Ep 185: Leaving Home Without Losing Their Roots

Jennifer Morton, author of Moving Up Without Losing Your Way, joins us to discuss how young adults’ identities change as they leave the nest and find new communities beyond their hometowns.

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Full show notes

When kids leave home, they embark on an entirely new adventure. New friends, mentors, classes and jobs can help them develop different perspectives and ideas. And while we want our kids to grow and change, it can be disorienting when they suddenly come home with a new hair color or completely different college major! It’s especially jolting when they seem to have new opinions and values beyond the ones you raised them with. 

So how can we help teens stay connected to their roots, even after they leave the nest? It’s no easy task. When teens leave home for a totally new environment, they might not fit in right away…leading them to change their wardrobe, behavior and even their beliefs. For some, the approaching professional world might force them to conceal their real selves to get ahead. Every teen has an unpredictable journey to adulthood, and there’s bound to be some identity conflict as a result.

To help kids grow into successful adults without forgetting where they came from, we’re talking to Jennifer Morton, author of Moving Up Without Losing Your Way: The Ethical Costs of Upward Mobility. Jennifer has worked as a professor of philosophy everywhere from Penn state to the City College of New York–meaning she’s worked with students from all kinds of backgrounds. Over time, she began to notice that those from lower income households tended to struggle with the social and cultural expectations of college, inspiring her to think critically about how young adults change as they leave home.

In our interview, we’re defining the term “code-switching”, and how young adults often use this technique when they feel pressured to fit in. Plus, we’re discussing why entitlement can actually be a good thing, and how we can start having tough conversations with our teens about the real world while they’re still under our roof.

Code-Switching: What it is and Why it Matters

 For teens being catapulted into higher education or the professional world, it can be hard to hang on to their identity! They might find themselves talking differently, dressing differently, hiding where they’re from or what their interests are. This process of purposely changing the way one presents themselves is called code-switching, says Jennifer. And although it can often be seen as inauthentic, she believes that this technique can actually be pretty useful.

 When we’re trying to get ahead, we tweak things about ourselves, like wearing a nice suit to a meeting instead of our favorite jeans. But this doesn’t make us inauthentic, says Jennifer. It just means we know how to present ourselves in a way that prompts others to take us more seriously.  When teens ditch their hometown slang for more professional language, they aren’t necessarily concealing their identity–just editing it for context!

 However, if teens are constantly changing their personality to fit in, it can be hard to draw a line between what’s real and what’s manufactured, Jennifer says. To make sure teens aren’t overdoing it, she suggests prompting them to think about their core values before code-switching. If they feel that changing their hair or accent is disrespectful to their own culture or community, Jennifer encourages teens to refrain from doing so! Holding on to this sense of a core identity is one of the ways teens can stay in touch with their roots.

Entering the real world often means that teens have to start speaking up about what they want or need. For some, expressing their concerns is nothing new. For others, it’s a serious challenge. In our interview, Jennifer and I are discussing the idea of entitlement, and why socio-economic background tends to affect how entitled our kids can be.

Is Your Teen Entitled?

 When Jennifer began working at a prestigious private university, she noticed that many of the students felt very comfortable speaking up in class or even coming to her office with concerns. When she compared this to her experience at the city college, she noticed that public school students from low income households behaved in the opposite way–nervous to raise their hand or confront authority. What Jennifer discovered was a difference in entitlement between individuals from different backgrounds. 

 As time went on, Jennifer began to see how a lack of entitlement can actually hurt students. Those who came from less-wealthy families didn’t feel empowered to take control of their own education…because they often grew up without the privileges of small class sizes or personal tutors. Jennifer realized that these students needed to gain a little more entitlement! Not so much entitlement that they behave rudely or expect the impossible, but enough so that they felt their voice matters within their own education.

 So how can we help our teens develop a healthy sense of entitlement? Jennifer explains that within a school context, it can be beneficial to have kids create a relationship with the educator. If the teacher knows a teen isn’t always the most confident in class, they can keep an extra eye out for your teen’s hand when asking questions, says Jennifer. She also encourages parents to remind kids of all backgrounds that they’re allowed to speak up when they feel something isn’t right!

 All of this real-world stuff can be a little overwhelming for teens taking their first steps into adulthood. In the episode, Jennifer and I discuss how you can start having conversations with your teen about impending adulthood so it doesn’t hit them like a brick!

Talking to Kids About the Future

 When we’re helping kids plan a life for themselves, it can be easy to just emphasize the positive parts. We don’t want to freak them out too much, so we might gloss over the pains of searching for jobs or finding apartments. But Jennifer warns us against this! If we don’t prepare kids for the challenges they’ll face, they may think that they’re to blame for the difficulties they’re experiencing. Jennifer encourages us to have trust that our kids will be able to competently face life’s curveballs .

 Teens are going to transform as they grow into adults, and even if it’s hard to watch, it’s not a bad thing, says Jennifer. Parents who try to stop kids from evolving will only drive a wedge between themselves and their kids, Jennifer explains. If parents can validate kids’ feelings and at least attempt to understand the choices teens are making for themselves, Jennifer believes parents can maintain a strong bond with their kids as they grow into adulthood.

 Once kids do leave, they may come to you with complaints–they suddenly hate the roommate you always knew was bad news, or they can’t find a job with the arts degree they begged you to pay for. And while it’s tempting to just tell them “you’ll get over it” or “I told you so”, Jennifer recommends practicing a little empathy and patience. If we can support teens emotionally through all their growing pains, we can maintain a relationship with them while they’re still figuring it all out!

In the Episode…

 My conversation with Jennifer was incredibly illuminating! On top of the topics discussed above, we also talk about:
  • Why college financial aid needs to change
  • How stereotypes still hold minority students back
  • Why class background affects teens’ confidence
  • How some students develop fears of educational authorities
 If you enjoyed this episode, you can find more of Jennifer’s work on her website, jennifermmorton.com, or on Twitter @jennifermmorton. Thanks for listening! Don’t forget to share and subscribe and we’ll see you next week.

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Creators and Guests

Andy Earle
Andy Earle
Host of the Talking to Teens Podcast and founder of Write It Great
Jennifer Morton
Jennifer Morton
philosophy professor @Penn, author of Moving Up Without Losing Your Way, 🇵🇪, 1st-gen, #guggfellows2023, @CASBSStanford fellow 2023-2024, https://t.co/GFeqgLyGdo
Ep 185: Leaving Home Without Losing Their Roots
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