My son is a scholarship kid at a fancy high school. How do I talk to him as he struggles to fit in?
Beth takes on a tricky new money question—and offers expert advice on how to resolve it and how to talk it over in constructive ways.
“We live on the edge of a fancy community in Connecticut. We send our son to a private school that we could never afford if it didn’t offer financial aid and a scholarship. We love the school, but most of our son’s peers come from wealthy families. They’re constantly traveling to Europe (with and without their parents) or shopping with their parents’ credit cards. We can’t afford any of those luxuries. But our son feels like our situation is keeping him from truly fitting in at school. How do we talk to him about this particular take on ‘Keeping up with the Joneses’?”
One of the major benefits of school is that it introduces us to people with different backgrounds and experiences. While this is key to entering the broader world when your formal education is through, there are inevitable conflicts that come with it. And whenever an adolescent feels ostracized or at the very least unable to participate, school life can be challenging—no matter what the reason. It can also be painful for us as parents to stand by and watch our kids try to fit in.
Grades can also suffer in the face of peer pressure. Robert Crosnoe, a sociologist at University of Texas at Austin’s Population Research Center, has shown that the struggle to fit in can distract a kid from that other key part of high school: academic performance. Crosnoe published those results and others in his fascinating and moving (yes, sociology can be moving) book Fitting In, Standing Out: Navigating the Social Challenges of High School to Get an Education. (Recommended reading for all parents of adolescents.)
I reached out to Crosnoe to get his expert advice on talking to a kid who’s feeling isolated by financial circumstances.
“Two of the hardest things for adolescents to concretely grasp are relative disadvantage (i.e., you might be disadvantaged in this context even if you generally enjoy an advantaged position in society) and the long-term value of short-term challenges (i.e., something tough in the brief moment of now will be worth it in the much longer moment of the future),” Crosnoe told me.
The struggle to fit in can distract a kid from that other key part of high school: academic performance.
As parents we often take the long view on our kids’ behalf, providing what’s best for them in life, even if that means putting them in uncomfortable, even challenging, situations for the time being. “That can be really tough for parents who watch their children struggle,” Crosnoe said, “even if they are fully aware of the larger context in which that struggle is taking place, what it means, and where it will lead.” For this kid in private school, it might be hard to see the advantages when his classmates’ wealth gives “a distorted sense of where he stands in the world and who his family is.”
Here are three supersmart ways for these parents—and others in similar situations—to approach the problem and talk openly about it as a family:
Show your kid the long view
“The parents can be frank with their son about the reason why they sent him to that school and what they hope him to get from it, not now but in the future,” Crosnoe said. “In other words, actively walk him through the long view and place this small number of years that may not be fun within the large number of years of his life that will likely bring greater returns.”
Be sure to provide specifics. You might, for example, explain that the private school has a stronger music program than your local public high school, and it’s important to you to foster his gifts as a violinist, which could lead to college scholarship money. You might talk about the high rate of graduates from this particular private school who go on to college. When you do, impress on him how important higher ed is for his future by using this one number: $1 million. That’s how much more, on average, a college grad will earn over a lifetime than someone who stops at a high school diploma. So while he might be struggling socially, if he thinks about the long term, attending this school will pay off in ways it’s hard to imagine now.
Compare and contrast
“Gently talk about relative standing by pointing out the many monetary and socioeconomic advantages the son probably has in life compared to the ‘real world,’” Crosnoe said. You can be specific here by pointing out that the median family income in the U.S. is around $65,000—and then discuss where your family falls in relation to that number.
But don’t confine the conversation to money: Point out non-financial advantages your kid may have compared to his classmates. Perhaps you have a big, tight-knit family that holds frequent reunions, and that’s something not many of the other kids can claim. Or you have relatives in a different country, and that enriches your view of the world in ways his peers lack.
It’s important, though, to avoid letting your own judgments about how other people handle their money leak into this conversation. You’ll probably be making assumptions, and loose comments might encourage your kid to look down on (or up to) others for the wrong reasons.
It’s too easy, when we adults see the obvious benefits in a situation, to dismiss our kids’ “childish” concerns. For adolescents, navigating through a complex social life is no joke. “Address this issue with the utmost sympathy and empathy,” Crosnoe suggested. “Validate his concerns as not irrational or shallow, and let him know that such feelings happen to everyone, including parents.”
This is just good advice—no matter what problem your adolescent kid is working through. “Sometimes, allowing young people to have the feelings that they have is the most important part and the first step toward helping assuage them,” Crosnoe said.