Helping children become aware of their dreams and teaching them how to reach for goals is a critical skill parents and teachers need to encourage. Our hopes and dreams shape our lives, the choices we make, and the success we achieve. Everyone has different dreams – and a different definition of success. But everyone needs a dream. Dreams and goals give life purpose, direction, and meaning. They help young people build toward the future, and offer a sense of control and hope.
We're born into this world and we each have to find our way, our place. For some it's easier than others, but we all have to do it. Schools teach kids the basics of science, math, reading and writing. But they don't teach much about life. We just expect kids to "pick it up" along the way.
Research shows it's critical to get kids thinking early about what's important to them and why. Setting and striving for goals helps children learn responsibility, how to break a large task into manageable steps, how to work with others to get what you want, how to handle stress, what's realistic and what may not be, and to believe in who you are and what you can accomplish.
In the LifeDreams workshops I do, I've come up with a simple three-step approach to getting young people thinking about their life dreams: 1) discuss; 2) discover; 3) do. The steps aren't necessarily sequential; you can move back and forth between them.
You have to start by opening an ongoing discussion about life, dreams, and goals. That's a pretty big topic though!
The Dream book is a great starting point. It can be awkward to just say, "So, let's talk about your life." A book gives you a way to open a discussion and something to refer to that comes from someplace other than a parent's or teacher's personal opinion. The book is also a way to approach the topic in a way that's not "preachy" or "teachy."
Dream celebrates the complex journey of life, highlighting all the hopes and dreams found along the way. It's about our personal, individual journey living our life, within the broader context of everything that has come before us and everything that will come after us. It's a gorgeous book that draws in children and adults through the richly-detailed art. It's illustrated by 15 top world illustrators, including two-time Caldecott Medal winners Leo and Diane Dillon. Picture books are an art form that reaches all ages. We live in a visual age, and art has the power to inspire. Dream combines art and words to reach both your right and left brain. It has a poetic, multilayered story as well as quotes from historical leaders, innovators, and philosophers.
A picture book like Dream is a concise way to introduce big ideas, like the choices and challenges we all face as we live our lives. Even high school courses – and some university courses – use picture books as a way to spark conversation on complex topics.
Dream is multilayered. It has a simple story to it, accessible to younger children. But it also offers something deeper for older children and teens – and something new each time you open it. It's based on social science research and gets to the core essences of living and dreaming. It distills it all down to the basics that you can build on. For example, a very simple summary of all the social science research that's been done on how people achieve their dreams is "believe, do, think." As the text in Dream says, that's "simple and not so simple all at once."
Dream gives you all the basics, but it's in a form that adults and children can explore and read again and again. The idea is to bring yourself, your own experiences, and your own meaning to it. Lists and tips and information may or may not get into your head. But a story gets to your head through your heart, and what ends up in your head that way is more likely to be meaningful and memorable to you.
I encourage parents, grandparents, and teachers to explore and discuss Dream with children and even teenagers. How well this works with teens depends on the relationship you have with a child and whether reading together has been established as a family pattern. I'm a big believer in reading aloud, even with older kids. Reading can take the form of family members sharing interesting parts of books they're reading, reading letters and e-mails that come into the household from extended family, reading articles from newspapers and the Internet, even sharing a cartoon you think is funny. I also love picture books as a quick family read for all ages. I know of some families who have a holiday tradition in which all generations share a favorite picture book after the meal. Some families, even those with older children, buy a special "Christmas" book every year and it's always a picture book. If these sorts of things happen in your household, then reading Dream together is a natural extension. If they don't happen, you may want to start. You can also introduce the book in another way...
As an adult, buy Dream for yourself. Leave it lying around your house. Pick it up casually every once in a while and read one of the quotes aloud and ask your kids what they think. Or talk about one part of the story and how it relates to something in your life. If you feel you absolutely can't even start this kind of discussion with your teen, then talk to your spouse or a friend in front of your teen so that they overhear the conversation. Open a discussion some way, somehow, and have it originate from the book. You may then find that your teen picks up the book when you're not looking and flips through it (I know a high school teacher who has a shelf of picture books in her class and finds that students "peek" at them when no one is watching).
Part of the discussion step includes not only getting young people to think about the hopes and dreams they have for themselves, but also for our world. There's a "big picture" aspect to dreams that you can explore using news headlines as a starting point. What bothers kids about the "way the world is" and what's happening in it? How would they like to make the world a better place?
So, you've opened a discussion. The next step is "discover." The process of discovery is also an ongoing one. The goal is to be able to answer certain questions. Your child may not have all the answers now, and answers may change over time. The important thing is to think about the questions.
What dreams does your child have? What do they want for themselves, their family, and their world? As Dream says, "little dreams and big dreams" are important. Why are certain dreams and goals important to your child? What values do they represent? How does your child define "success" – money? friends? achievements? Ask them to name three people they feel are "successful" and explain why. What career or job are they interested in?
Children should begin becoming aware of their dreams and goals by talking to adults, pursuing hobbies and personal interests, reading books, surfing the Internet, watching documentaries, and doing some writing, perhaps in a daily journal. Older children can look for summer jobs in areas they're interested in.
It's also important to create a positive learning environment at home. Research shows that children raised in homes in which education is a high priority perform better academically and are more focused. Commented one teen in a workshop, "If the adults don't care, why should I?" Some tips:
Let children know that you value education by supporting learning and showing an interest in their schoolwork.
Ask specific questions about their experiences at school and what they're studying. Talk to children about the relevance of classes to potential careers. Children often fail to see the connection between what they're learning in school and the world of work. Try to show that the subjects they're learning and the academic skills they're acquiring are important and necessary to be successful.
Provide a comfortable, well-lit study space for homework. Make sure that reference materials like a dictionary and thesaurus are handy, or a computer with these sources bookmarked.
Set a regular time for doing homework and minimize distractions.
Support children in both school and extra-curricular activities.
Encourage children to participate in career days or fairs. Many schools, beginning at the elementary level, have career days. This is a chance for students to learn about a variety of careers. Parents are often asked to come to school to talk about their jobs. Be a part of career events at your child's school.
Look into all educational options beyond high school. Many parents believe a four-year college degree is the only road to career success. But that may not work for all children or for all future job opportunities. Community colleges, technical schools, specialized training schools, apprenticeships, and the military are some of the choices available. Talk about the options openly, making a list of pros and cons.
Start planning early for advanced education expenses. There are federal and local savings programs that provide tax breaks on money used for education. Low interest student loans are another option. Look into scholarship opportunities. And grandparents and other family members who want to help can start by giving holiday and birthday gifts that contribute to education savings.
Finding a mentor can be a part of discovery. Many high schools have programs that link mentors with students based on their interests and goals. There are also organizations, like the YMCA, that offer mentoring opportunities.
The Legacy Project has the annual Listen to a Life Essay Contest as a way to encourage young people to learn about real life from real people. It can be awkward to ask someone about their life if you don't have a purpose. Also, young people won't tend to get around to it. The contest – with appealing prizes that include a computer! – gives them instant motivation.
Community service is another way to gain valuable insights into real life and work opportunities. Community and religious organizations provide opportunities to volunteer. Many high schools have community service opportunities and some require it to graduate.
You can also use vacations and day trips to explore interests and career possibilities. Whether you're going to a park, the museum, the zoo, or visiting a major city or going camping, there are opportunities to discuss the work of the people you come in contact with. Ask people about their dreams and goals! People often value an opportunity to share this kind of information.
As young people engage in discovery, they may find interests and career options they never anticipated. Everyone knows the traditional doctor, lawyer, and teacher. But what about a gerontologist, FX animator, or green energy consultant?
The "discover" step includes some reality checks. Discussing can be more free-flowing and unrestrained. Discovery involves realizing that dreams come with responsibilities and challenges, and that certain career paths require a certain kind of education and training.
Also, discovery involves being realistic about what's possible and coming up with a plan that covers all the bases. There are hundreds of thousands of kids out there with dreams of being a basketball star, but only a few hundred will ever make it. So maybe discovery in that case involves still enjoying playing basketball and seeing what happens in that area, but pursuing an education at the same time to open up other options. Children have to learn to balance being optimistic and confident with being realistic about particular talents and skills, and being strategic about where the career opportunities are.
The last step is "do." As a parent or teacher, you want to encourage and help kids take concrete steps to pursue and achieve their goals. Not all dreams may work out and they may change along the way. That's okay. It's better for kids to make mistakes now than face the realization in their twenties or thirties that they've spent years on something that they don't like or want.
Here are some ideas to help young people start building goal-setting skills:
Encourage children and teens to start the school year by writing a Goal Letter. They should identify something they'd like to learn more about or get better at, learn how to do, or a fear they'd like to overcome. The Goal Letter includes what they want to do, why they want to do it, the specific steps to get it (break the goal into small, manageable steps), and a specific date to achieve the goal. After helping a child write the letter, put it in a specially decorated envelope on the child's bedside table or desk. Children should be encouraged to review the letter every week to stay motivated and focused.
Write an Education Contract together that children then sign. Items in the contract might include listening better in class, asking the teacher questions when they don't understand material or an assignment, spending extra time on weaker subjects, taking a few extra minutes to double-check homework before handing it in, and starting to study for a test at least three days beforehand.
Help children create a "Better Me" List – a list of things children can do on a regular basis to improve themselves and build character. These might include reading one new book a week, writing in a daily journal or writing to a long-distance grandparent once a month, studying an extra 15 minutes a day, helping a younger brother or sister with homework. Post the list in a prominent location.
Start a Personal Portfolio for children. This special folder contains information about and samples from a child's classes, experiences, achievements, and interests. Items in the folder might include selected report cards, assignments, letters of praise, etc.
Work with children to create a Personality Profile. Matching personalities with the right careers can help ensure successful and satisfying work. Once a week, talk about experiences during the week that may point to a child's personality traits. Is a child shy, outgoing, inquisitive, creative, ambitious? Add personality traits to the Profile over time, and reinforce them with notes about specific examples or actual experiences as a reminder.
Encourage older children to get together with like-minded friends for a Goals Group. They can share goals they're reaching for and support each other.
Over the long term, encourage children to set Bronze, Silver, and Gold Goals. A Bronze Goal is an easier goal that's attainable in a shorter period of time. A Gold Goal, on the other hand, is more of a stretch. If goals are too easy, children won't grow and reach their potential. A Gold Goal is still one that's achievable and realistic, but it may require more work and a longer period of time to attain. Note that a key to achieving Gold Goals is to break them into smaller, manageable chunks.
Watch your language! The words we use out loud and in our head can prevent us from achieving goals. Goal Buster Words include no, never, can't, won't, if, and maybe. Watch your own language and encourage children to be aware of the words they use when faced with a new challenge, an old fear, or something that seems overwhelming.
The Legacy Project's LifeDreams activities are a great starting point for action. For example, check out
Your Dream Chest, the Club of Dreamers and, for older students, take the Millionaire Quiz.
Everyone needs a dream. As the last page in Dream reminds us, "Look up, up, up into those billion billion sparkling stars. What dreams do you find? Little dreams, big dreams, each a hope looking for a life to make it real
– a life like yours."
Career Strengths. Five really interesting career aptitude tests for you to try at home – no props or proctors necessary.
Career Tools. Several different tests and assessments that will help you explore your interests, aptitude/skills, and personality.
Career Key. A useful self-assessment tool young people can use to determine their personality type and how it relates to career options.
Adventures in Education. Lots of information for parents and students – from middle school to college – for making educational and career decisions.
Freespirit. This publisher offers a number of great books, including What Kids Need to Succeed and The Teenagers' Guide to School Outside the Box.
If You Could Be Anything, What Would You Be?: A Teen's Guide to Mapping Out the Future by Jeanne Webster. Dupuis North Publishing, 2004. An easy-to-read resource tool that provides teens with the real-life skills they need to fully use their potential.
The Famous Outrageous Cool Kid's Guide to the Future by Mark Edwards. Medwards, 1999. A unique career guide for pre-teens and young teens based on their talents and interests.