Setting Goals: Unexpected Results

Summer vacation is right around the corner. I always get a little panicky this time of year. The entire summer yawns out before us. And my three energetic kids rarely transition smoothly into its less-structured rhythms.

Recently I saw something that encouraged me to put a tad more structure into our wide-open summer.

I was re-reading a book called Smart Couples Finish Rich, by David Bach. This book is every bit as valuable as its title is awkward. I find myself hiding the cover a bit when I’m reading it in public. But you know what they say about judging books by their covers…

Bach has one chapter which takes you through the process of writing down your values, since it is upon these well-thought out values that you will base your family spending. Each partner carefully compiles a list of his or her 5 most important values, then shows the other person. This sharing exercise was quite eye-opening in and of itself. As you might imagine, few couples list identical values.

Todd and I completed this values exercise 4 years ago when I initially read this book. When I read it again recently, I dug out our values lists. Interestingly, all this time later we still held the same ones.

Next Bach moves to the topic of making goals, based on your previously defined values. This is when I resolved to do some summer goal-setting with my kids.

First I explained to them a bit about the book I’d been reading. Then I shared some of my goals for this summer. And next I asked the kids to think about 2 or 3 goals they had for this summer.

Annie (age 7) looked confused, so I offered her some prompts. “Perhaps you would like to make a goal of reading a certain number of Boxcar Children books this summer. Or maybe you’d like to work on a particular gymnastics skill.”

She walked into the living room and began doing handstands which is often her kinesthetic way of pondering big things.

Stephen (age 12) was still sitting at our kitchen table contemplating my suggestion. Or at least that’s what I optimistically assumed he was doing as he sat silently. These days I’m never quite sure what’s going on in that adolescent brain. He said he’d get back to me on this.

Daniel (age 10) generated one goal fairly quickly. “I want to memorize the Periodic Table of the Elements!” Daniel, my budding theater kid, has always been skilled at memorizing, so this wasn’t outside the realm of possibility for him. He told me he’d need more time to come up with another summer goal.

At about this point I heard a miserable sobbing sound coming from the living room. When I investigated its source, I found Annie folded into a crumpled heap of frustration on the floor. “I’m not having any gymnastics goals this summer because I can’t even do what I used to be able to do!  I’ll never be able to do anything new,” she wailed.

Turns out she’d momentarily lost the ability to do a round-off, her pride-and-joy skill of her last gymnastics session. She was incredibly frustrated and disappointed, more so than I would have expected actually. Annie’s round-off reaction, likely brought on by my goal-setting conversation, led me to conclude that having a 7 year-old generate summer goals wasn’t such a great idea.

Young elementary school children are regularly required to work on fairly challenging academic goals.  Think back to those first years of reading and writing.  Each of my three kids experienced a phase around age 5 or 6 when drawing regularly ended in tears.  They knew exactly what they wanted to draw or write, but couldn’t make their hands produce it.

When our second child hit this phase we clued in a bit more and simply removed all drawing implements from his play area, as well as ignored the teacher’s requests to have him write at home (a little guilt here, but honestly it was making things worse in the short-term not better).

Eventually each of our kids made their way out of this challenging stage and became friends with markers and paper once again. But watching Annie’s tear-stained face that afternoon reminded me that she’d only recently left that fragile time behind. Setting summertime goals was perhaps too stressful for a kid her age.


That night as we sat around the dinner table casually discussing Daniel’s commitment to memorizing the Periodic Table, I suddenly remembered something.

“Kids, do you know how the world’s best memorizers remember things?”

A New York Times Magazine article (Feb. 15, 2011) described these techniques. I told them that, first off, memory experts pick a place, usually a familiar building. Then they create images, the weirder the better, which symbolize the things they are memorizing.

The experts place these images in a certain order throughout the place they’ve chosen. After this is complete they work to memorize their images within the building. Then when they want to recall all the items in order, they simply “walk back through their uncle’s New Jersey two-story” in their minds.

“Let’s do this with the Periodic Table,” Daniel exclaimed. And this became our dinnertime project.

Daniel chose his grandmother’s 150 year-old Virginian farmhouse as his building. He decided that when he walked into the house her dogs would greet him with a lick and a “Hi” (for Hydrogen). Next he would look up and see Helium-filled balloons on her ceiling.

As we considered what could symbolize the third element, Lithium, I reminded him that it was best for remembering purposes if the images were pretty zany. Daniel had suggested we put a grocery list on the refrigerator door (list = Lithium), when his big brother Stephen piped up.

“Yes, put the list right next to a postcard of naked roller skaters in San Francisco!”

Todd and I simultaneously commented that Stephen had clearly gotten the point of making the image as strange as possible. But we were also curious (and a bit concerned) about how our son came up with this particularly memorable image.

Then Daniel responded, “I know just the one you’re talking about! Momo has had that postcard on her refrigerator forever!”

And that’s when we remembered that Stephen hadn’t in fact invented this striking image. This photo is actually on his grandma’s refrigerator door.

Sometimes reality rivals the finest imagination.

Daniel has now memorized the first 18 elements of the Periodic Table, but for me Lithium will always be the easiest to remember.

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2 Responses to Setting Goals: Unexpected Results

  1. Janet says:

    A great book about memorizing is “Moonwalking with Einstein”. The idea of placing a word to remember inside a room is really a great way to cement that word, person’s name, or place in your memory bank. I’m enjoying the book right now.

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