When we set a goal for our kids, we don’t start by reaching for the moon. You know that old saying, “Reach for the moon. Even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars.” That sounds lovely but if we want to go from Earth to the moon all in one hop, we’ll find that gravity is not kidding around and we will definitely NOT land among any stars. We’ll be in a heap on the ground.

When we set a goal for ourselves, we get there by taking baby steps. Small progress along the way adds up to the results we long for. Ever run a marathon? (Me neither.) But people who DO run marathons don’t start by running 26 miles on the first day. They run one mile. Or even less if you are a super beginner like me! Then they add a little. Little by little they make their way to a major goal- completing a marathon!

Getting our kids to do some things may feel like you are shooting for the moon or asking them to run a marathon. To get there, we need baby steps. We need astronaut training and steps to build the rocket. We need practice runs starting at just one measly (or amazing!) mile.

By using positive reinforcement to build up baby steps towards the goal, you are doing more than just good parenting. You are using a research-based tool called shaping.

Let’s look at some examples to make it easier:

Going on a bike ride around the block.

  1. Learning to ride in the driveway or sidewalk
  2. Practice turning.
  3. Practice getting to the side if you see a car.
  4. Ride in front of the house.
  5. Ride halfway down the street and back.
  6. Ride all the way down the street and back.
  7. Ride to the end of the street.
  8. Ride all the way around the block.

Bathing self

  1. Get in the tub alone, parent does the rest.
  2. Get in the tub + get hair wet, parent does the rest.
  3. Do above + put shampoo on head, parent does the rest.
  4. Do above + scrub shampoo….
  5. + rinse shampoo
  6. + get washcloth
  7. +put soap on washcloth
  8. + scrub face, ears, neck
  9. +scrub arms, shoulder, and torso
  10. You get the picture.

You’ll make it to the finish line. You’ll make it to the moon, no missing.

The size of the baby steps depends on how things are going. Start small and make those steps into bigger leaps as your child has some wins under their belt. Build that confidence and motivation by helping them succeed on the first few steps. Then you can make the next steps bigger until they are doing the new skill all on their own!

How do we help them master the steps? Positive reinforcement! Give praise, attention, celebration for mastering a baby step! You might give tokens in a token economy towards a prize. The better the reinforcement (immediate, good size, something they value), the faster the progress!

But what if they need more help? Then give it! Make the baby steps smaller. Make the reinforcement bigger. Use prompting to help them get there. Help them out! Don’t give up. Make it more fun with pairing.

When we have ideas for things we’d really like our children to be able to do independently, break it down into baby steps. Start small. Meet your child where they are at right now. Build a little at a time. Give lots of reinforcement along the way.

You’ll make it to the finish line. You’ll make it to the moon, no missing.