Living in the Growth Zone

Want to help your kids reach their potential in all areas? Encourage them to live in the Growth Zone.

A couple of years ago I read a book called Talent is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers From Everybody Else by Geoff Colvin, and it introduced me to a concept that has been fruitful in my home (and Jody’s too!).

There are three basic zones where we can choose to live: the Comfort Zone, the Growth Zone and the Incompetence Zone. Most of us choose the first for obvious reasons – it’s familiar, it’s automated, it’s habitual, it’s quick, it’s easy…it’s comfortable. The Comfort Zone is simply doing what we are good at, what we like, what we always do.

In some areas, the Comfort Zone is both appropriate and efficient. Think of morning and evening routines. We want our kids to wake up, start the day with prayer, make their beds, tidy their rooms, brush their teeth, get dressed, and get to the breakfast table on time. Routines help make this process quick, smooth, and comfortable. As it should be! The same holds true for the bedtime routine.

But when it comes to schoolwork, life skills, exercise, and specialized skills, we want our children to blossom and flourish. We want them to strive for excellence and mastery, and this process is inevitably and necessarily uncomfortable.

Think about developing muscles. It takes consistency (working out even when you don’t feel like it), discomfort and endurance.

The Music Example

My husband is a musician, and he teaches guitar part time. When a new student comes, he tells them that their success hinges not on the time they spend in the lesson but on the time they spend practicing at home. The more they practice, the better they will play. But here’s the catch – practicing guitar can be painful for a new student (the strings literally hurt their fingers), and it can be boring. Until they learn enough basics to begin playing something recognizable, chords and scales can be a drag. But unless they are willing to drill these basics over and over, pushing through the discomfort and the boredom, it never gets easier, and it’s never fun.

But the key to mastery in every area is pushing through the difficult part to reach success. My husband has been a musician for more than two decades, but he still practices an hour every day (sometimes two or three) and learns new theories, seeks out new sounds and sets new goals.

Guitar practice is a great example of how the zones work. Often my husband’s younger students have the most difficulty practicing. They don’t have the inner motivation to get through the discomfort, so it falls on their parents’ shoulders to enforce practice time. Typically, his teenage students have a clear goal, and they’re more willing to persevere.


It helps to have incentives. If our kids can’t find an intrinsic reason for growing, we can offer extrinsic rewards. Some parents shy away from rewards, thinking that it’s just bribery, but if presented well, rewards can go a long to helping kids learn to develop their own inner reasons for pushing through to success.

Just as consequences teach that bad choices equal bad results, rewards teach that good choices equal good results!


In our house, kids get points for things like housework, and at the end of the week, points can translate into cash. That’s not to say they can choose to abandon their duties if they don’t feel like working. In fact, not doing your chores with excellence can lead to discipline in our family, but if they work hard, without being told and achieve a level of excellence, our kids will be rewarded.

Leaving the Comfort Zone

With or without rewards, growth always begins by leaving the Comfort Zone. For music practice, it means setting aside time (typically an interruption in a person’s schedule is uncomfortable) and drilling the basics over and over (often painful to the fingers and usually boring). Then, at the lesson the student has to display what they have learned so the instructor can inspect how well they are doing and what needs adjusting. This can also be somewhat uncomfortable for the student.

But when a student is willing to endure these discomforts and is willing do it again and again, he will grow. Consistent practice of foundational skills over time is operating in the Growth Zone.

Pushing Into the Growth Zone

Now, once a student masters a set of skills, he has to begin learning new ones or else he becomes comfortable and stops growing. This seems like common sense, right? But in life, we see it happen all the time. How many times have we, as grown adults, worked hard at something only to reach a comfortable place and then stop? Think about weight loss. Anyone who has ever battled the bulge can probably relate to a time when they worked hard (leaving their Comfort Zone) for a season, only to slip back into old, more comfortable ways once they’ve achieved a small measure of success.

So continuing to push into the Growth Zone requires consistent evaluation and increasing challenge.

The Incompetent Zone

But there is also a point where we can push too far. As a teacher, my husband has, on occasion, over estimated the ability of a student and given him a task that’s too difficult. In that case, the student is pushed into the Incompetence Zone, and just as he can’t grow in the Comfort Zone, he can’t grow where he is still incompetent.

Let’s look at another area where this concept can help our kids grow and succeed. One of my main goals as a parent is to raise children who are capable of running a household with excellence by the time they leave my home.

Growing Life Skills

I want my kids to be able to budget money and save, plan and prepare healthy meals, maintain a beautiful home that offers a place of rest and rejuvenation, and be good stewards of their things (cars, tools, appliances, etc.). All of this takes training.

I will never forget the first time I went grocery shopping for my new apartment. I was out on my own, and I had to make all of my own meals. Eating out for every meal wasn’t in the budget, and I didn’t have the dining hall to fall back on, as I did in college. Nor did I have roommates who would pick up my slack, as I did when a bunch of us moved off campus.

Walking up and down the aisles on that first shopping trip, I grew more and more perplexed. Hmmm…what should I get, I thought? Milk! People buy milk at the grocery store. It’s a staple, right? Oh, and bread! That’s important.

I went on to collect a strange hodgepodge of things in my shopping cart that I thought I’d need. But after a day or two, I realized that I didn’t have much to make actual meals, and I was pretty sure I couldn’t survive forever on cereal and pasta.

It took years for me to learn how to make a menu, use recipes, and build up a stock supply of spices and other ingredients. Cooking is both a science and an art, and I had to learn the building blocks to be able to eventually do it well.  Truth be told, I don’t enjoy cooking (thank you God for giving me a husband who does!), but I can do it, and I can do well when I have to.

Still, it was an uphill battle, as was learning how to clean efficiently, budget, balance a checkbook, save money, and so on. I decided that I didn’t want my kids to struggle as young adults the way I struggled. I wanted them to leave my home as fully competent adults.

Finding the Growth Zone

When we start teaching our kids life skills, it’s easy to allow them to either live in their Comfort Zone or to push them into their Incompetence Zone. I remember trying to teach my older daughter how to sweep. She was seven at the time, and I soon realized that no matter how hard she tried, the broom was too cumbersome for her little body, and she was not going to do it with excellence until she was taller. At that point, she was an incompetent sweeper.

My fourth child is now nine, and sweeping is not on his task list, but after almost a year of consistent training, he does an excellent job of washing the dishes, wiping down the counters, folding and putting his clothes away, changing his bed sheets and keeping  the living and dining room tidy throughout the day.

When he started, it was messy and uncomfortable (both for him and for me). He would wash and rinse the dishes, and then, dripping wet from chest to waist, he would come find me and ask for an inspection. There was water all over the counter and the floor, and there was still some food and soap on the dishes, which meant I needed to do some retraining, and he needed to try again. Dishes took a LONG time to get through in the beginning, and I made sure he did it all by himself, including drying up the water mess, changing his clothes and hanging the wet ones out to dry and then being responsible for putting the clothes in the hamper when they dried.

Once a chore is mastered, it’s time to either have that child train up his replacement (a younger sibling) or add a new level of responsibility (perhaps learning how to plan and cook the meal). Otherwise, they will slip into the Comfort Zone and the growing will stop.

Growing in Academics

Perhaps your daughter has great math grades and her homework has become a breeze. She might be operating in the Comfort Zone, and that means she’s no longer growing. I’ve heard this story many times – a child gets great grades for a time, but eventually they start to slip, and parents are left baffled. What happened to my honors student, they ask?

Chances are they grew comfortable, and began to find excitement and stimulation somewhere else. But by encouraging them into the Growth Zone, we can help our kids find lasting success.

So take our math whiz who now breezes through her nightly homework. It might be time to hop online and pick up some supplemental math workbooks or find games that will challenge her skills. Help her set a goal and choose a reward for completing the goal. Maybe you can contact her teacher and see if there are any students in the class who might enjoy a peer tutor (learn more about one on one tutoring at home). If so, your child could reinforce her own skills by teaching them to someone else, plus it will build a strong work ethic and sense of civic responsibility.

In the summer and on long breaks, you can help your kids get ahead in math or master those times tables. You can assign them to a read a great novel or pick up a book of fun science experiments and challenge them to finish all the experiments before the end of the break. You can download a song of the 50 States and offer a date with mom when they can recite all the states and capitals, or pick up a field guide of trees and challenge them to identify every species they can find on your block.

Growing Kids Means Growing Parents

Most kids won’t push themselves into a Growth Zone; they have to be coached. Let’s face it, human nature does not gravitate toward discomfort. We, the parents, have to also remember this means growing for us as well. It’s not comfortable to consistently remind (and sometimes demand) our kids to practice an instrument or sport or do extra academic work. It’s often inconvenient to stop what we’re doing to inspect a child’s work and re-teach a skill and then inspect it again. But we can not expect what we’re not willing to inspect. And without allowing our kids to work at something again and again, we won’t help them master a task.

However, if we can work diligently with our kids to examine their school work, special skills, life skills and health and wellness, we can help them set big (but attainable) goals and then hold them accountable to consistently working. In the end, they will achieve well-rounded success.


Jenni Stahlmann

Jenni Stahlmann is the mom of seven kids (ages 1 to 20) including one on the autism spectrum. She and her husband Matthew homeschool the whole brood. Jenni has been a journalist for more than 20 years, having covered government, business and family issues for a wide range of magazines and newspapers. Currently, she and Jody co-host a weekly syndicated radio show, write a weekly newspaper column and freelance articles and speak at churches, political groups and homeschool conventions about parenting on purpose.

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Jenni Stahlmann is the mom of seven kids (ages 1 to 20) including one on the autism spectrum. She and her husband Matthew homeschool the whole brood. Jenni has been a journalist for more than 20 years, having covered government, business and family issues for a wide range of magazines and newspapers. Currently, she and Jody co-host a weekly syndicated radio show, write a weekly newspaper column and freelance articles and speak at churches, political groups and homeschool conventions about parenting on purpose.

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