Last month I celebrated my birthday by taking a week-long trip to the beach. Besides the beautiful sunsets, white sand beaches, and general state of relaxation, the trip was made special by a visit from two good friends and their young children. Our dear friends from Washington D.C. are allies in the child rearing experience. Before my family moved to New Orleans two years ago, we spent long afternoons and weekends with each other, comparing notes about being parents. So it was no surprise that one night my friends and I were sitting on the balcony talking about my birthday wish. I paused, recalling the wish that I had made when I blew out my birthday candles. Now I’ll break the rule of “not telling anyone your wish” and admit that mine was for a year of good health for my children, my husband, and me.
Editor’s note: This is the concluding episode in Elizabeth Elizardi’s 5-part series on PERMA for parents. PERMA is an acronym for the 5 elements of well-being described by Martin Seligman in his new book Flourish. Elizabeth explores each in the context of being a parent. Here are links to the earlier parts: Part 1 (Positive Emotion), Part 2 (Engagement), Part 3 (Relationships), and Part 4 (Meaning).
When I said my wish out loud, it felt lackluster, commonsensical, and very abstract. Then my friends and I proceeded to have a discussion about wishes and desires that become goals, and I began to wonder whether more concrete goals get put on hold in specific phases of life, like parenthood. Are certain goals marginalized because they feel unrealistic or incongruent with being a parent? Are they viewed as desirable but not feasible? Are parents lured into an abstract way of thinking about goals that are futuristic and elusive? Or are there other parents that are so focused on the concrete that the abstract is neglected?
Goal Setting with What-Thinking and Why-Thinking
In her book, Succeed, author Heidi Halvorson draws a distinction between abstract and concrete ways of thinking about goals. What-thinking is mechanical and includes concrete steps and pathways needed to reach a goal. Why-thinking is abstract and focused on the broader meaning or desire associated with a goal. Halvorson adds that goals that are more familiar activate why-thinking, while unfamiliar goals require the more concrete what-thinking.Goals for parents can take the shape of child-centered goals (I want my child to sleep through the night) or parent-centered personal goals that do not involve the child (I want to speak Spanish). Perhaps the greatest opportunity for flourishing, as parents, is to ensure that there is a healthy balance between the two.
First, let’s explore a child-centered goal that many parents share: the desire to have their child sleep through the night. Stated in why-thinking terms, this goal might be, “I want my child to sleep through the night so we can all get enough rest.” Stated in what-thinking terms it might be, “I need to read about different strategies for helping a child sleep through the night. Then I will put my child on a feeding schedule in order to have a more consistent routine. I figure out how to help my child learn to self-soothe.” Parents who are in tune with how they typically think about goals will have the ability to switch between abstract and concrete thinking depending on the goal itself.
Setting Personal Goals is Tricky for Parents
For parents, setting personal goals is a trickier business. We live in a world of increased choice and more opportunity than ever before. The downside for parents is that they are more stressed, overwhelmed, and fatigued.
- The Families and Work Institute recently surveyed 1,298 men and concluded that long hours and increasing job demands are conflicting with parental norms.
- Pew Research Center reports that 40% of working moms say they always feel rushed.
- Sociologists at Ohio State University and the University of New Hampshire found that by 1998, free time did not reduce time pressure for women. Not only have women reported less free time than men, but the quality of the free time has worsened. By 1998, 50% of women combine child-care activities with leisure activities.
Maybe the lesson here is that parents not only need to intentionally construct personal goals and make the time to take action, but they also need to purposefully protect that time from being contaminated by parental responsibilities. With the recent research on decision fatigue it seems that parents are expending mental energy on managing a child’s behavior, schedules, and homework in addition to housework and sometimes a full-time job. Often they don’t have enough mental reserves to be able to focus on personal goals. Therefore many personal goals are subsumed by the goals we construct for our children.
Indicators of Successful Goal Accomplishment
Regardless of child-centered or personal goals, Halvorson points out two main indicators of successful goal accomplishment:
- Belief that you can actually succeed
- Belief that the goal will add benefit to your life.
Additionally, a person’s environment can be a source of positive priming. A picture of a sleeping child, inspirational words, a parent guidebook on the kitchen table, and calls from an expert friend who has been through it all before are examples of how an environment can be crafted to prime you towards your goal.
Goals can be abstract and elusive or concrete and specific. Below are some exercises that combine the abstract with the concrete and offer an invitation to reflect on personal or child-centered goals you may want to establish as a parent.
- Getting What You Really Want, exercise by Van Tharp. “If you could have anything in the universe, what would it be? Once you answer, ask the question “Now, what would _____ get you? Repeat the question four more times, always inserting the previous response.
- Best Possible Self Exercise: “Think about your life in the future. Imagine that everything has gone as well as it possibly could. You have worked hard and succeeded at accomplishing all of your life goals. Think of this as the realization of all of your life dreams. Now, write about what you imagined.”
Now that you know my birthday wish for the year, you see that it was more other-oriented than personal, more abstract than concrete. However, I heed my own advice, which is why I will be accomplishing my VERY concrete goal of running a half marathon in Philadelphia on September 18th!
Halvorson, H. (2010). Succeed: How We Can Reach Our Goals. New York. Penguin Group.
Konigsberg, R. (2011, August). Chore Wars. U.S. Time.
Miller, C. A. & Frisch, M. B. (2009), Creating Your Best Life: The Ultimate Life List Guide. New York: Sterling.
Parker, K. (2009). The Harried Life of the Working Mother. Pew Research Center Publications.
Seligman, M. E. P. (2011). Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being. New York: Free Press.
Tierney, J. (2011, August). Do You Suffer from Decision Fatigue?. New York Times Magazine.