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

by Sara Bean, M.Ed.
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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Sara A. Bean, M.Ed. holds a Masters Degree in Education with a concentration in School Counseling from Florida Atlantic University. She is a Certified School Counselor and a proud aunt to a 5 year-old girl. She has been with Legacy Publishing since 2009 working on the Parental Support Line. Sara has over 5 years of experience working with youth and families in private homes, residential group homes, and schools.


My child is now 18 years old and in her first semester at a community college. She fits all of the above descriptions for "wishful" thinking. She is ADHD and also has Asperger's Syndrome. We were told that due to the Asperger's, what she views as reality is not reality as we know it. We have struggled to get her to be more realistic. Now, the reality of college and dorm living have set in and she is having a very hard time adjusting. She wants to quit and move back home. We tell her moving home is not an option at this point and she will have to remain through at least the semester. Also, we tell her not to give up on her dream to become a substance abuse counselor. How do we continue to motivate her long distance. We now have so little control and can't monitor what she does each day. I try pep talks and positive thinking by phone, text and e-mail. I'm focusing on one semester at a time and doing everything I can to encourage her to remain at college. We're afraid that if she moves back home, she'll sprout roots on the couch and never leave.

Comment By : Empty nester and want to stay that way

Sometimes, you have no choice but to let them "hit rock bottom" as the saying goes. As far as letting the 18 year old move back home...well, she could sprout roots on the couch. It could happen. I was motivated to put myself through school even though I knew I could not afford it BECAUSE my parents annonced that they were selling their house and retiring to Florida on a specific date. They gave us adult kids plenty of notice. THAT is what made the lightbulb go off in my head that if I did not somehow force myself to get loans, regardless of how hard it would be to pay them back, I would NEVER learn a marketable job skill and I'd never be able to pay rent in my expensive state. I HAD to - or live in my car. I had no choice. I did it, and it was hard, and I then worked 2 and 3 jobs for several years to pay back the loans. If our grown kids have the choice of always having Mommy and Daddy take care of them and a give them a home to live in, rent-free - they will never be motivated to do what it takes to get a good enough job to support themselves. I had no choice, and so I did what I HAD to do.

Comment By : Single Mom

* To “Empty nester and want to stay that way”: Thank you for writing in and sharing your story. The transition into college life can be a difficult endeavor for many students. It can be difficult to know just what to say or do to motivate another person. From what you have written, it sounds like you are doing what you can do to motivate and encourage your daughter to stay in college and follow through with her current plan. Taking it one semester at a time is an effective way of staying focused on what is happening now and not getting pulled into awfulizing possible outcomes. You are doing a great job of focusing on what you can control in this situation, namely, how you are responding to her choices. We wish you and your family the best as you continue through this situation. Take care.

Comment By : D. Rowden, Parental Support Advisor

This is exactly what I am currently going through with both my 18 year old and 9 year old!

Comment By : Struggling Parent

Excellent article!!! Tips I can use for my three teenagers as well as for myself as I take steps to reach my goals of being a full-time author and an entrepereneur. Thank you!

Comment By : shineyoyo

I realy like the artical and i will do the best to do this with my five kids

Comment By : Alansari i.

This is where my 11 year old is right now and needs a great deal of motivation to do things. This article gave me some ideas and tools to use in the future. He is an amazing young man and these ideas I think will work for him

Comment By : Bwight

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Rating: 2.9/5 (89 votes cast)

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Wishful Thinking, Attainable Goals, Child Motivation

Responses to questions posted on are not intended to replace qualified medical or mental health assessments. We cannot diagnose disorders or offer recommendations on which treatment plan is best for your family. Please seek the support of local resources as needed. If you need immediate assistance, or if you and your family are in crisis, please contact a qualified mental health provider in your area, or contact your statewide crisis hotline.

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