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Why Treating Adults Like Children Gets You Irresponsible Adults (Surprise!)


Why Treating Adults Like Children Gets You Irresponsible Adults (Surprise!)Our educational system has got it all wrong.

No, this isn’t a rant about the need to home school/virtual school/unschool. This is about something much more fundamentally off.

In addition to increasing our book smarts, college is supposed to prepare us to lead our adult lives. To be fit and capable to navigate the world we’ll soon be entering. And it fails dismally.

It’s not college’s fault. By all logical measures, it prepares us for the adult world we ought to be entering. We learn how to juggle classes, assignments, jobs, and social lives all on our own, acquiring mature skills like prioritization and time management. When we graduate (if we’ve done our work well), we’re equipped to lead proper adult lives—balancing work, family, chores, finances, and the myriad other things that come with being a fully autonomous, responsible member of society.

But that’s not the world we find ourselves in after we graduate, bright-eyed and eager to prove ourselves. The balancing act of family, finances, etc. may be there, but the thing that takes up the majority of our waking hours—our job—feels like a frustrating step backwards.

Most of us find that we are vastly overqualified for the 9-5. Not in terms of specific career-related skills or knowledge, but in terms of the ability to be treated like a child again—and to be okay with that.

Welcome to the Real World; Now Take Your Seat and Study Your Employee Handbook

I’m a particularly independent person.  My parents never needed to check my homework when I was little. They never called me when I was away at college to remind me to put on a coat or eat a healthy dinner. I was on top of my life, and quite proud of that—and if my parents had felt the need to oversee my daily doings, I would have been extremely offended. In fact, the times I did do something counter to my “Responsible Good Girl” nature were usually in reaction to my frustration at incongruously being treated like a child.

People have the tendency to perversely live up to the way you expect them to behave. Anyone who’s ever worked in a “didn’t you get that memo on the TPS report?” environment can attest to that.

The typical 9-5 workplace environment comes as a bit of a slap in the face to anyone who’s made it to their 20s. Suddenly, we find that all our shiny new “adult” abilities are totally useless, because for some reason no one seems to trust that we actually have them.

We’re no longer trusted to handle our own projects at our own pace. We’re no longer allowed to exercise our autonomy or flex those prioritization skills to juggle our job like we juggle every other aspect of our lives.  Instead, it’s time cards and attendance policies and reprimands if we take too long of a lunch break.

This treatment has a curious effect on people who are, by all exterior appearances, adults:  It makes them regress. Opponents of ROWE love to argue that without supervision and policies, chaos will ensue. Employees will take all sorts of liberties, because employees are, at bottom, irresponsible, lazy good-for-nothings who will get away with whatever you allow them to get away with.

But do you know what most employees really want to get away with? Being treated like the grownups they really are.

What It Comes Down To

If our educational system wants to prepare us for the real “adult world,” we’d probably be better off stopping at high school—where we need a hall pass to be outside the classroom when we’re not supposed to be, where we need a note from our doctor and our mom to confirm we really were sick, where we can be grounded for going 5 minutes past curfew even if we’re otherwise a decent kid. Being used to that kind of handholding and over-shoulder-peering would make the 9-5 seem a lot less ridiculous, and we’d assimilate much easier.

Because when employees are henpecked over superficial measurements like face time rather than clear, hard results, even the best of workers will start to become disgruntled, resentful, and discouraged. Especially the best workers, actually, because they're the ones giving their all and yet being judged by outdated and irrelevant standards. They’re the ones ready to go the extra mile but giving only just what’s asked of them, because why should they bother when they’re not trusted to handle something as fundamental as doing what they need to do by the time they need to do it?

If you hire adults, you should treat them like adults. And if you don’t, you can expect them to start acting like children. It’s really that simple.

People will live up to the expectations you set for them. They will also sink down to the expectations you set for them. I still give my best at my job, because I’m a perfectionist and doing anything less would annoy me. But when I’m running 10 minutes behind in the morning because my dog got sick and I have to contemplate speeding down the expressway to avoid a disdainful glance from my coworkers? That’s when I feel most like calling the entire day off in protest.

I usually don’t, but heaven help me, I feel like it…


Kelly Gurnett runs the blog Cordelia Calls It Quits, where she documents her attempts to rid her life of the things that don’t matter and focus more on the things that do. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook and hire her services as a blogger here.


I have been saying this for years. So so so true. Post university was a major let down.
Posted @ Sunday, March 02, 2014 9:53 AM by Chantal
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