Doing chores more promptly will leave more time for play.

Consider charting the number of days without fighting or the number of chores accomplished without complaint and giving small rewards at regular milestones. Celebrate with a larger reward when the kids achieve their goals.

Bottom line: Don’t feel compelled to encourage resolutions if your child will feel that vows will be a burden and breed resentment.

However, resolutions, done right, can be rewarding. Kids can take pride in owning their growth and achievement, and in the process display responsibility and maturity. You can take pride in their accomplishments, spend meaningful time with them, and, of course, reap the benefits of their improved habits and behaviors.