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109 MARCH 2008
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Teaching the hope recipe: Setting goals, finding pathways to those goals and getting motivated

C. R. Snyder, Thuy Tran, Lisa L. Schroeder Kimberley Mann Pulvers, Virgil Adams III, and Lesley Laub

Hope theory research has shown that people with higher hopes are demonstrably higher achievers in life. The authors define hope as goal-directed thinking and suggest that we can increase young people’s chances of success by teaching them a three-step recipe for hope.

In the year 2000, we frequently hear about “the youth problem,” that mysterious, scary, out-of-control unraveling of lives that seems to affect an inordinate number of children in our country. Young people are murdering and being murdered, children are having children, and in the faces pictured in accompanying news reports we sense fear, boredom, and rampant despair. We are left shaking our heads, wondering what went wrong.

This youth problem seems like a tragic drama of epic proportions. But it is not theater. It is real life. If we own the youth problem, however, if we take responsibility, we have a chance to change matters for the better. Owning the problem is the first step in the pursuit of hope.

Our study of hope in children for the last 15 years has led us to a new definition of hope – one that differs from all previous ones in that it is practical and can be stated in easily understood terms. Hope, it turns out, is not a nebulous concept. It is, essentially, goal-directed thinking. To engage in such thinking – hopeful thinking – it is necessary first to establish goals. We all think of our lives in terms of goals, and our children can (and do) also. Second, hopefulness requires that we come up with effective pathways for reaching our desired goals. And third, we have to have the motivation to use the pathways that will bring us to our goals.

Thus the hope recipe is a short one with three ingredients:

1. Set clear goals that you value.
2. Think about how you can reach those goals.
3. Call forth the motivation to use those routes.

The last two ingredients of hopeful thinking are captured in the phrase “where there’s a will there’s a way.”

Hope mentoring
The hopeful children we have known did not get their hope magically. In a study in which we asked adults to look back and report on their childhoods, those with the highest hope reported that they had caregivers who provided large amounts of mentoring time (Snyder, 1994). That’s right there was some adult who spent time with them.

In our research we have found that parents with higher hope, especially if it is the primary caregiver, have children with higher hope. But this observation does not apply only to parents. The high-hopers we have documented often reported that the people who spent the time and gave them hope during their childhoods were neighbors, aunts or uncles, coaches, teachers, and so on. Indeed, such “fictive kin” actively provide loving support in the absence of blood relatives for African Americans (George & Swyther, 1988). The time spent mentoring children has several benefits: as we teach them to hope for their futures, we also keep them from spending formative time with those whose influence may be less benevolent.

What we offer here is an organized approach to achieving the beneficial effects of hope mentoring. Our recipe emphasizes goals, pathways, and motivation.

Adults can start by helping children set clear goals that have markers that they can use to see progress. We believe vague goals may actually lessen hope. Generally, we would suggest helping a child implement the strategy that we have observed in high-hope children. High-hopers set high goals. A child who sets a goal that is slightly higher than his or her previous level of performance learns to expand the range of hope and also learns a great deal about which goals are best for him or her.

Goals can be quite simple (to master a spelling list, to make friends at a new school) or more complex and long-range (to earn the grades needed to get into a competitive college, to become a musician). What is important is that the goals be identified. Our research shows that high-hopers are just as interested in furthering other people’s goals as they are in furthering their own. Thus, high-hope people are interested in “we” goals along with their “me” goals (Snyder, Cheavens, & Sympson, 1997). In other words, high-hopers have empathic tendencies.

When helping a child set goals,

Listen carefully so that you know what the child really wants.
Make sure the child considers a few attractive goals before settling on one.
Help with making “stretch goals” – goals that increase challenge by building on previous performance.
Help match the child's goals with his or her talents.
Show how conflicting goals can be a problem and help him or her select one goal.
Remind the child to set goals he or she wants, rather than seek things others want.
Let the child make the decision about a goal whenever possible.

Assume the child can learn to identify goals without your coaching.
Rush the child when he or she is selecting a goal.
Foster vague goal-setting by saying “Just do your best” or “Give it a good try.”
Confuse the child with too many possible goals.
Second-guess the child's goal decisions.
Push the child to extremely difficult goals.

Pathways are the mental means to all the wonderful things our children desire. In society today, a child needs to be imaginative about coming up with good strategies to reach his or her goal. As a hope mentor, have sessions where you help a child make plans.

Perhaps the most important approach to teaching about pathways is what we have called “stepping” (see Snyder, 1994). In stepping, the child learns how to break a long-term goal down into small substeps. The child then starts with the first, closest step, building incrementally toward the desired result.

As any adult knows who has taught a child to ride a bike, our would-be rider builds a repertoire of skills that eventually lead to that wonderful “I’m riding a bike!" achievement. Even through the numerous falls and wobbles, the child is learning through positive challenge because each consecutive goal (moving the pedals, balancing, going a block without falling) is a “stretch” “something just a little more difficult than the step that precedes it.

One approach that we have found useful is to have the children imagine that they are going on a trip. The goals they have set are their destinations, and they need to plot routes to reach those goals. A similar approach is to instruct children in making positive mental tapes about how they can reach their goals step by step. It is useful to have a child come up with several routes in case one should be blocked.

When helping a child build pathways,

Teach the child to have mental scripts about the chain of activities that occur in certain situations.
Help the child break a long pathway into smaller, doable steps.
Teach the child to consider failures to be the results of ineffective strategies rather than of a lack of talent.
Talk with the child about his or her plans for reaching the goals.

Minimize the child's concern about something he or she has not learned (instead, offer help in addressing the problem).
Require the child to become quiet and submissive.
Do all the planning for the child.
Readily agree with the child if he or she concludes that there is no pathway available for reaching a goal.

Children need help figuring out how to motivate themselves to use their routes to their goals. We need to help them understand that it is the trying, the effort expended, that is the crucial thing to learn, and thereby lessen their desire to produce outcomes per se (Dweck, 1999). In fact it is not necessary to worry about the outcomes; they will come naturally over time.

Children find it helpful to be reminded of other times when they summoned the requisite motivation to go after the things that they wanted. We can assure them that roadblocks are a normal part of life and that it is helpful to view these barriers as challenges rather than failures. Furthermore, learning to laugh at oneself and one’s adventures and misadventures is a mentally freeing and energizing process. It is even helpful to talk about your own struggles with motivation, and what you did to “get moving” when you were a child. Be warned, however, that stories of hiking to school in 3 feet of snow may no longer impress. Such tales will not be very motivating to a child whose walk to school includes background explosions of gunfire.

If a child is low in motivation, it may be that he or she is making comparisons with the outcomes of other children. Sometimes adults need to help children make charts where they can plot day-by-day improvements. If the goal is improved spelling or understanding of word meaning, for example, a growing list of the child's vocabulary can be posted in a conspicuous place. If the goal is to have fewer tantrums, placing stars on a calendar for tantrum-free days may be effective. Whatever means of charting you devise, it should enable the child to see progress being made. Such charts do not and should not lead to setting perfectionistic goals, but they do illustrate positive movement to our children. This perception of positive movement is crucial.

Interestingly, our research shows that, as important as the actual performance goal areas may be, what a child perceives about his or her competence is more important. Children with higher hope also perceive that they have more competence in the scholastic, athletic, and social areas. This self-perception of competence is a key to maintaining high hope in children.

When helping a child become motivated,

Take every opportunity to make the child realize that he or she was the one who made something happen.
Praise the child whenever the child shows determination to get something he or she wants (assuming it is something you condone!).
Teach the child to have positive thoughts about how the child is able to do things.
Help the child accentuate strengths and minimize weaknesses.
Emphasize how barriers are a normal part of life and are to be anticipated.
Tell the child about barriers you encountered in your childhood, and share how you coped successfully and unsuccessfully with them.
Suggest that barriers should be viewed as challenges rather than as preludes to failure.
Encourage the child to recall how he or she has overcome previous barriers.
Help the child learn to laugh at him- or herself and personal predicaments.
Encourage the child to enjoy the process of getting to his or her goals, instead of focusing solely on the outcome.
Allow the child to take time-outs from pursuing his or her goals.

Assume that the child just knows when you are proud of goal-directed efforts and achievements – tell him or her.
Dwell on weaknesses or failures.
Tell the child “You can’t do this” or “I'll do it myself.”
Overdo your stories about your childhood successes at overcoming difficulties.
Intervene and try to solve the child's problems.
Tell the child how involved and motivated he or she should be for particular goals.
Commit the child to so many activities that he or she does not have time to relax.

Serving suggestions
When offering children this recipe for hope, we suggest active, involving interactions with them. For example, read books to younger children – or better yet, have them read to you (Snyder, McDermott, Cook, & Rapoff, 1997). With teenagers, it is important to attend their school, club, musical, and sporting events. By doing this, we are showing that we care enough to invest our time. Furthermore, in going to their various activities, we develop engaging topics for conversation. Hope mentors are active participants in children's lives.

By spending time and energy working with children, mentors model the kind of goal-directed thinking that is an essential component of hope. And mentors need not worry about doing “just the right thing.” Children are very forgiving and greatly appreciate anyone’s taking the time to teach them. Even many hardened adolescents with tough, “I don’t give a damn” demeanors will eventually be drawn to someone with a genuine desire to help. Spending time with them lets them know that someone cares whether they make it in this world. This is the most basic hope lesson. Children with increased hope enjoy their relationships, and you will see this as you become a hope mentor to a youth. A hero, after all, is not just someone who takes some dramatic action to help another. Rather, the hero in a child's eyes is the adult who takes the time to give the gift of hope.

Children are not the only beneficiaries of hope mentoring. When you work with children as a hope mentor, you will experience an increase in personal satisfaction and happiness. Research allows us to infer that people who help others are responding to a natural human need for altruism (Batson, 1991). People who help others also feel good (Snyder, 1994).

In our research on hope, we have worked at the individual level to discover what one person can do to increase hope in the life of another person. And we have found that it need not be much. Hope works little by little, person by person, creating a ripple effect that can benefit more and more of our children. Those who become models of hope – as coaches, parents, teachers, caregivers, or other allies – are owning the “youth problem.” We are reclaiming our power to make a difference. Each of us, in our small role, can try to foster an environment where a child can set meaningful goals, find ways to reach those goals, and be motivated to attain those goals.

The three ingredients we have specified constitute a recipe for the hope we need to start serving our children. A child raised on such interpersonal hope will be less likely to go psychologically hungry in the 21st century. And our investment of time and energy is well worthwhile. A story that has been making the e-mail rounds lately, from a woman who works with homeless children, serves as a lovely illustration of our point: “On the street,” she says, “I saw a small girl cold and shivering in a thin dress, with little hope of a decent meal. I became angry and said to God: 'Why did you permit this? Why don’t you do something about it?” For a while God said nothing. That night God replied quite suddenly: 'I certainly did something about it ... I made you.” “


Relative to the average or low-hope person, the high-hoper:
  • is more likely to have a fairly consistent pattern of high-hope thought across time
  • probably has had a major positive adult role model to look up to as a child
  • is certain of his or her goals and challenged by them
  • is likely to consider relevant external standards set by others, but attends primarily to his or her own standards in setting goals
  • values progress toward goals as much as the goals themselves
  • easily establishes friendships in childhood and later
  • enjoys interacting with people and listening to the perspectives of others
  • has give-and-take relationships in which both parties gain things from the interchange
  • is more likely to have higher grades throughout school, is less likely to drop out, and is more likely to graduate from college
  • is less anxious, especially in evaluative, test-taking circumstances
  • exhibits more positive affectivity and is higher in well-being, perceived self-worth, self-esteem, and confidence (in several arenas)
  • exhibits better recovery from physical injuries
  • is less likely to have thought about suicide


Batson, C. D. (1991). The altruism question: Toward a social psychological answer. Hillsdale, NJ. Erlbaum.

Dweck, C. S. (1999). Self-theories: Their role in motivation, personality, and development. Philadelphia. Taylor & Francis.

George, L. K., & Swyther, L. E (1988). Support groups for caregivers of memory impaired elderly: Easing caregiver burden. In L. A. Bond & B. M. Wagner (Eds.), Families in transition: Primary prevention programs that work. Primary prevention of psychopathology,11, pp. 309-331. Beverly Hills, C. Sage Publications.

Snyder, C. R. (1994). The psychology of hope: You can get there from here. New York. Free Press.

Snyder, C. R., Cheavens, J., & Sympson, S. (1997). Hope: An individual motive for social commerce. Group Dynamics: Theory, Research, and Practice, 1, pp. 1-12.

Snyder, C. R., McDermott, D., Cook, W., & Rapoff M. (1997). Hope for the journey: Helping children through good times and bad. Boulder, CO. Westview.

This feature: C. R. Snyder, Thuy Tran, Lisa L. Schroeder Kimberley Mann Pulvers, Virgil Adams III, and Lesley Laub (2000). Teaching the Hope Recipe: Setting goals, finding pathways to those goals, and getting motivated. Reaching Today’s Youth, 4, 4. pp. 46-50.

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