Does Your Child Rely on Wishful Thinking? How to Motivate Him toward Attainable Goals


Recently I met with a 15-year-old boy to talk about his future. He was  getting into trouble at school and on the brink of failing all  his subjects.  When we discussed his career goals, he stated that he wanted to  be a mixed  martial arts pro or a firefighter. Had he taken any classes  related to this  goal, such as Karate? No. Did he have any plans to? Not at all.  Was he involved  in a junior firefighters program? No chance. He seemed to think  he was so  awesome and strong that one of these things would just happen when  the time was  right.

Look  at it this way: when children aren’t held accountable for putting in the effort  to reach their goals, or even to simply meet their responsibilities, most will  be perfectly okay with doing the bare minimum to get by.


Parents get frustrated with their child’s  wishful thinking, procrastinating  and apparent lack of motivation because very  often, kids aren’t putting in the  effort to achieve the goals they’re  expressing.  As the old saying goes, “A  goal without a plan is just a wish.” It’s also a ripe area for power  struggles.  You might have responded to your child by pushing, nagging and  threatening in hopes  of getting him to do something, anything that  will get him moving in the right direction. Chances are, the more you push  your  child to work for a goal, the more he digs his heels in and resists you.  As  resistance increases, so does your anxiety about your child’s future. The  family anxiety cycle is set into motion.

Related:  Fighting with your unmotivated child?

Passing  Phase or Lifetime Habit?

What’s going on here? Is this a passing  phase of childhood and adolescence,  or can it become a lifetime habit? It’s  important to understand that kids don’t  engage in wishful thinking on purpose. Rather,  it’s a type of thinking error  that occurs naturally in children and adults  alike. Here’s example of my own  personal wishful thinking, just so you can see  how this plays out in the adult  world: I frequently tell myself “I’m going to  start saving more money” or “I’m  going to open a new retirement account this  year” but then I don’t put in the  work to back it up. Whether you’re a child or  an adult, wishing thinking is a  false belief about yourself that “It will just  all work out” and without any  real plan or effort on your part. Someone who is  engaging in wishful thinking  might also let themselves off the hook by saying,  “There’s plenty of time to  work this out. I don’t have to worry about it right  now.”

The key to combatting faulty thinking is  having experiences that challenge  it. By the time we reach adulthood, we have  the experience to know the  difference between a goal and a wish, and to  recognize when what we’re doing  isn’t helping us to propel toward our goals. In  kids, the “magic” behind  wishful thinking becomes the vehicle for success  rather than hard work and  dedication to a goal, and they have a more limited  ability to recognize this  than we do as adults.

While wishful thinking can be challenged,  I personally believe that it has  the potential to cause children to fall into  some poor habits that can be hard  to break when it’s time to get into the “real  world,” where doing nothing isn’t  getting them anywhere. Look at it this way: when  children aren’t held  accountable for putting in the effort to reach their goals,  or even to simply  meet their responsibilities, most will be perfectly okay with  doing the bare  minimum to get by. Children and teens need to be held  accountable for doing  things that they don’t want to do and that are  challenging to them so they can  learn the value of hard work and perseverance.  This will help them to succeed  when time is up on the wish clock and it’s time  to get to work on a career that  is realistic for them.

Related:  How identifying your child’s “thinking errors” can help change his  behavior.

As James Lehman states, you gain  self-esteem by working hard and doing  things that are difficult for you to do.  Also, if kids don’t work at things and  struggle and fail, how will they see the  connection between hard work and  feeling good? It’s never too late if the  motivation is really there—along with  the realization that sitting back and  waiting for things to happen isn’t  working.

How to Challenge Wishful Thinking

I truly believe that you must hold strong  to the fact that your child’s  dream of being an actress or professional basketball  player does not give them  a free pass to slack off during their K-12 or college  years.  It’s  important to support your  child’s dreams and offer ways to explore and develop  their talents and  interests while at the same time providing a firm structure  at home that holds her  accountable to the academic standards you expect her to  achieve.

In addition, parents can challenge this wishful  thinking in their children  by letting them know (without lecturing) that it’s  very normal for teens, as  well as adults of all ages, to change their mind at  least a few times when  choosing a career. This is the reason why they still  need to participate  actively and responsibly in their education and why you  have the rules and  standards that you do.

What’s most effective, though, is for  parents to coach and educate their  children. You can do this through some basic  research, and then teach your  child how to set a goal. The last piece of the  puzzle is to establish some  guidelines for goal progress-monitoring.

Here are the steps in more detail.

  1. Research and  Explore.If the goal you want to set is related to your child’s general   participation in homework or how he treats others in the home, go ahead and   skip to point 2 below. Otherwise, it might help to talk to your child about her   wishes and dreams and help her to learn more about her areas of interest by   doing internet searches. The Occupational  Outlook Handbook (OOH)  is an excellent website operated by the federal  government that gives very  detailed information about the kind of training  required for a job, as well as  the work environment, salary, and general outlook  for the profession. Be  careful not to dwell on this for hours at a time. Try to  make it a fun thing  that is more about exploring both of your interests rather  than a chore or  punishment. In other words, look up your job or a job you used  to dream of as a  teen. And fear not—the OOH paints an incredibly realistic  picture of common  career idols such as athletes and actors—for example, the  median hourly wage  for an actor is less than $18/hour—good information for an aspiring  starlet to  know!
  2. Set a goal. Ask your  child to set a goal that is related to an area of interest or a change  you  would like to see in his behavior. Remember that children, even in  adolescence,  can have a difficult time setting goals on their own. If your  child doesn’t  even want to do any homework at all, start small. Your child should  contribute  when establishing the plan and the incentives.

As a school  guidance counselor, when I help my students with goal-setting,  they often start  off with an action plan that includes something vague like “I’ll work harder.” That’s  great, but it doesn’t have enough substance to carry  your child through to the  finish line. I help my students by asking, “When  you’re working harder, what  will I see you doing that will tell me you  are working harder?” Goals need to have an action plan that is specific,  observable,  measureable, and realistic.

Related:  Is your child’s lack of motivation driving you crazy?

To ensure the  plan is specific, make sure your child can answer the 5W+H  questions: who,  what, when, where, why, and how? If it’s observable, that means  you can see the  plan in action and you will notice a change in your child’s  behavior. For the  plan to be measurable means you could use numbers to show a  change, such as  increased time studying or participating in activities, or  higher grades.  Realistic means that the plan is within the child’s  abilities—you will know  best whether the goal would be attainable for your  child if your child were to  put in the necessary work. Above all else, keep the  plan very simple. Often  there will be several steps involved that take place  over a long period of  time. To avoid overwhelming your child, identify the very first step your child needs to take and start there. Then move   forward one step at a time. For example, if your child wants to be a   professional musician, perhaps you work on practicing daily. If your child’s   goal is related to a certain school subject, the goal could be to spend an   extra 15 minutes studying that subject each day. For some of you the goal will   simply be to do the homework for once. Again, keep it simple and don’t go   overboard here.

  1. Monitor the  goal.Once you and your child have decided what she will be working on, it   could help to have it in writing. I would also recommend setting up regular  progress-monitoring  meetings to talk about how it’s going. What part of the  plan is working and  what part isn’t? What might your child need to do  differently to move forward?  If your child is putting in effort and making some  progress, you might choose  to reward her after a weekly check-in. Keep the  rewards simple, affordable, and  varied to keep her interest and preserve your  resources so that you can  continue to affirm her efforts.

How Will I Know It’s Working?

How will you know that the new plan is  working? The answer to this is  simple. Again, if your child’s goal and action  plan are specific, observable,  measurable, and realistic, you will either see  your child putting in the effort  or not. If your child is still in couch-potato  mode, you might want to double  check your daily routine and make sure you have  some structure in place that  holds your child accountable for meeting her  responsibilities and working  toward her goal, such as electronics getting  turned off until she’s studied for  a certain amount of time. And remember, Rome  wasn’t built in a day. Very few  people go from living a normal life to being on  the cover of magazines  overnight. The emphasis should not be on perfection or  making large leaps and  bounds. The focus should be on helping your child to be  a student first, and a  student of her dream profession second. We’re looking  for simple, small changes  that will add up over time and help your child to  learn to be realistic and  responsible.


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