How to teach kids to reach big goals

It’s recital time. My youngest son just had his cello recital. While I was sitting in my seat, watching eighty kids run around eighty cellos and hopefully not crushing them, I thought about the last meeting I had with my son’s psychiatrist.

We go to a child psychiatrist so I can have someone keeping tabs on me. I want to know that I’m doing okay and not messing up my kids as I take them way way off the beaten path.

The psychiatrist said that I need to make sure the kids have goals they have to work hard to achieve.

This directive was certainly in response to my explanation of how my style of  homeschooling works. And maybe his attitudes skew a little too heavily in favor of old-fashioned schooling. But still, I think he has a point. We can’t have total lack of structure or else there is a total lack of achievement. And achievements along the way are important to developing pride and confidence in one’s own abilities. That makes sense to me.

And in the last year I’ve been working hard at figuring out how to teach my son to reach challenging goals. Here are some things I learned:

1. Practice is what matters. But it’s quantity and quality.
Malcolm Gladwell popularized the research that shows that you need roughly 10,000 hours to be great at something. And journalist Geoff Covlin wrote a whole book about how research shows that talent is not enough to reach one’s goals. Mastery comes from a combination of talent and practice. But that practice needs to be focused and productive. Gladwell describes how each practice session must have particular goals in order for the practice sessions to add up to a large goal.

The great thing about this way of learning is that you teach goal setting at a micro level, on a daily basis, and also at a macro level. So few kids reach those huge, national-champion-level goals, though, that it’s nice to know the kid is learning to reach goals just by having effective practices.

2. Older kids are important models.
While the young kids were running all over the concert hall, a few of the oldest kids took time to do one last practice before the audience arrived. The older kids have a focus and meticulousness that the younger kids are just learning, but it’s a magnetic intensity that makes people stop what and look.

Rena Subotnik publishes tons of research about talent development, and she found that having access to people who are older and more developed than you are is important in developing one’s own talent. Which is why Suzuki recitals are notoriously too long for the really young kids who populate them—the point is to be inspired by the kids who are older than you.

You could go see lots of great musicians in a local orchestra, but research from George Mason University shows that we learn the most from people who are just a few years ahead of us.

3. A community of peers helps the child through tough spots.
Seth Godin talks about how if we are doing something that really matters to us, then there will be a really really tough spot—The Dip—where most people quit, but the special people who will achieve something big will not quit. When we teach kids to meet goals, we are preparing them for deeper and deeper dips. That is, bigger and bigger achievements.

Subotnik talks about the three phases of talent development: learning to practice, developing expertise, and testing that expertise in competition. Kids are most likely to fall off in between the second and third phase.  But something that keeps commitment strong is being part of a community of people going through this difficult phase. (Subotnik says this is especially true of girls who are talented in math.)

This makes sense to me as an entrepreneur. Because there is a time in most startups when the founder wants to quit—it’s the time just before funding comes in but when the founder has already been working day and night to develop the company and it’s starting to look impossible. This is when most entrepreneurs give up, and those who don’t have a strong community of other startup founders to encourage them to keep going.

As we were finding our seats for the recital, we passed rows and rows of cellos lined up, waiting for their moment.  My older son said, “Oh no. We’re gonna be listening to kids play cello until way past our bedtime. The night is ruined.”

I didn’t respond. (There was, after all, truth in what he was saying.)

But I thought to myself that as a homeschooling parent, something I’m really happy with is that I found a community for my son that will help him achieve big and difficult goals. I don’t need him to be a professional cellist when he grows up. But I need him to be a person who is confident in his ability to meet large goals.

13 replies
  1. toastedtofu
    toastedtofu says:

    I think goal setting is hugely important too, and as much as unschooling appeals to me in terms of lack of curriculum, (kid directed learning), I think the danger is in having no STRUCTURE at all (not even a kid directed structure) I read you posts and I think music lessons are definitely a solution to that. Daily practice at things is definitely a skill I want to teach my future kids.

  2. Jennifer
    Jennifer says:

    It’s been nagging at me recently that my son needs more order and a “tribe” to relate to with computers. Reading this post pushes me further toward seeking tutoring for him.

    He has a computer programming online account (Code Academy), but I don’t force him to work on it. He tends to defer to watching YouTube “how-to” videos for gaming, etc.

    Now I think setting up a “reward” to work through his Code Academy account would be helpful (there’s some software he desperately wants). Either that, or he can’t play online until he does X-number of sections on Code Academy.

    Leaning one’s own child is tricky enough. It’s no wonder teachers have to set up rewards and group pressure to keep most kids toeing the line.

  3. Andi
    Andi says:

    You said: “This is when most entrepreneurs give up, and those who don’t have a strong community of other startup founders to encourage them to keep going.”

    What do you say to those who are starting up w/ zero support, because they are going against the grain? What kind of community can there be for someone striking out on his/her own, outside the community?

    I ask because it’s quite difficult to surround yourself with a “tribe” when no one around you “gets” what you’re doing, & thinks it won’t work, & attempts to ridicule you for even trying. Obviously avoiding the nay-sayers is a good start… but how does one go about finding peers where there seem to be none?

    • emily
      emily says:

      Well there are a few ways – but one technique is to know the difference between a competitor and a collaborator. Sometimes when you’re doing your own thing something kicks in where you don’t WANT to team up with other people or other businesses because it feels threatening. So take the opposite approach and focus on who you might get to work with you – either for free, or in a mutually beneficial partnership (see penelope’s recent post on the regular blog on the topic).

  4. redrock
    redrock says:

    I think the math thing with girls is definitely a good point: usually when girls get in a tough spot in math or science they are simply told of – a girl does not really need that stuff, you are just a girl, girls are not good in math anyway… this prevents many of them to get over the tough spot. Just stops them in their tracks – it is a pity. In the same vein, underprivileged kids tend to do best if they have a mentor and role model inside or outside the family. Once a mentor is established they can learn all the important things to get on with their lives and learning.

  5. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    Great post.
    I’d add the value of measuring, keeping a record, and tracking goals as noted by Mark K. in an earlier post this year .
    Also the value of visualizing success. The “success” of visualizing success is not straightforward though as written here ( ) and here ( ). The Forbes article makes the distinction between “positive visualization” and “critical visualization” and the effects of both based on research. The Science Daily article highlights the importance of making of an action plan as well as visualizing success. And, of course, we can never underestimate the importance of self-discipline.

  6. Ron
    Ron says:

    As you homeschool, you realize that your decisions are not just technical, educational decisions, but decisions about what life is about. Philosophy.

    Is life about attaining goals? Is it about being present in the moment?

    Is life about personal achievement? Is life about relationships? Is life about service?

    Because the answers to those questions will determine what kind of homeschooling you do.

    Your shrink seems to be saying that teaching children to achieve goals is very important. Others might think that this makes the child self-centered, and that service is really more important than personal achievement. Still others might say that this teaches children not to be satisfied with themselves and that it teaches them that their self-esteem is based upon how well they perform.

    Is it the achievement that is important or is the struggle itself the important thing? Is the outcome important or the process? Is the thing to be enjoyed for its own sake or for the sake of achieving a goal?

    Homeschooling sort of forces us to look at these issues when figuring out how we want to raise our children.

    • Mark K
      Mark K says:

      Couldn’t agree more Ron.

      There are principles I think are widely applicable for homeschoolers, of course. But how you interpret those principles, how you weigh them against each other, what outcomes you value, and the example that you set (which I believes speaks more loudly than anything else you may do) are all dependent on your philosophy.

      And you know what, that philosophy can change and in fact should grow as you progress, and gain experience, as life gives you opportunities to refine that philosophy.

      My philosophy has grown out of watching what works for my family. Would it fit everyone? Nope. But it’s just right for us.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      This is something you can’t really see until you start homeschooling: that the decisions we make about homeschooling are really decisions about family. But if you send your kids to school you are sort of insulated from having to make those types of decisions – the state does it for you.

      We raise our kids to think that the only big mistake in life is not taking action, not taking personal responsiblity for how our lives turn out. But we do not have a public discussion about all the inaction surrounded by abdicating family decisions to school districts.

      I dont’ think I realized this was my blog topic til I read your comment. So, thanks, Ron.


  7. CJ
    CJ says:

    The part about children really learning best from children a little older really reminds me of a lot of the scientific research, as well as journalistic efforts such as that by Jeffrey Kluger on the Sibling Effect, etc., where it is expressed that we are shaped as adults, as people, by our sibling relationships, and for only children, by our peer groups, vastly more than by our parents. These relationships with people a little older or a little younger have the greatest impact on who we are- mixed in with who we were born to be. And, that personality wise, the parental relationship has little impact by comparison.

    It makes me think of the Charlie Brown adult voices, “wawawawawahhhhhwahwah” to the child’s world and the real and insightful voices that are heard by the children are that of the other children.

    I know when my children are in deep play or even fighting, oft times it is as if I am not even standing there trying to help. They literally don’t hear me.

    I think my children teach each other far more than I ever, ever will. I love seeing their relationship and providing the freedom for it to have the most wonderfilled impact by unschooling.

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