Goal setting for boys: 5 simple ways to motivate your son
Human behaviour is complex, and trying to understand boys can certainly be challenging! As parents and teachers, often all we want to know is how to inspire, energise and help our boys navigate their way through school and social life.
One of the best ways for us to understand boys is to consider what motivates them. What gives them drive? What gives them that elusive ‘verve’ for life?
According to Professor Andrew Martin from the University of Sydney, motivation plays a huge part in boys’ interest in school and study. Interestingly, when Martin compared boys to girls, he found that during Years 9 and 10 both genders’ motivation for school decreases. Interestingly, girls bounce back during Years 11 and 12, whereas boys do not seem to recover that drive.
So what can we do for our boys?
Simple. We can help them identify and set goals that for them are relevant, personal, challenging, and highly motivating.
In 1968, Professor Edwin Locke proposed that motivation increases when people accept and are committed to specific challenging goals, and when feedback is provided. Locke’s theory continues to be highly popular today due to the amount of research that backs it up.
Considering Locke’s theory, what does this mean for boys?
It means that for goals to be effective for boys they need to be:
Goals for boys need to be personal, meaningful and relevant. Goals need to be important. To them. If they’re not valued or of importance to boys, then forget it.
Your son needs to own his goal. Not his parents. Not his teachers. The goal needs to be his.
2. Specific and challenging (but not too challenging)
One of the hardest things, as parents and teachers, is worrying about whether something is ‘too hard’ or ‘out of reach’. We do not like to set up our boys to fail.
It is all well and good (and easier) to set simple goals – but simple goals are easy to achieve and although a boy might feel that first flush of success, their sense of achievement will quickly wane.
Therefore, goals are more effective if they are ambitious.
When a goal is more ambitious, boys have to start to rely on their ability to discover and use a wider range of strategies and skills. As they begin to do this their confidence grows. They become explorers, and they also start testing themselves.
Your son will have drive to work harder.
So now we have established that goals need to be challenging, we also need to remember that they need to be achievable.
It’s not enough for us, as parents and teachers, to tell them that we know they can. Boys need to believe that they can personally achieve the goal. This is known as self-efficacy. If boys believe they can, they will persist (even if they suffer initial setbacks). And persistence is the key to resilience.
Goals need to be measurable. Boys need to know if they’re closer to achieving their goal. If a goal is not measurable, a boy will lose interest. Quickly.
For example: if your son wants to be the fastest sprinter in his athletics team, rather than say “train harder” or “do your best”, we might say, “focus on beating your personal best” or “see if you can be in the top 5 sprinters at today’s competition.”
Breaking a larger or more complex goal into smaller parts helps boys measure their progress. As he achieves each part it acts as a milestone towards the goal.
Therefore, boys need feedback. Feedback can be concrete (e.g. a time on a stopwatch or a score on a game), or can be more qualitative – such as verbal feedback from parents and teachers. For feedback to be effective (and that’s another article!) it should be objective, useful and positive.
A good rule of thumb is Barbara Frederickson’s positivity ratio – for every negative piece of feedback there should be three pieces of positive, 1:3
Finally, although our boys might groan about due dates and deadlines, the truth is for goals to be effective they need to be time-bound.
A general rule of thumb is that the more ambitious the goal, the longer the timeline needs to be. Otherwise there is too much pressure, and boys will give up.
If you notice that boys are under too much pressure and becoming stressed, it might be time to help them reassess their goals. Are they too difficult or unrealistic? Encourage boys to modify their goals if this is the case and reassure them that there is no loss of face by doing this.
It is also important to emphasise that we do not want to confuse motivation with performance.
Sure, we would all love our boys to be at the top of their class or be the best in their sporting team, or to be the lead in the school play. However, as parents and teachers, what we want deep down is boys for to look forward to school, and look forward to their future. Therefore, if we can help motivate them, we’ll put a hop in their step and a gleam in their eye without burdening them with unfair academic and social expectations.
Goals are highly motivating for boys. By setting ambitious and personal goals, boys get a sense of where they are at and where they are heading. This gives them drive and energy. And we want our boys to be inspired. By helping our boys set goals we can instil in them a sense of confidence and purpose.
Fredrickson, B.L., & Losada, M.F. (2005). Positive affect and the complex dynamics of human flourishing. American Psychologist, 60 (7): 678–86.
Levy, P.E. (2013). Industrial/Organizational Psychology: Understanding the Workplace. Worth Publishers, USA.
Locke, E. A. (1968). Toward a theory of task motivation and incentives. Organizational Behavior and Human Performance 3 (2): 157.
Martin, A.J. (2003). Boys and motivation. Australian Educational Researcher, 30(3), 43–65.
Mulcahy, M., & Warner, J. (2011). Get Psyched. Cambridge University Press.
Woods, S.A., & West, M.A. (2010). The Psychology of Work and Organisations. Hampshire, UK: South-Western Cengage Learning.
Meg Adem is a science and psychology teacher, writer and athletics coach at Brighton Grammar. This article is about High Performance
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