Originally published on December 6, 2019
If I said to you that someone was a product of their environment, what comes to mind? I’ve been thinking about this question for a specific reason that I’ll get to next week. For now, I’m just wondering if this phrase evokes for you what it evokes for me.
When I hear that someone was a product of their environment, I tend to think that the person being spoken about is not making good choices because the adults around that person didn’t. For example, someone who has a drinking problem had alcoholic parents. In this case, the underlying message is something like, we should not be surprised that this person is abusing alcohol, after all they were raised around people abusing alcohol. Is this what comes to your mind too? I don’t know why the phrase seems negative to me, but it does.
Yet, this week I’ve been thinking differently about it.
Let me pause here and tell you a little bit about my childhood. Though my mom was very briefly on welfare when I was two or three years old following her divorce, that was situational poverty, not generational and not ongoing. At some point in elementary school I may have qualified for a reduce lunch, but if I did, I never felt poor. I always had plenty of food to eat, never needed public transportation, always had new clothes (never from second-hand stores like the Salvation Army), always had heat and lights, etc. By the time my mom remarried when I was ten and we moved to New York, we were definitely comfortably middle class. When my older sister turned 16, my parents got her a used car that we ultimately shared when I turned 16 the next year. We had 2 refrigerators and a chest freezer that were always filled with food. In addition to the TVs in the living rooms, we all had a TV in our bedrooms and even one in the kitchen. We wore name brand clothes, went on vacations to Disney World, and did everything that you’d expected of a middle class American family in the 90s. When I was in high school, it was assumed that I would attend college, and I did. I am a cliché of what the American Dream is all about.
Though I would have been able to have said that my choices in my life were very much driven by how I was nurtured, I would not have said this as “I am a product of my environment,” because, as I said, I have historically thought of this phrase as pejorative. This week I realized, maybe for the first time ever, that pejorative or not, I am a “product of my environment” in that I live a life and have values that are pretty much exactly what my environment was designed for. Thus, I am a product of my environment.
My husband, on the other hand, is not a product of his environment. He did grow up in poverty. He was the first person in his family to go to and graduate from college and his grandpa couldn’t understand at the time why he would waste money doing that. When his family found out that after 3 years of marriage that I was going to get my Ph.D., his family said, “I guess you guys aren’t going to have kids then.” I’m not saying that the way I was raised was better, just that life my husband lives now is not the same as how he was raised and, therefore, he is not a product of his environment.
Though at worst I temporarily lived in poverty, in my career I have worked with students who were raised in generational and perpetual poverty. As an administrator, I worked in a school that had a 94% free and reduced lunch rate (which is how the government measures poverty). I then worked in a school that had a 97% free and reduced lunch rate. To give you some perspective, where I currently work the free and reduced lunch rate was about 25% this year and was between 12%-19% during the time period when I worked in those other schools. At the time, I was trained in Ruby Payne’s work and two things stand out the most to me from this training. The first is that people who live in different economic situations (poverty, middle class, and wealth) look at so many things differently. Take time for example. Generally speaking, people who live in poverty live for the present. If they have money, they spend it (you never know when you’re going to get more, so you might as well enjoy it now). People who live a middle class lifestyle live for the future. If they have money, they save it (you never know when you’re going to need it). People who live in wealth live for the past. If they have money, it’s from the family’s investments (money is represents our legacy). (Click here to see a really interesting comparison chart.)
The second thing that I remember from the training is a survey called, “Social Class Hidden Rules” where different economic status behaviors are listed with the overarching questions of “Could You Survive In…” poverty, middle class, and/or wealth. When I read the middle class behaviors, though I do not personally identify with all of them (I don’t personally know how to use most of the tools in my garage, as an example), I completely understand what they are saying and the people who I generally interact with do as well. This is how I was raised, after all. When I read the lists for poverty and wealth, on the other hand, I am dumbfounded. The statement in the poverty list, “I know when Walmart, drug stores, and convenience stores throw away over-the-counter medicine with expired dates” is just as foreign to me as the statement in the wealth list of “I have at least two residences that are staffed and maintained.” In fact, both of these lists are so odd to me that I think, “Is this for real?” Nevertheless, I have to believe that someone living in poverty or in wealth would surely find the middle class list just as confounding. (If you take the time to look over the Social Class Hidden Rules, let me know what you think.)
All of this makes me wonder, do you feel like you are a product of your environment or were you raised one way but live your life now in a way that is different from how you were raised? What impact, if any, do you think your students’ environment has on their expectations for themselves? What impact, do you think your social class has on your expectations of your students? I guess more importantly, I wonder if you think any of this matters? I’m looking forward to hearing you thoughts! Have a great night!