How to Help Kids Make New Year's Resolutions

New Year's resolutions aren't just for adults! Here are some practical ways to help your children make achievable goals for the year ahead.

Young Girl Doing Homework Writing on Paper
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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. "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 on for tips on making New Year's resolutions for kids and helping them keep in touch with their goals all year long.

Be Resolution Role Models

As parents, it's essential 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."

Share your resolutions with your kids

Bring your own resolutions to the kitchen table. "This is a great thing to do as a whole family," says Kolari. "That's how we do it with our three children. Kids look to you to learn how to approach this task."

Explain why you made your resolutions

Try to explain your resolutions clearly, age-appropriately, and encourage children to follow suit. Here's an example of what you might say: "Daddy and I have our resolutions that we're working hard to keep. We're trying to cook dinner at home six nights per week. We might not always feel like cooking, but it's important for our budget." Cater the script to your own personal resolutions.

Set an example

Also, you can't ask kids to make resolutions about things you don't do yourself. "If what you want is for your kids to be out the door earlier, you need to work on yourself," says Dr. Carter. "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."

Keep a Positive Approach to Resolutions

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," says Dr. Carter. "Point to the bright spot where they're doing something well."

Have kids think of things they can do now that they couldn't do last year. For example, say your 10-year-old learned to play a difficult song on the piano. Did their success come about because they pushed themselves a little harder? Remind them how far that little bit of extra effort took them. Then, 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? Probably not, since you want to teach kids the skill of developing goals for themselves.

So, while kids should come up with their resolutions, it doesn't mean you can't help guide them. Some ways to help include:

  • Suggesting general categories for change
  • Helping your child clarify goals
  • Making sure they're age-appropriate

The first step is to listen, says Kolari. "Ask them what they want for themselves. If it's your agenda that's driving the conversation, you're not listening."

Establish some categories

Still, most kids need a little guidance. So 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.

Ask kids how they want to grow

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.

Determine material goals

Your kids might also include what Kolari calls "material goals," such as collecting toys. "Don't say, 'That's not a good goal,'" she says. Instead, 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."

Keep the Resolutions List Short

The important thing is not to end up with too many resolutions. "Honestly, two or three are reasonable," says Kolari.

"We don't want to teach our kids it's about making a huge list of resolutions and not following through," says Dr. Carter. "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 their top three resolutions, leaving ample space between each one for inserting smaller steps. Dr. Carter's habit tracker is a great tool for this.

Make SMART goals

This can be an excellent way to introduce your kids to SMART goals—is it specific, is it measurable, is it achievable, is it realistic, and is it time-bound?

"Be concrete, specific, and manageable," says Dr. Goodman. "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." Instead, encourage goals 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."
  • "I'm going to get better at tennis."

Let your child make the list fun and personal, says Cox. "My son Max always did little drawings on his—a few words and lavish illustrations."

family meeting on the couch
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Take Small Steps Toward Big Resolutions

"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. That's an average, though. Research in the European Journal of Social Psychology found that it took participants between 18 and 245 days to develop a new habit.

Make "turtle steps"

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."

Smaller goals can help your child move toward their long-term goal. For example, if your child's resolution is "I'm going to keep my room neater," they could write down six tiny, easy steps and practice one each week—the first week, put shoes in the closet, the second week, pick the 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."

Get specific

Dr. Goodman also believes in breaking down broad resolutions into specific, measurable steps. Her examples:

  • I will help more around the house... by setting the table for dinner.
  • I will improve my reading... by reading 15 minutes before I go to bed.
  • I will eat more healthful foods... by eating one fruit at breakfast and one vegetable at dinner.

Now that your child's goals are specific, measurable, and realistic, they're more likely to be achievable. And resolutions are naturally time-bound with a built-in annual review! Now that's SMART.

Follow Up but Don't Nag About Resolutions

It's OK 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."

Expect lapses

"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," says Dr. Carter.

Avoid Nagging

Also, try not to nag about this, suggests Kolari. If your child isn't progressing 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."

Make the resolutions accessible

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."

Be flexible

Of course, if the plan isn't working, you can always adjust it. "If you lose your way," says Dr. Goodman, "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."

Make Family Resolutions Together

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. For example, 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," says Kolari.

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," says Dr. Carter. "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."

Make New Year's Resolutions a Ritual

When you're sitting down and sharing resolutions with each other, it makes the family closer. However, you can make it even more meaningful by adding elements of ritual.

"One of the main rules in creating new rituals is to engage as many of the five senses as possible," says Cox. For example, try these sensory-based ideas:

  • Sound: Play the family's favorite music.
  • 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.
  • Touch and sight: 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 their adventures in the New Year.

"Families these days tend to have isolated lives," says Cox. "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.

Good New Year's Resolutions for Kids

Here are some smart suggestions for New Year's resolutions that kids can make.

Eating healthier

"I'm going to drink two glasses of milk each day instead of soda or juice" or "I'm going to eat two pieces of fruit at lunch each day" are just two examples of healthy resolutions. Of course, your child's should be tailored to their individual needs.

"Target the area you and your child need to improve upon and discuss why that is important for you," says Kristen Eastman, Psy.D., a pediatric clinical psychologist at Cleveland Children's Hospital. So, if you want to eat less fast food, talk about what you will eat instead. If you need to eat more veggies, agree on a specific number for the week, and so on.

Being more active

"I'm going to join a soccer team" or "I'm going to go to yoga class with Mom on Saturdays" are examples of goals centered on increasing physical activity. Of course, these are always good resolutions, but Dr. Eastman says the word "exercise" can be boring. "If you make it sound fun, it's more likely to stick."

More reading; less screens

"We're going to read for 30 minutes before bed instead of watching TV" is a specific goal that targets two goals at once—reducing screen time and increasing reading time. It's not enough to say, "We're going to reduce screen time." Quantify how much you and your child will reduce and what you will do instead.

Being helpful around the house

"I'm going to set the table for dinner every night" or "I'm going to help clean my bedroom once a week" are great chore-related resolutions for kids. Committing to chores is always wise because it can make kids feel needed and useful. Plus, you'll get a little help around the house!

Being kind or making friends

"I'm going to do one random act of kindness a week" or "I'm going to talk to one person at school I've never met each week" are good examples of relationship-based resolutions. A social resolution should also be tailored to your child and the area they would like to improve upon. So, a shy child would likely have a different resolution (like the latter above) than a child who's working on being nicer to other kids.

Being more environmentally responsible

"We're going to start a recycling program at home" or "we're going to shorten our showers to only five minutes to conserve water" are good resolutions that are eco-conscious. "As a family, decide what being green means and how to translate that to a reasonable family goal," says Dr. Eastman.

Learning a new skill

"I'm going to learn how to make chocolate chip cookies" or "I will learn how to sing" are resolutions that can motivate your kids to learn new things. Learning new skills is always an exciting resolution that everyone looks forward to.

Engaging in more family time

"We're going to have game night every Friday" or "we're going to eat breakfast together on Sunday mornings" are specific goals that center family time. Committing to spending more family time together and having fun might be the easiest one to keep!

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