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Ep 185: Leaving Home Without Losing Their Roots

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Episode Summary

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.

Show NotesInterview TranscriptGuest Bio

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.

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 is 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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Complete Interview Transcript

Andy: Talk to me about strivers and how you got interested in this topic.

Jennifer: So, the way I got interested in this topic was really through teaching. I taught for many years at the city college of New York in the CUNY system and a lot of my students were first generation, first in their families to go to college or students from working class families from low income families. And, as a professor, I was trying to get to know my students and their struggles and how to help them. And there was definitely issues around academic preparation. Some students who go to CUNY have gone to public schools that maybe didn’t have as many resources as students who go to more affluent schools, but a lot of it actually had to do with the challenges that students were facing in being caught between two worlds, caught between trying to pursue their own educational and career ambitions, and at the same time feeling very connected to their homes, their families, their communities, and playing really critical, important roles in those communities and feeling like it was almost impossible to do it all.

Jennifer: And so, I started to notice that one of the biggest challenges that my students were facing wasn’t that they didn’t have the motivation to want to succeed on campus. It’s not that they were off partying, I think that the ideas that sometimes we have about college students, but really they were working a lot of hours, they were helping their families with babysitting or elder care or doing stuff around the house or helping a disabled parent. They were just doing a lot on top of trying to go to college and do well in their classes. And I really came to just admire how hard my students were working to try to reach for the American dream. But at the same time, the startup astounded at the situations they were in and feeling that it was almost sometimes impossible for them to manage all of the demands that they had on them.

Jennifer: And so that really led to me thinking more about the ways in which our conversation around higher education and upward mobility misses this really critical part of students experience, which is that students want to lead good lives and leading a good life is not just about getting a college degree and getting a good job. That certainly can be a part of it for many students, but for many of them leading a good life and staying connected to the family, feeling a part of the community, caring for the people that you love and being able to help them and students were making really difficult trade offs between pursuing this thing that we tell them is going to transform their lives, higher education, and at the same time wanting to really be good children to their parents, good siblings, good neighbors. So I wrote the book trying to bring this to light in the conversation that we have around higher education, which often focuses on financial barriers and academic barriers. But they’re just all part of the challenges that first generation and low income students, who I call in the book strivers, face.

Andy: And that’s what a lot of your book centers around, these trade offs that students engage in when they are deciding whether or not to attend college and how to navigate as they go through that process. And you refer to a lot of these as ethical costs. What are those?

Jennifer: I think of the ethical costs as cost to these goods in our lives, that make our lives meaningful and valuable to us. So ethics and philosophy is the study of how to lead a good life. And part of leading a good life is having relationships with the people that you love, feeling connected to one’s community, being a good friend, being a good parent or a good child, being a good sibling and so on. And what I saw was the students were having to sacrifice some of those aspects of their lives for the sake of upward mobility. And so, in particular, I talked to strivers who had “succeeded”, who had done well and gotten those college degrees, gotten those nice jobs and who felt a lot of regret about what they had given up. In some cases, their relationships with their families were strained. And some cases, the families were really supportive and those relationships weren’t necessarily strained, but the striver might feel like they weren’t able to be there for their family in the way that they wanted, or maybe they feel that they are now somewhat disconnected from their community of origin.

Jennifer: And so when I was talking to strivers, I heard a lot of people being proud of what they had accomplished of their journey, but also a lot of regret mixed in with that about what they had given up in the process.

Andy: You talk in the introduction about entitlement and how we often think of it as a negative thing, but that in some ways, a certain level of entitlement is important or can be beneficial.

Jennifer: So before I taught at city college, I was teaching at Swarthmore College, which is a highly selective liberal arts college, and at Swarthmore the student population was different. And so the student population there were the sorts of students who had made it through K through 12 schools in such a way that they were now in a good position to get into a highly selective college, which meant that they had already learned to navigate a lot of the challenges they confronted. They might come from more affluent families. And I think very importantly, they had a sense of agency over their own educational journey. And so I remember, I was like a very young assistant professor, didn’t really know how to teach, which I sometimes told my students now. You don’t realize sometimes your professors are not actually taught how to teach when they’re in graduate school. And that explains a lot of why you see so much bad teaching at the college level.

Jennifer: But I did not know how to teach. And I was doing that thing where you just lecture and then you let the loudest students talk. The ones who are most prepared for the course, or maybe who are most confident. And I had a couple of students who were like that and really dominated the conversation, I think to the detriment of some of the other students. And this young woman in the class came to talk to me at my office and she said, “This class isn’t really working for me right now.” At first I thought, “Wow, okay.” I mean, I knew it wasn’t working, she wasn’t telling me something I didn’t know but I actually really appreciated the way that she did it. She did it in a very respectful way, but it was still, she was asking for something to change for something that she wanted the class to be different because she was right.

Jennifer: It wasn’t really working for all the students in the class. And that attitude that some of the students there had is just so different than the ways that many of my city college students navigated that institution. I don’t think in the 10 or so years that I’ve taught at city college, I ever had a student come into my office and say something like that and still a part of that. Because their experiences of education are just so different than students who grow up in more affluent and privileged positions and they see education and educational institutions as serving them, as places where they have a voice and they have a say in what happens. Whereas many of my students at city college were used to educational institutions treating them in ways in which maybe they don’t feel like they had a voice, they had to jump through some hoops, but they didn’t feel empowered to take control over their education.

Jennifer: And so I think that difference, we sometimes talk about it as entitlement, but I think in some context it really is the ability to make sure that you are getting what you need.

Andy: And advocating for yourself. And not assuming that there’s something wrong with you, but that this isn’t working for me.

Jennifer: Exactly. And also knowing when it is something that it’s important that you advocate for and knowing when you’re just being too much. When you’re asking for someone to cater to your own specific needs. And, of course, as parents you try to figure out how to teach your kid where that boundary is. But I do think that sometimes, I saw this at CUNY, the institution in some ways might not be serving the students as well it could. But students don’t feel empowered to really demand more. And I think in some ways that makes sense, given their experiences of public institutions that maybe have low investment. Public education is constantly being the funded, public higher education as well. And so it’s not necessarily rational sometimes for students to demand more, but we need to hear it when students are dissatisfied and feel like educational institutions are not giving them the resources they need to succeed.

Andy: And you have some little story later on in the book about a student who was in your class, and I guess you convinced him that he needed to practice and learn how to speak up more and share his ideas, I guess. And you made a plan with him about how he could come prepared to say things in class and raise his hand when he had something to say and you could call him. So you could start practicing that skill and getting better at it. And I just think that’s so important and how we can teach kids to do that and to instill that is an important question.

Jennifer: And I think there are ways that professors can definitely organize their teaching to make sure that they’re communicating to students that they’re open to helping them develop these sorts of skills. And students can also, going to the professor’s office during office hours, or just saying, “I need help with this.” Or “I’d like to be able to speak more in class, how can we work together to make that happen?” And I’ve had other students that have asked me that and we’ll talk about different ways of doing it. Sometimes you tell a student, “Well, maybe you want to write down some things that you want to say before you come to class about the reading or the topic.” And then sometimes that gives you the confidence you need that if you have it written down so that if you’re in the middle of talking and you forget, which is the fear that the students have, that they’ll raise their hand and they’ll start talking all of a sudden, they’re so nervous, they’ll forget what they’re saying. Just having it written down can help.

Jennifer: Or I have students who have said, “I just need you to give me a little bit of time”, but by the end of the class they’ll say something and I’ll signal in some way that I’m ready. So then I make sure to prioritize that student, if many students are raising their hands. It might be taking a lot for them to raise their hand unlike some other students. So I think all of that stuff really comes down to the educator having a good relationship with the student where they open those lines of communication. And that can be hard when students are in really large classrooms. That was one issue that kept coming up when I was teaching at city college, towards the end of my time there that our class sizes kept getting bigger. And so it becomes really hard for me to know, a class of 40 students exactly what different students might be needing, what support I can provide. It just becomes a more difficult thing to manage than when students are in smaller classes.

Andy: But also it strikes me that it’s so beneficial to let your professors know that that’s something that you want to get better at, or that you’re working on, and to have that conversation and work out with them. So that when you do raise your hand and you have something and you’re ready to say, then they prioritize you, like you were talking about, or that they can help facilitate you to gain that skill instead of feeling like you’re on your own, or you just have to work it out.

Jennifer: That is a really, I think, in part of the difference sometimes that class background can play to how students experience college. It’s that some students haven’t had the practice in figuring out how to ask for help from an adult, feel comfortable asking for help, not interpret it as a problem with them if they need help. Whereas students who might come from more affluent backgrounds or from college educated parents might just have parents that have already had those students practice those skills and become comfortable with navigating institutions like college. And so we see this in some of the empirical literature that low income students sometimes have a hard time asking for help or have a hard time developing mentorship relationships with professors, or even feeling connected to the other students. So asking somebody else in your class for help, that can be a really valuable skill that can help you do well, but if you don’t feel connected to the other students in the class, or it’s difficult for you to make friends in that environment, then it’s going to be that much harder to find those sources of support.

Jennifer: So that’s what we see that students who are first in their families to go to college or come from low income backgrounds, have a harder time with that dimension of college. And that can really also throw another challenge into their path through higher education.

Andy: There’s another difference that you talk about, and this is the research of Annette Leroux, who studies parenting differences between working class and middle class families. And I thought this was really interesting that working class parents give their children more freedom and allow them to spend more time playing with other children in the neighborhood and with extended family members, and as a consequence of this, those children tend to be more deeply connected to extended family and to other children in their neighborhoods. Whereas middle class children are more likely to have these really, really regulated schedules where you’re shuttling them between extracurricular activities, and they have more transactional relationships, I guess, or surface level relationships and not such deep connections with extended family and close friends.

Jennifer: What you see in the research, Annette LeRoux’s research, is the working class families, as you said, give their children more freedom, more time to hang out with extended family members. This is both born out of necessity, so if you maybe can’t afford all these extracurricular activities, and you have a really demanding job or maybe multiple jobs, you’re going to rely on your extended family or neighbors and other people to help you with child rearing. And, of course, we’ve seen this during the pandemic in various ways. And it’s not, I think, that affluent families or privileged families, that those children don’t necessarily develop those deep connections. It’s just that their lives are geared towards this goal of what Annette LeRoux calls concerted cultivation. It’s the thought that you’re going to do piano and tennis and swimming and you’re going to spend a lot of time on these extracurriculars.

Jennifer: And a lot of your life is regulated around these goals that are down the line, like getting into a good college or developing important skills or talents. And so what ends up happening is simply you might just not have as much time to be around, say extended family or around people in your neighborhood in the way that you would if you had more unstructured time. And there’s a trade off here. So the kids who get all these extracurriculars and have these more regimented schedules do end up benefiting in all sorts of ways from that, end up being the sorts of kids who have the resume that gets them into good college. They might develop…

Andy: They can play the piano.

Jennifer: Talents that benefit down the line, but there might also be some trade offs for that. One of the things that she talks about in her book is how one thing the researchers noticed as they were visiting these families is that some of these upper middle class kids would often complain about being bored if they had no activity plans. Whereas the working class kids didn’t complain about being bored, because they were just used to figuring it out themselves.

Andy: Entertaining themselves.

Jennifer: Entertaining themselves with neighbors or other kids around or figuring something out because they weren’t used to having their time scheduled by their parent. And so there are definitely trade offs at either end of the parenting spectrum there.

Andy: Another interesting thing that I found was looking at the support, and you talk about this research from Sara Goldrick-Rab and it’s looking at how financial aid doesn’t really consider the contribution students might be making to the families subsistence and how a lot of times students from low income families are making contributions to the family’s wellbeing before going to college. And it’s funny because I feel like we just have this view that the family takes care of the kid and the family is contributing to the child’s life, but we don’t really think about how the child actually contributes back to the family and it’s especially prominent in these lower income families.

Jennifer: That’s exactly right. And so the whole financial aid system in the United States assumes a picture of family life and of a nuclear family where both parents contribute to a child’s college education and they’ve been saving. But it really doesn’t work for a lot of working class families where it might be a single parent household, it might be a multi-generational household. There might be a household where, as you said, the child contributes financially to the family or the child or teen, at that point, might be doing a lot of care taking, they might be taking care of younger siblings or younger cousins. They might be taking care of an older grandparent. And so when that child or that teen, at that point, is considering going to college, that’s not just a position about their own financial future.

Jennifer: It’s potentially a big burden on their family if they’re not able to work or not able to take care of people who were taking care of before. And so it really means that they’re potentially putting their family in a worse position, not even taking into account the cost of attending college, which is obviously a huge barrier, but even just not being able to contribute to the family is a big cost to that family. That’s something that we don’t often talk about. And Sara Goldrick-Rab [inaudible 00:21:11], she’s really done a lot of great work in reminding us in higher education and the public in general that the population of students who are going into college has changed. So at some point in time in the past, not a lot of people were going to college. It was a very limited sector of the population who came from more affluent families who just had different backgrounds, and we had different background assumptions, but now there’s been an increase in college access, which is great.

Jennifer: But also that means that students from all sorts of backgrounds and families are going to college and some of them have challenges that the whole college financial aid system, admission system, is now playing catch up and trying to figure that out. I’ve heard of students have had, who are on financial aid and when they get that first big cheque at the beginning of the semester, for some of them, turn around and just send it to their families and then they have to figure out how to pay for college by working or taking on loans or doing something else, because their families need the money. And so they feel like my parents need the money more than I do and I’ll figure it out. Obviously that’s not what we tend to think about when we think about financial aid, but that is the reality for an increasing number of students.

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About Jennifer Morton

Jennifer Morton is the author of the award-winning book, Moving Up Without Losing Your Way.

Jennifer is  a Presidential Penn Compact Associate Professor of Philosophy with a secondary appointment at the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania. She’s also a senior fellow at the Center for Ethics and Education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She has taught at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, the City College of New York, the Graduate Center-CUNY, and at Swarthmore College. 

She received her Ph.D. from Stanford University and her A.B. from Princeton University, and researches the philosophy of action, moral philosophy, philosophy of education, and political philosophy.

She co-authored the book , Grit, which was selected by the Philosopher’s Annual as one of the ten best philosophy papers published in 2019.  Jennifer has also been featured in The Atlantic, Inside Higher Education, The Chronicle of Higher Education, The Nation, New York Daily News, Times Higher Education, Princeton Alumni Weekly, Public Books , Forbes, and Vox.

She lives in New York.

Want More Moving Up Without Losing Your Way?

Find Jennifer Morton on her Website and Twitter.