New Year's Day is the traditional time to celebrate a new beginning, and kids ages 7-12 are at the ideal stage to learn to make resolutions, experts say. "They're still young enough that their habits are not firm," says Christine Carter, Ph.D., author of Raising Happiness: 10 Simple Steps for More Joyful Kids and Happier Parents, and a teacher for an online class on helping kids develop happiness habits. "They're old enough to think about what a New Year's resolution is and to make their own -- yet parents can still help guide them. They're not going to get the same backlash as from a teenager."
Jennifer Kolari, a parent and child therapist and author of Connected Parenting, says, "They're beginning to be mindful and to understand others' perspectives. They're doing more independently, and they're starting to open up to broader goals of how to become their best selves."
Making resolutions with your children can be fun and exciting, a time for growth and change, and an opportunity for family bonding. Read our eight tips on how to make New Year's resolutions a positive experience for kids and to help them keep in touch with their goals all year long.
As parents, it's important to practice what you preach. "Do you believe in, make, and keep resolutions?" asks Robin Goodman, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and art therapist who has written books on children and stress. "You have to walk the walk and talk the talk to be most effective."
Bring your own resolutions to the kitchen table. "This is a great thing to do as a whole family," Kolari says. "That's how we do it with our three children. Kids look to you to learn how to approach this task."
Each year on December 31, Vicky and Paul Dionne of Morristown, New Jersey, sit down with their two children, Christopher and Elyssa, and toast the New Year with glasses of sparkling cider. While they're celebrating together, they talk about their New Year's resolutions. Vicky might say, "Daddy and I have our resolutions that we're working hard to keep. We make healthy food choices -- we may want that big piece of chocolate cake, but we're not going to have it." Healthy eating is important to Paul, who is a dentist. So is instilling a sense of responsibility. "We talk about being responsible and doing well in our jobs," he says, "and school is their job."
"If what you want is for your kids to be out the door earlier, you need to work on yourself," Dr. Carter says. "I saw that when I was consistently ready at the time I wanted to leave; it was possible to ask my kids to make changes. Let's not ask them to do more than we are willing to do."
There's a celebratory feeling to setting goals on New Year's that doesn't exist at other times of the year. "It's about happiness!" says Meg Cox, author of The Book of New Family Traditions: How to Create Great Rituals for Holidays and Everyday. "Present it optimistically: Every day's a new day, and you have a chance to reinvent yourself. A lot comes from your tone. If you're putting it in a punishing, preachy way, they'll be turned off."
Start by going over the positive things your kids accomplished last year. "Instead of pointing out shortcomings, be the historian of their previous successes," Dr. Carter says. "Point to the bright spot where they're doing something well."
Have them think of things they can do now that they couldn't do last year. Say your 10-year-old taught himself to play a difficult song on the piano. Did that success come about because he pushed himself a little harder? Remind him how far that little bit of extra effort took him. Ask your child, "How can you transfer your success on the piano to something else?"
You've set the stage. Next, look ahead and ask, "What are some of the great things you want to do this year? What do you want to improve? What will make your life better and happier?"
Suggest—Don't Dictate Resolutions
The big question parents have at this point: Should you make resolutions for your child? Most experts say no. You can guide and suggest general categories for change, help your child clarify goals, and make sure they're age-appropriate, but kids should come up with resolutions themselves. This is how they take ownership of their goals and learn to plan.
The first step is to listen, Kolari says. "Ask them what they want for themselves. If it's your agenda that's driving the conversation, you're not listening."
Still, most kids need a little guidance. Come up with three or four broad categories -- such as personal goals, friendship goals, helping goals, and school goals -- and let them fill in the specifics. Cox, who also teaches workshops on family traditions, suggests parents ask, "Are there things that you could do better or differently? For instance, how should you take care of yourself or treat other people?" If they draw a blank, you could offer some examples, such as being nicer to siblings, sharing better with friends, or helping more at home.
Your kids might also include what Kolari calls "material goals," such as collecting Silly Bandz or Barbies. "Don't say, 'That's not a good goal,'" she says. Be open to what's important to them. "It's a great way to have a meaningful conversation with your kids and see what they're thinking."
The important thing is not to end up with too many resolutions."Honestly, two or three are reasonable," Kolari says.
"We don't want to teach our kids it's about making a huge list of resolutions and not following through," Dr. Carter says. "So help your child narrow them down to a couple of things to focus on."
Take a fresh sheet of paper and have your child write down her top three resolutions, leaving a large space between each one for inserting smaller steps. Help your child make them realistic and age-appropriate.
"Be concrete, specific, and manageable," Dr. Goodman says. "As with adults, vague but good-sounding resolutions don't make for change. For example, 'I will behave better' is too general and will be out the window fast." Encourage goals that are within their reach, so they don't get discouraged.
Some realistic resolutions for kids might be "I'm going to keep my room neater," "I'm going to be a better friend," "I'm going to read more," or "I'm going to get better at tennis." Even these are broad resolutions that need to be broken down into doable, step-by-step pieces.
Let your child make the list fun and personal, Cox says. "My son Max always did little drawings on his -- a few words and lavish illustrations."
Turning a good intention into a habit is "one of the most important skills we can teach our kids," says Dr. Carter. "It's the key to happiness in life." She suggests that parents help kids break their resolutions down into "ridiculously easy turtle steps." "Self-discipline is like a muscle that grows slowly," she says. "If you do too much at first, you will get fatigued and not be successful."
Dr. Carter says it takes six weeks to create a habit. For instance, if your child's resolution is "I'm going to keep my room neater," he should write down six tiny, easy steps and practice one each week. "The first week he puts his shoes in the closet, the second week he picks his pillow up off the floor, and so on," Dr. Carter says. Your child might actually end up doing much more than this. "There's a massive spillover effect," she says. "Once people are engaged in their goal, they will do other things as well." Have your kids fill in the spaces on their big list with these tiny steps or download "turtle steps" worksheets from Dr. Carter's habit tracker.
Dr. Goodman also believes in breaking down broad resolutions into specific, easy-to-do steps. Her examples:
It's fine to check in with kids each week and acknowledge how they're doing, but Dr. Carter advises against tangible rewards. "You can't bribe kids into doing this. Once you make it external with rewards, you lose them."
Check in periodically with kids on how they're doing. "Don't worry about lapses. Expect them. A lapse is forgetting for a day or two, or having a week in which a turtle step didn't work. Or maybe you went on vacation and couldn't practice. That's not failure; that's just trying. No big change is ever accomplished perfectly," Dr. Carter says.
"Try not to be a big nag about this," Kolari says. If your child isn't making progress on a resolution, "first affirm how hard it is: It seemed like a great idea, but it's not easy to stick to. Ask, 'What's getting in the way for you?' Help them get excited about it again." To avoid parental nagging, she advises framing the resolutions on a wall as a reminder.
Cox agrees. "Make sure the resolutions are accessible so you can find them easily. You could have a ritual every month in which you bring them out and talk about how you're all doing."
Of course, if the plan isn't working, you can always adjust it. "If you lose your way," Dr. Goodman says, "figure out another way to get there."
That's what happened when Dr. Carter's daughter set a goal of getting ready for school 15 minutes earlier each morning. "She thought of her six turtle steps, but it turned out not to be all that easy. Some of them were not tangible enough. So she erased them and substituted easier things. She did halvsies until the goal was complete. The beauty of letting kids choose their own goal is that they want it for themselves."
Resolutions also bring families closer, especially when you decide to set goals together. Families could plan to do one charitable thing a month and brainstorm about what that might be. You could pick up trash in the park or donate used clothes and toys to a shelter. "As long as you're working on it together, that's great," Kolari says.
Another idea is for everyone to make two personal New Year's resolutions and two collective family resolutions such as, "Let's visit Grandma more often" or "Let's plan a trip to Disney World."
Many parents suggest doing acts of kindness as part of family New Year's resolutions. "Kindness is the habit holy grail," Dr. Carter says. "It's so universally positive. When kids consciously practice being kinder, it makes them happier people and the world is a better place. As a family, my kids and I think of the people in our lives we can help and we pick one to focus on during the week. For example, we have a neighbor who's retired and loves it when the kids stop and talk for a while. You can't force kids to be kind, but you can float the idea and hope they'll be inspired."
When you're sitting down and sharing resolutions with each other, it makes the family closer. You can make it even more meaningful by adding elements of ritual, Cox says.
"One of the main rules in creating new rituals is to engage as many of the five senses as possible," she says. For sound, play the family's favorite music. For smell and taste, cook a fun treat to eat during or after writing resolutions, especially something that smells delicious such as hot chocolate with marshmallows or warm cider with cinnamon. For touch and vision, buy some small objects to symbolize what might happen to a person in the next year, such as a small globe for travel, a football for sports, a book for doing well at school, and so on. Wrap the objects in pretty holiday paper and put them in a bowl. Each person picks one gift (or "charm") that will "predict" something about his or her adventures in the New Year.
"Families these days tend to have isolated lives," Cox says. "When you're talking about what matters to each other, that's a bonding experience." So turn off the electronic devices -- no texting—and pay attention to one another.
When the Dionnes lift their glasses of cider with their children, now 12 and 13, this New Year's Eve, they'll be continuing a tradition of closeness. "I'll say, 'We've got a whole new year and a clean slate, so let's start fresh,'" Vicky says. "We get them pumped up about how they can improve their lives." Paul adds, "We consciously decided to do this on New Year's Eve because we're always together then. We stay up 'til midnight and toast each other as a team, a family."
Wendy Schuman is a freelance writer and mother of two based in New Jersey.
Copyright © 2010 Meredith Corporation.