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The Spectrum Of Competence

By Jen Kobrick

It’s hard when our parenting behavior doesn’t measure up to our aspirations. But falling short is how we learn and grow.

I recently had the honor of hosting a Healing Story Circle for some of the wonderful moms in my life. One of the things that really stood out to me was how deeply these moms wanted to have this parenting thing all figured out for their kids. I hear that, and I honor that. There’s no harder place to be than looking at where you want to be and knowing just how far away you are, and not knowing if you can ever get there.

I want to share a concept that completely changed the way I look at acquiring a new skill. Whether that skill is parenting, learning to cook, riding a bike, or reading, we’re all somewhere on the spectrum of competence in every skill—even in raising our kids.

The spectrum of competence is a continuum of level of mastery. At one end, we have unconscious incompetence— you don’t know what you don’t know. Then we have conscious incompetence—what you know you don’t know. Next is conscious competence—what you know you know. Last is unconscious competence—what you don’t know you know. So what does this look like in practice?

Let’s say you’re a parent. Maybe you’ve been spanking your kids, or yelling at them, or bribing them. Maybe things weren’t feeling great in your relationships with them, but you didn’t know it could be any other way. Then perhaps you read an article or a book, or talked to a friend, and found out that there are other ways to discipline and guide your children, and those ways sounded a lot more gentle and connecting. So you decide you’re going to stop spanking, or yelling, or bribing. That goes great for a few weeks, and then one day your child does something that just makes you absolutely crazy, and wham! Before you even register what you’re doing, you’ve spanked them, or yelled at them, or offered to buy them a toy if they just stop it. And now, I’m guessing you don’t feel too great about it. Maybe you had a cry, or called a friend and vented about it, or started googling and ended up here. Welcome to conscious incompetence, my friend.

Conscious incompetence sucks. It feels awful to know what you want to do and yet fail at it. And not just once! We fail over and over again. Here’s the thing, though. Conscious incompetence is progress. Stay with me here: I know, it doesn’t feel like it. But you can’t learn a new skill without passing through conscious incompetence. Let me repeat that: You cannot learn a new skill—whether it’s reading, riding a bike, cooking, or conscious parenting—without first finding out that you don’t yet have that skill.

I wish I could tell you that next week you’ll be happily applying new skills, and never be in this place again, but the path from conscious incompetence to conscious competence isn’t linear. It’s messy, deep, challenging work. You’ll go back and forth between them, depending on how much sleep you’ve had, whether your needs are being met, and whatever else is going on in your life. Some days you’ll be amazed at the grace with which you handled something that would have sent you over the edge a few months earlier. Other days you’ll want to crawl back into bed and start over.

Eventually, with a lot of practice (and fortunately, our kids provide us with plenty of opportunities for that!), it will become second nature to respond intentionally, most of the time, in ways that feel connecting. You may not even realize how far you’ve come. So I want you to make a note, right now, of where you are on the spectrum of competence. Then dive into learning about conscious parenting, doing the personal work, and applying it in your family. Come back to that note in a year, and check in again with where you’re at on the spectrum of competence. I’m betting you’ll be amazed at your growth!