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The Surprising Truth About Why Goal Setting Doesn’t Work For Your Kid

Have you been setting goals for your teenager, hoping to kickstart their motivation, but feel like you’re just hitting a brick wall? This common scenario leaves many parents wondering where they’re going wrong.

The truth is, while goal setting can be a powerful tool, it doesn’t apply to motivating many teenagers. The effectiveness of goal setting hinges on the presence of at least some initial motivation. It’s great for elevating low motivation but falls short when there’s an absolute lack of drive.

You might say, “But I’ve read about the Harvard goal-setting study. Isn’t it try that it can improve a person’s motivation?”

Let’s delve into what this study actually entails.

teenager doesn't feel motivated to do homework even when goals are set

What is the Harvard / Yale goal-setting study?

You might have heard about the mythical “goal-setting study” from Harvard or Yale circulating on the internet and parenting blogs. 

It goes like this.

A 1953 (some said 1979) graduating class of Harvard (or Yale) MBA students was asked to write down their goals. Years later, it was found that those who did write them down were more successful.

This “study” is on so many websites that it must be true.

However, multiple people set out to find this study and could not find it, including this author.

There was even a notice in the Yale University Library’s FAQ to confirm its non-existence.​1​

(Also, as an alum of the 2002 Harvard MBA class, I can confidently say that if this legendary goal-setting study had been real, they would have had us writing down goals as a graduation requirement!)

Why does this matter? 

It highlights how easily we can be swayed by appealing but unsupported claims, especially when we are desperate to find solutions for demotivated teenagers, and something appears to be the magical cure.

What is the goal-setting theory of motivation?

The goal-setting theory of motivation, primarily developed by Locke and Latham is a framework that outlines how goals can be used to enhance performance and motivation. Goal-setting works best under the following conditions.​2​

  • When the goals are clear and challenging 
  • When the goals are used as a way to measure performance
  • When the goals are tied to getting feedback about performance
  • When the goals receive commitment and acceptance

The commitment and acceptance requirement is what most unmotivated teenagers lack and why parents cannot motivate their teens through goal setting.

In addition, most studies supporting this theory were conducted in work settings. In these environments, no matter how low an employee’s motivation might dip, there’s usually a basic drive to keep the job. This base level of motivation is crucial for goal setting to work.

How to create motivation in teenagers?

Understand the root cause of your teenager’s amotivation

To effectively motivate teenagers, first identify the root cause of their lack of motivation. Is it a lack of interest, confidence, or ability? Or is it depression, learning disability, or illnesses?

Without understanding and addressing these underlying issues, setting goals is akin to placing a band-aid on a wound that requires surgery.

Check Out: How to Motivate a Teenager Who Doesn’t Care Or Refuses To Do Anything

Allow autonomy and use natural consequences

To foster genuine interest and motivation in teenagers, they must understand the real reasons behind their actions. When a teen is pushed to study, they often perceive it as satisfying a parent’s desire for good grades. The parent is like a barrier in front of them, blocking their view of the true consequences and implications of studying. If the parent steps aside and allows their teen to take the lead, the child can then fully appreciate the real outcomes of either pursuing or neglecting their studies.

In addition, the self-determination theory highlights autonomy as one of three fundamental psychological needs. When teenagers feel they have control over their actions, they are more likely to develop intrinsic motivation. Depriving them of this sense of autonomy can hinder their ability to find genuine, self-driven motivation.​3​

Strengthen relationships and get buy-in

If your teenager isn’t convinced of the value and purpose of studying or attending school, enforcing these activities will always be met with resistance or disinterest.

A strong parent-child relationship can influence a teen’s attitude toward education. When teenagers feel supported and understood by their parents, they are more open to communication and guidance. This open communication channel can then be used to discuss the importance of education in a more receptive environment.

When your child has a good relationship with you, they care about what you care about. If you value education, they will internalize that as their values, too.​4​

Also See: Bad Grades – How Parents Can Help Teenagers Achieve


  1. 1.
    Galas L. Q. Where can I find information on Yale’s 1953 goal study? Answered by: Laura Galas. Yale University Library. Published August 28, 2020.
  2. 2.
    Lunenburg FC. Goal-setting theory of motivation. International journal of management, business, and administration. 2011;15(1):1-6.
  3. 3.
    Ryan RM, Deci EL. Intrinsic and extrinsic motivation from a self-determination theory perspective: Definitions, theory, practices, and future directions. Contemporary Educational Psychology. Published online April 2020:101860. doi:10.1016/j.cedpsych.2020.101860
  4. 4.
    Howard JL, Bureau JS, Guay F, Chong JXY, Ryan RM. Student Motivation and Associated Outcomes: A Meta-Analysis From Self-Determination Theory. Perspect Psychol Sci. Published online February 16, 2021:1300-1323. doi:10.1177/1745691620966789


    * All information on is for educational purposes only. Parenting For Brain does not provide medical advice. If you suspect medical problems or need professional advice, please consult a physician. *