The Comfort Zone: Helping Kids Get Out of It

by ChristinaPilkington on March 3, 2012 · 20 comments

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I’ve been planning a big road trip that we’re going to take this summer. We’re a nature-loving family, and our travels in the past usually include either mountains, deserts, beaches or islands.

This summer will be different.  Our trip will have a lot of nature-watching, but it also will have some big city touring, too.

I’m excited, but at the same time I’m a bit nervous. Even though I live near Chicago and we go there frequently, somehow Boston and New York City seem a little scarier! Maybe it’s because they’re new, and I’m not exactly sure yet how we’ll get around.

Now I know this may seem a little silly for you adventurous types who navigate new countries all the time (and I’d like to be one of you some day, too!), but this trip with its 7 city stops  has been a bit more challenging as far as planning and thinking about how we’ll get around then I’m used to.

Not to mention the 46 hours we’re going to be in the car together!

But I want to do this more.

As I think not only about future trips, but also things we do closer to home on a weekly basis, I want to push myself, and at the same time encourage the kids to try things that may seem strange or even scary at first.

There are things that we do daily that are routine.  You know, those things that we’ve done a thousand times and can almost do them in our sleep – take a shower, put on our clothes, make breakfast, and drive somewhere familiar.

It’s important for our brain to develop these familiar scripts. Without them, we’d have information overload. Just doing the simplest things would be incredibly overwhelming otherwise. Familiar scripts also allow us to concentrate on more than one thing at a time.

But if we surround ourselves with the familiar, our brain cells are no longer growing. We need new stimuli to activate new brain cell growth and to alter and add new connections to the brain cells we already have.

Children’s brain cells reproduce and develop at a more rapid rate than adults. Dendrites are either kept or not kept at this point depending on whether or not children use them. Their brains are constantly being pruned for those branches that are lying stagnant.

So, what does this all mean?

It means that continued brain cell development and dendrite connections are important, but in order for that to happen we have to keep bringing new things into our lives. We have to look at familiar things in new ways. And that can be a very an uncomfortable and sometimes painful thing to do.

What are some ways to help our kids to take steps outside their comfort zone?

1. Be on the lookout for things your children have not encountered yet.  The good news is that almost all children really do want to learn and do new things. Some children are natural leapers. They always dive right into something new. Other kids need more time and space.

The important thing is to respect how each child wants to approach that newness. Keep your eyes open for the new and unusual, and then introduce them to your child. Don’t be upset if they don’t want to do everything. That’s ok. Do you want to do everything other people introduce to you?

2. Introduce new things gradually. Connect something new to something they already know about. In school talk, this is called building upon prior knowledge….and that’s a good thing to do! If there’s an element of the familiar, kids will feel safer and less confused.

3. Travel to different places.  If your family enjoys traveling, this is a great way to introduce new things to your kids, especially if you vary the types of places you travel….something I’m trying to do with my family. If you’re always going to resorts or taking cruises, there are valuable things your kids will learn, but after a while it will be like anything else familiar. The intensity of the learning will lessen.

Decide to take a trip to a place you’ve never visited before. Make it a totally new environment. You don’t even have to go far. Most people live within an 8 hour drive of a big city. Most big cities have ethnic neighborhoods.  Visit a neighborhood you’re not familiar with. Eat different types of foods. Visit different types of stores. Listen to new types of music. Smell new smells. Watch new performances.

4. Do familiar things in different ways Think about the route you use to drive home from somewhere familiar.  How many different ways can you take to get home?   What about eating a certain type of food? How many ways can you cook or eat that food? Why don’t you try a new way to do something you always do?

5. Spend time reading, thinking and talking about something you don’t believe in.  In my experience, most kids love to argue! And I think that is very valuable skill to master. The next time your child states an opinion, ask him what the opposite argument would be. What points could he use to make the other argument?

The more you learn about the other side of what you believe, the more your own belief is strengthened. Or it could cause you to change beliefs, too. Encourage your kids to read about and talk about other ways of looking at a problem or topic.

6. Learn something new in order to make a difference in someone else’s life.  You’ve probably read about or know someone who has had a serious physical disease and has gradually become an expert at knowing how best to cure that illness or to find relief from pain.  You might also have read about someone who has experienced the devastation of war and has learned how to fight effectively for peace by learning about the complex issues involved and the long history that has led up to that point.

Introduce your kids to real problems in the world. Find something that captures their attention. Challenge them to make a contribution to solving that problem. They will probably have to learn new skills, be put in new environments and have to make choices they’ve never experienced before. 

7. Have your kids list their fears and what they would gain from conquering them. Does your child have a fear of heights? What could she do if she was to conquer that fear? Would she be able to reach a dream that would have otherwise been impossible? Maybe that fear isn’t stopping her from doing anything she wants to do. Then why would she have any incentive to face her fear?

Just because your child has fears and doesn’t want to face them doesn’t mean she’ll never face them.  Just because there’s nothing in her life that would make her want to conquer that fear doesn’t mean there never will be. It’s the same way as when she learned to read or use numbers. When kids have a good reason for using a skill, they’ll learn it. When they have a good enough reason to conquer a fear, they’ll find a way to get past it…usually with someone else’s help.  

8. Make it a point to talk to people of different cultures, values and religions.  I’ve always been fascinated with other people’s stories and how they live their lives. We all have such rich stories to share with others. One thing I’m proud is that my kids have no fear talking with anyone they meet. I hope they continue to have that self-assurance and curiosity. I want to find interesting people and introduce them to my children….those people that lead very different lives than ours and come from very different places.


Photo Credit: phil_g

Have you been able to help your kids step outside their comfort zones? Do you have any tips you could share?


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  • ClarkVand

    I just love the photo in this post. Every time I hear someone say “Safety first” I want to say, “Really? I mean safety above all else?” I’m also not a big fan of that whole “better safe than sorry thing.”

    Our son Jackson is a timid little guy and I’ve found your approach on Number 7 really works. In fact, that approach is probably true for most of us. When we begin listing why it is that we fear something, often the thing we used to fear doesn’t seem that bad!

    • christinapilkington

      Alexa is our timid one, and Jared is a huge daredevil. But she’s much better at taking pain. It’s interesting when you have kids that take very different approaches to getting past fear in their lives.

      I loved that picture, too, when I first saw it. Next month I plan to write a post on safety. I’ve found a lot of interesting things about the link between safety rules in this country and the number of accidents we have.

  • Susan

    I love your tips Chris! You know that this is something that is on my mind this week, too. Honestly, it’s hard for me to break myself out of my comfort zone!! Jenna finds it hard, as well, but Lauren and David are both really good at it. I try my best to be brave in uncomfortable situations to show Jenna how it’s done ;)

    • christinapilkington

      I really struggle with it myself, too, although not as much as I did about six or seven years ago. I think having kids has really helped with it. I go out of my way to do things that I would say no to if the kids weren’t around because I don’t want them to have the same type of fears that I do. This November we visited a cave and I really freaked inside there to the point of shaking and crying (I have extreme fears of heights and there was a tiny staircase going down 600 feet to the bottom). But at least I was able to show the kids that even though I knew I would cry and it would be hard, it was worth it to me to have that new experience with my family.

  • Mary

    I agree with everything in this post!! I love giving my children a sense of adventure. The more we travel and explore the more confidence I see developing in them!

    • christinapilkington

      It really is one of the best way to get outside your comfort zone and stretch yourself.

  • Jessica

    This is such a timely piece. 15 minutes ago I just booked a campsite for me and the girls. We are going with friends of ours, mid-week, at the beach, no husbands. I HAVE NEVER BEEN CAMPING BEFORE. I am expecting hives to break out any minute. This is as far out of my comfort zone as you can get. But I keep telling myself, it is very close to home so if we need to go home and come back the next day, we have that option since a campsite is so inexpensive. But I really want to give this a try.

    Do you know your dates for NYC yet? Let me know as soon as you do and I will mark them off on my calendar and meet you in Manhattan!!

    • Mary

      Have fun camping! I will pray for no hives! :-)

    • Susan

      I would love to try tent camping, too. For some odd reason, David doesn’t really want to. Maybe I should just do it myself with the girls!!

    • christinapilkington

      I would love to meet up with you! We’re staying across the river in New Jersey and then driving into the city to hang out. We’ll be there for half the day on July 18th (we’ll drive in from Boston that morning) and then be there for the following two days. We leave the morning of the 21st for the two day trip back home. In the time we’re there we’d like to:visit the Empire State Building, see the Statue of Liberty, visit the Met and maybe the Natural History Museum and hang out for a day at Central Park to ride bikes and rent a little boat for the pond.

      I’ve actually never been real camping, either. Before the kids were born, we took a trip to San Francisco and then to Yosemite for four days. We stayed in a canvas tent, but it had a real bed in it. I had to walk about a half a block in the middle of the night to get to the bathroom, though. I have an opportunity to do real sleeping bag camping for a night around here in the spring. I was thinking of just having Steve and the kids go, but you’ve inspired me to just go for it and go, too! I can’t wait to hear about your trip :)

  • Monica Vandeventer

    This is a great reminder for me. We haven’t been traveling in a few months and since it has been such a mild winter here I am a bit off my game and feel like I am in a rut. I love the ideas about doing a familiar thing in a new way. I think especially with little ones they always want to do everything the same way and it is so easy to just slip into that.
    I also wanted to share with you a post I did on what makes a great trip. Realistic expectations was my #1 item. I know you know all this stuff, but it might be a good reminder as you prepare for your trip!

    • christinapilkington

      What a great post! Thanks for sending me over there. I just left you a comment. I’ll repeat here something I said. I would change, for me, the first thing you said about what makes a trip great. It’s been hard for me to do this, but when I go into something with no expectations, than I’m usually much more pleased with the outcome and I find myself observing and noticing things a lot more. And I’m not as concerned with everything being this exciting and great thing. I’m much more open that way to the little things, which often turn out to be the things we remember the most.

  • Jenn

    Great thoughts on something we are really trying to work on here! Love the sign in that photo!!!

    • christinapilkington

      I knew when I saw it that it was the perfect picture for this post :)

  • sarah bredberg

    This is a really great post, full of useful ideas. We love traveling too.

    • christinapilkington

      Thanks! Travel is such a big part of our lives.

  • Karen Terry Cagle

    I think this is one of my favorite posts of yours. I so need to read this. We are very bad about staying in our comfort zone. I think because it is just Kei and I, I am hesitant to trek outside that zone. I am inspired to do that more. Loved this so much!

    I can’t wait to read all about your summer trip. Sounds amazing!

    • christinapilkington

      Thank you so much! I’ve been getting out of my comfort zone more and more in the past six or seven years and it’s made such a difference in my life. It’s something I really want my kids to do, too. But it’s a fine line for me as I don’t want to pressure them into doing anything they really don’t want to do. I’ve noticed, though, both for myself and my kids that if I think about the opprotunity in front of me that I’m feeling a little scared about and think about both what will and won’t happen if I allow myself to just go for it, it’s a little easier to take that plunge. Plus, I’ve tried to make it a habit of my to try things instead of just saying no right away, a reaction that I used to have just a few years ago. I’m also trying to get the kids in front of as many different situations as I can so they are used to feeling that uncomfortableness at first at doing something new, and knowing that the feeling will soon pass and they will have a new set of experiences or skills to look forward to.

  • Salena Tucker

    Great ideas! Thanks.

    • christinapilkington

      You’re welcome :)

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