Children’s Possible Selves: Helping children reflect and plan

The approaching Thanksgiving weekend is a chance to slow down and, as parents, ask ourselves: Have we had at least one longer, reflective, supportive, and introspective conversation with our children about school? By now the children are once again fully immersed in school routines. After the carefree summer holidays, the school has now become a key part of their identity. It’s the perfect time to delve deeper and explore how they’re doing.

They’ve had four full weeks to get back into the daily school routine and to get to know all their teachers and their expectations. They may have already experienced a few academic or social challenges. Starting a conversation about these experiences gives them much-needed space to reflect and assess. It’s also the best time to discuss future plans and desired outcomes.

Yes, reflection is about looking back, but it can also help to identify personally meaningful goals and possible future selves. American psychologists Hazel Markus and Paula Nurius define possible selves as our personal ideas of what we want to become. In other words, possible selves are the equivalent of “What do I want to do when I grow up?” Or “What type of success do I want at the end of this term?” Or “How do I get better at making friends?”

While not specifically related to child development, the concept of future selves can help us motivate children and support their planning and goal-setting. If they know specifically what they want their future to look like, they are more likely to act in ways that can make that future a reality. Children tend not to think too much about the future, so our job is to nudge them in that direction.

How do we make this happen? First, find the time to talk. These conversations can happen anywhere. You can chat in the car while driving home after school, or at dinner, or while walking the dog together. The conversations don’t need to be long. In fact, revisiting the topic regularly and consistently tends to be more effective than one or two lengthy discussions.

Then, carefully formulate the questions you ask to ensure that they help your children make that connection to the future, to see their possible selves. Consider the following examples:

  • Now that you’re in grade 5, you’ll have to write exams before Christmas. What do you think that will be like? How will you make sure that you’re ready?
  • Parent-teacher interviews are coming up. What would you like me to hear from your teachers? What have you been doing to make sure I hear those things?
  • I can’t believe it’s already October! It’ll be June soon and closing ceremonies. I know some kids care about getting awards. Do you see yourself up on that stage getting an award? Is that important to you?

Of course, these are only suggestions. Every child and every child-parent relationship is different, so it’s important to adjust accordingly based on what’s relevant and personally meaningful to your children.

Possible selves conversations help children move away from living strictly in the present and introduce the idea of planning, of “if this, then that.” This helps them develop self-regulation and, as decades of research have shown, self-regulation is key to academic and labour market success.

Children are deep thinkers who can surprise us with their insights if we take the time to ask good questions. Unfortunately, as adults, we succumb to the daily tyranny of the urgent and the best we can often muster is the trite “How was your day?” Or “How was school?” Future selves conversations help parents change the focus from what is happening today to conversations about outcomes and using the present to influence the future. Such conversations build agency and make parents and children partners in personally meaningful journeys.

Wishing you a calm and relaxing Thanksgiving weekend,