From an incredibly young age, society hands us a clear message — you aren’t good enough as you are right now. This widespread “improvement” culture pervades all aspects of our lives, with Instagram ads pushing us to pursue clearer skin, smaller bodies and perfect parenting. Research shows children are developing self-esteem and body confidence issues as early as the 3-5 age group. And it’s not just looks — the self-improvement movement is a $10.4 billion industry, capitalizing on our need to always be better and different than what we are now.
Never is this trend more apparent than New Year’s, when almost half of us resolve to do or be something better, yet only 9% succeed. But, we do it again, year after year, only to disappoint ourselves by February. So, when my oldest son asked me what a New Year’s resolution was, I hesitated over how to explain it.
I realized if I taught him that this was a typical thing to do, that I might just be setting him up for the failure that all but that 9% had, because it’s a flawed concept. We aren’t really meant to up and change because the year has, expecting different results immediately. It might communicate to him that he’s not enough, not doing enough, not trying hard enough as it is.
Sean Tams, a pediatric psychologist at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, explains the difference between goal and resolutions (the latter of which tend to focus on limiting or correcting certain behaviors), and why that distinction matters in conversations like these with our kids.
“Goals are very important to humans — including kids and teens — because they help to motivate our behavior. Setting a goal and working toward it, or eventually achieving it, makes us feel good because of the sense of accomplishment we experience,” he says. “However, goals [or resolutions] that are framed around something that is seen as a deficit — such as not being fit enough, or not being smart enough — may contribute to feelings of anxiety or worthlessness." He adds that this is especially true if the person has a really hard time working toward improving that “deficit.”
While the word choice might seem like splitting hairs, it matters through the lens of the children’s mental health crisis, which has spiked amid the pandemic; 1 in 5 children has a mental health disorder, but only around 20% of those are getting the support they need. What young people don't need as they navigate that is a culture pushing them to be even better, thinner, more high achieving, more athletic and a million other “mores” than who they are right now.
It’s not that self-improvement doesn’t have its place; it does. Tams calls this “balanced thinking,” a skill we need to teach more than blindly determined resolutions. “I can see the areas where I can do better and I can see the areas I am already awesome,” he says, giving the example that a kid might want to become a better soccer player as a goal, and also acknowledge that they are already a great teammate. Not many resolutions are framed in this context, but rather through a lens of what is lacking.
It might not be the right time for these types of big changes, as well, according to clinical psychologist Lara Goodrich, who notes that coming off of holiday-related stress, ahead of returning to school after a big break and change of routine, isn’t likely to have “measurable pay-off.” She worries resolutions can make children believe they need to “earn” their way through a new year. “We don't want a child at the center of a glorified plan that is likely going to fall flat.”
But before we give up on New Year’s resolutions entirely, it seems there are some ways we can adapt or modify them to become meaningful learning opportunities. Here’s what our experts recommend:
Avoid negative wording such as “lose weight," Tams says.
Try making a SMART goal, which stands for: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-limited, he adds. This would turn a goal like “get healthier” into something more attainable and less vague such as “for the next month (time-limited), I am going to kick the soccer ball for 20 minutes every day after school (specific); I am going to write down every day that I practice (measurable) and I usually have a break after school before I do my homework (achievable); I really want to become a better soccer player before the spring season starts (relevant).”
Set goals around mental fitness, such as going to bed 30 minutes earlier, or writing down something you are grateful for or even taking a daily walk without your phone, Tams suggests.
Choose change that involves more than one person, such as a family challenge of increasing how many board games you conquer this year, or siblings choosing a favorite donation to deliver every few months, Goodrich suggests.
Try a reflection plus bucket list activity instead, looking back on what you want to do more of from last year, or try in the new year.
But it's also perfectly fine for your family to not partake.
Goodrich reminds parents that she sees some people thinking positive change must be continuous to be valid, but this is a “rigid and extreme” way to live, with a high cost for kids. “Being well is knowing when to lean in and knowing when to step back," she says. "If you’re a parent, remember that modeling the option to not make a New Year’s resolution can be meaningful and powerful too.”
Wellness, parenting, body image and more: Get to know the who behind the hoo with Yahoo Life’s newsletter. Sign up here.