On a recent PowerLaunch radio show with the wonderful moms, authors, and speakers, Jenni and Jody http://www.jenniandjody.com/, I talked about Living in the Growth Zone. Here are some thoughts that come from our discussion, as well as research, parenting, and my training in the mental health field.
Raising Children in the Growth Zone
One of the biggest questions parents, grandparents, and teachers are asking teachers and counselors these days, is “How can I get the children I influence to work hard?” This question applies to working hard in school, at chores, in sports, music lessons, part time jobs, you name it. Some of the people asking this question are even parents of adult children who are still feeding off them, far after the blooming glow of adolescence has worn off, when they should by all rights be competent adults on their own.
There is no doubt about it, many of the kids in our society, to large degree, have lost their lack of motivation to achieve. With eighty percent of college graduates returning home after finishing their four-year degree, parents are struggling with students of all ages who just don’t have the inner motivation to move into a healthy independence. While sometimes there is good reason to move home after college, sometimes there is a deeper problem. When the going gets tough, kids of all ages are burning out fast. Millions of dollars are wasted on educational products each year in desperate hopes that they will do the fundamental thing that can only be done by the individual. Work.
Scientists have recently been studying this concept of how an individual develops stamina or “grit.” They are asking, along with parents, how can we keep kids successful and strong even when life becomes challenging or monotonous? The answer is not simple. Humans are not cookie cutters, and will be motivated by a variety of things. However, there are fascinating trends being discovered in the studies on motivation.
One of the wonderful surprises these scientists are finding is that the most successful students are not necessarily or even usually the most intellectual students, or those with the highest IQ. In fact IQ tests are confounded by people who are highly intelligent but don’t have proper motivation to try their best on the tests, so we are missing a myriad of intelligent kids, just by looking at test scores.
Instead of those with the highest IQ, the students who make the grade continually, whether it be graduating from West Point, with honors, surviving medical school, or succeeding at other difficult tasks like raising their own families successfully one day, are those who possess the internal drive to keep going despite the cost.
One such example of a very unexpected success, many of us have heard is about Albert Einstein, who did not speak until age 4, and could not read until age 7, but went on to win the Nobel Prize in Physics. High IQ? Yes. However, he never would have been discovered were it not for his motivation to bypass what others were saying about him and go for it. He stayed in the hot seat of failure, refused to become stagnant, and did not remain comfortable with an easy, vacant life, but continued to grow in wisdom and patience, keeping his eye on the prize, staying in the “growth zone.”
The Three Zones & Examples of Each
Whether you have a budding Einstein under your roof or a fiercely devoted artist, most of us, if we are being honest, will allow that our children don’t always live in the growth zone. Since we as adults share in the responsibility of helping them to get to this place, let’s talk about three zones or emotional areas that kids tend to gravitate in when it comes to learning.
The first zone is what we call the comfort zone. We all talk about wanting to stay in our comfort zone all of the time, and the meaning is simple. It’s an easy place to be and we all want to be there. However, life doesn’t work that way and any successful adult knows that stepping out of the comfort zone is the only way to find success.
We’ve all known someone who never left their comfort zone, for example, someone who has an ear for music, and plays very competently for a beginner, but never developed their gift. Though piano comes naturally, for some reason or other, they don’t push farther to learn more.
We see students like this all of the time. They’re getting bad grades on the report card, and their teacher thinks they don’t get the concepts. One day they take a test, and find out, lo and behold, they are highly competent. They’re just not trying; they’re usually in a comfort zone in this case.
A fascinating article I recently read was that America’s most intelligent man, using the IQ as the measure of intelligence, works as a bouncer at a bar. I’m not sure why he appears to be living in the comfort zone, but I am sure of one thing. Stating in the comfort zone is a guarantee for a life that is less meaningful, less enjoyable ultimately though it affords temporary pleasure, and of course, far easier. Just imagine how many ways this man could help our country if he were stretched to share his gifts on a broader scope with the world.
It goes without saying that we don’t want our kids to stay in the comfort zone, but since it feels so good and natural there, it’s not always easy to get them out of it.
The growth zone, by contrast, is the mental place where kids really thrive. The growth zone is where we want our kids to be because it is where they are being challenged whenever they get too close to the comfort zone. In most cases, they are being rewarded for stepping up to challenges, many times finding enjoyment to some degree, from those challenges.
For example, a successful student living in the growth zone doesn’t say, “I got one good report card, now that’s it.” They get comfortable with their learning, sure, but they add to it continually. Somewhere in life they have learned that life is enjoyed most when you work hard, and get your rest and rewards afterwards. They have learned this cycle of continual gratification comes only when hard work is a constant rather than an occasional behavior.
Finally, the incompetence zone is the emotional space where kids lose the ability to do the work, because they simply aren’t ready for it yet. They are not equipped for the challenge of the learning before them, but this time it isn’t for lack of trying. This incompetence zone is a space where kids aren’t ready to learn, but the parents and teachers in their lives are missing something big. It could be as simple as a piano student being given a piece that is too difficult, or something more serious, such a major family transition in their lives blocking their concentration, such as a loss of a family member, parental abandonment, major conflicts at home, or any number of difficult adjustment issues.
More rarely, it can be an emotional issue, or a lack of proper diagnosis. Most times, however, these kids are in the incompetent zone because they are not being given the tools they need to thrive for success. This can also be caused by poor teaching, a poor response to a traditional style of learning, from inconsistent or indulgent parenting, or a lack of caring adults in a student’s life.
How do Children Develop Tenacity or Resolve to Stay in the Growth Zone?
Though we cannot answer it with complete certainly, there are several key indicators that lead to trends in motivation research.
1. First, the most basic needs must be met in order for a child to thrive. These cannot be underestimated in importance. We have doubtlessly lost the chance to hear from some of the finest minds in the world because of poverty, cruelty, and circumstance. Doubtlessly, children thrive best in a home where they have a loving, nurturing, and non-violent mother and father to care for them. They need a roof over their heads, enough sleep at night, a balanced diet, consistency, a neighborhood and school life where they aren’t worried about survival, and they need time and attention.
2. Children need a healthy amount of pressure on them that increases as they age. From the day they are born, children must work for survival. We mothers work hard to get just the right latch for breastfeeding or bottle, and even when the child is screaming, we nurturing but firmly help them to meet the important goal for the most quality survival. No one wants to hear the words “failure to thrive” in infancy or in the later years. We must apply a decent amount of pressure to perform academically, physically in sports, both team and individual preferably. Pressure should increase as the child matures, of course. We expect a high schooler to be able to carry an eight hour load of classes as well as two hours of homework a night, not because we are cruel, as some resistant teens may think, but because, like it or not, being a successful adult requires work both during the workday as well as after it. We must not try to soothe or smooth over what must happen. Maturity. Hard work. Growth.
3. Children need rewards. I’m not talking bribery here, “Oh Johnny, pretty please put your toys away for me. Will you? If you do mommy will give candy.” We need to teach them that they can and will work hard, but the choice is whether they will do it without complaint or hesitation, and if they do that, they will have a reward. We can use charting, allowance, activities, whatever works. Each child is motivated by something very different, and a parent’s job is to find of what motivates as a reward and to reward them with it, as often as they do well. If they have astronomical desires, you bring them back to earth. When they are adults, they will find the paycheck comes after good work, and after good work only. They need to learn this from their parents, grandparents, and mentors first.
4. Finally, offer them rewards for not just winning, for not just A’s, but reward for effort and growth. Did they bring up their math grade from a D- to a B-? Reward them, and raise the stakes the next time. Did they get tons of physical fitness and exercise well and play great team sports play on a great soccer team, even if the team lost most of their games? Did your toddler clear his spot after dinner even though half of it spilled on the floor? If you saw them working hard to meet a goal, even if it was not met in just the way you had fantasized it to be, reward them anyway. Your kids need to learn from you, that hard work, determination, and resolve do not go unnoticed.
5. Finally, the fifth element in keeping your children in the growth zone is to love them with unconditional love. Not giving in to every whim and fancy, but tough love that says, “I see your capacity, I see you trying, and I believe that you are gonna rock this world for good,” no matter how many times you see them fail. Ultimately, the message should be a loving, “Do your best!” versus, “You’re the best.”
How Can Families (Parents, Grandparents, Mentors) Tangibly Support their Children in this Development?
1. Parents can do so many things to help their children develop resilience and grit. As we said earlier, if you are too busy to be a solid mentor in the life of your child, don’t let things fall as they may. There are mentors all over your area who can help build into your child. If your child doesn’t pursue sports, fitness, clubs, or music themselves, pick something for them and partner with the teacher to help your child know that you both see his or her potential. Ask grandparents, your friends, their aunts and uncles, their teachers, and other healthy adults to help you raise your children well, especially if you only have a small amount of time to help encourage them. Someone will be mentoring your kids, one way or another, so make sure you are involved in helping to set that up, not just allowing your child to drift back into the comfort zone with the host of others who live there. Statistically, the kids who have been mentored do better in college and at life than those who have not.
2. Don’t label one child as “gifted in math but not at reading,” and label another child in the opposite way, “to be fair.” I began doing this to a small degree with my girls a couple of years ago and their response to it taught me very quickly that it was a bad idea. Research also indicates that it is not realistic or helpful to box children in to one or two areas of competency, since most people can be good at most things, if they work hard. There are thousands of examples of successful business owners, doctors, lawyers, politicians, and other competent workers who did poorly in school for a season, until they found the growth zone. Don’t contribute to the idea that children have one or two areas of competency but that instead we are made with a capacity for growth in most areas of learning.
3. Give your children a healthy support system in their peer groups. As a teen therapist, I can’t tell you how many good girls gone wrong I see when they wind up with unhealthy friendships. The old saying you are who you hang with has never been truer than in the life of an impressionable teen who is too old to think their parents know everything but too young to realize that they themselves, don’t. Surrounding them with friends and relatives who love them for who they are as a person, and not for their achievements is great but make sure the friends they keep are not people living in and for the comfort zone. Surround them with kids who care about doing well in life, even if it means getting them to a different school altogether. There is nothing more important to an older child than their friends, and a huge indicator of student success in college is getting them connected to the right people.
4. How Can Teachers Tangibly Support their Students’ in this Development? Include grading, faith in their students’ abilities, summertime assignments, special reward systems for effort as well as exclusively “winning,” inviting classroom speakers from the real world to talk about adversities they faced, etc. Allow kids to know that you care about them, but allow them to fail a class or grade if they didn’t earn it. At the end of the year, for the last few weeks, take time to talk to each student to tell them that you expect not good, but great things of them, and will look forward to knowing that they are helping the world as they graduate. Even poor students can be spoken truthfully to, to help them to know someone in this world hasn’t given up on them. Even though parents influence a child greatly, teachers have a large role in building up their students. Having one or two teachers who believe in you, even when you’re going through a rough patch, can make all of the difference in the world to a child who is stuck in the comfort zone or especially, in the incompetence zone.
Your message to the kids you influence is simple; I believe in you. I am excited to see you grow. I will do my best to help you succeed. even though that means it isn’t always fun for you or I. Instead of puffing them up constantly by saying, “You’re the best,” keep them working hard to succeed with a, “Do your best!” Reward them well, give them an increasingly healthy amount of pressure to succeed, but recognize when they need a break, and rest and fun. Let them fail but don’t let them stay there. Surround them with loving and encouraging, inspiration adults and friendships, and let them know you expect nothing less than the same from wonderful them. The whole world benefits when someone speaks love into the life of a child.
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