We’re all grownups here.

Parentalism at work needs to stop, please for the love of…

Jessica Zwaan
7 min readApr 5, 2024

The #girldinner hashtag has more than 1.6 billion views on TikTok. The “Adulting” account offers “the best memes, tips and life hacks for adults!” with over 600k followers. Walking past the Harry Potter store in Manhattan you’ll see throngs of grown men and women draped in their house colours. If the success of Barbie is anything to go by, grown-ups are keen to bask in childhood interests and to spend valuable money and time to do so. Sure, great. Cool. Older millennials are the first to really age online and there is not a right way to do it. We’re trailblazers, baby. 💯 💯 💯 😂 👌

Kidulting” is a horrendous, Frankenstein word that makes the skin crawl, but there’s something in it. Either newly emerged, or always lurking in the shadows pre-social-media, adults are relishing childhood indulgences. And maybe it’s good for us. Lord knows we’ve all had a tough few years.

Being a child is nice. The average fifteen year old has a finite (and, frankly, entirely undisasterous if ignored) list of responsibilities. Buuuut there is something nefarious in all this “girl mathing” and “adulting” we’re doing, right? And we seem to see that. And maybe we care?

We’re capable of miraculously boring, hard things

Applying for a mortgage is one of the most document and decision-intensive processes we’ll probably ever encounter in our lives. Deciding a bank, fixed or variable, interest only, ARMs, APR, buydowns... It’s not hard to argue that as a child you don’t have the experience or cognition to take on such grown-up things like mortgages, but once you’re an adult, it’s the kind of thing you may have to do to keep the great game of life a-playin’. You have to, as they say, rise to the challenge.

When finding yourself staring into the dark and murky abyss of home loans, you have a couple of options on how to make one of the biggest financial decisions of your life;

First, you can engage an expert or Mortgage Broker, a choice itself so already steeped in consequences that a never-ending wack-a-mole of comparison startups and websites seems to spring from the earth clawing at your cognition, all eager to help you make the first decision in the series of unending choices before you.

Secondly, you could buckle up and become an armchair expert, or something close to it. Engage in R/FirstTimeHomeBuyer, read some blogs, get into the depths of (shudder) MortgageTube, call your uncle who seems to have had some miraculous success in the property ladder. It’s going to take hours, but there’s a lot on the line here, and someone has to do it.

Finally, you could text your real-estate agent and tell them you’ve hit a roadblock, you don’t understand all the acronyms, and you need them to get back to you with what to do next. Except, they won’t. Or, they might, but it’s impossible to tell if they now see you as some kind of liability now. Maybe they’ll take advantage of your naivety and you’ll get a bad deal. Maybe you’ll lose the house entirely because another, more eager buyer with a brain brimming with nauseating size-8-font Bank of America documentation was ready to pounce. So now you’re back where you started, and maybe it’s time to move back in with Mum and Dad.

Everyone makes big, adult decisions using big, adult capabilities, because they have to. Because they’re in their best interests. Because they’re (excruciatingly) necessary. Option three above is clearly inoperative. We cannot, as adults, just roll over in the face of difficult problems and call it a day. Banks, real estate brokers, cell phone companies, landlords, or managers are not our parents, and we are not little children arguing about making our beds in the morning. And of course it’s silly, this is all silly. We don’t expect our banks or managers to be our parents. Right? Right??

But our employers aren’t our parents, right?

Under the Management of Mum and Dad

Dr. Eric Berne’s theory of transactional analysis says that all people at different times play one of three roles: a parent, a child, or an adult.

  • The role of an adult assumes that a person is able to adapt, be reasonable, manage responsibilities, and evaluate reality and make adequate decisions.
  • Parents are authoritative, prohibitive, watchful. As parents we guide, teach, and encourage, but we also instruct, expect, and mandate.
  • A child is impulsive, reactionary, helpless, demanding. We obey, but we also rebel, we turn to phrases like “I can’t do this” or “this isn’t fair.” Acting as children we avoid understanding in favor of comfort or control.

Pathologising aside, People Operations teams are largely at fault here for making us act like children at work. Dr Berne’s theory, if it is to be taken at face value, suggests we move through these Ego States due to our behaviours and experiences, something external from us. Healthy communication often occurs in an Adult-Adult transaction, but it is a position with less power for the employer, so employers (and specifically their HR teams) set up draconian oversight and control, putting themselves in the position of a parent, and forcing our teams into the position of a child.

Ineffective HR teams cling to power where they can find it; years of being seen as an administrative and largely questioned function have lead to a kind of excruciating dynamic that is hard to ignore and causes work to be intolerable for many of us. “Not all HR” Ok, sure. HR teams aren’t solely to blame here, and many parental behaviours at work are learned, so even within environments where you are doing a great job as a Head of People, eagerly creating an parental-free workplace, your managers may still be tripping up on old habits.

  • Being asked to pre-approve work to “avoid mistakes.”
  • Needing a green light for every professional development opportunity with dictatorial L&D.
  • Following rigid rules for tasks to maintain “uniformity.”
  • HR appearing in almost every difficult conversation, eager to share their blood sweat and tears (Google Docs) on how to write emails, run meetings, and communicate with your teams. 🙃

Guidance is one thing; parentalism is another. Parentalism creeps in when leaders, maybe with the best intentions, start micromanaging and intervening. They tell us how to work, set strict paths to our goals, and insist on approving our decisions — often under the guise of “knowing what’s best,” even if we don’t agree.

This means, in a working environment stifled by learned parental behaviours and desperately administrative HR teams, you have to be the wrench in the wheels of the system that hurts us, because that’s the job. You’re not there to coddle adults, or hold them back from hearing hard truths, or teach them how to solve life’s avalanche of problems. You’re there to help your company be successful. And parentalism does not do that.

It’s not just the obvious things either. Our desires to help, to offer support, to guide people through challenges, can also hinder us. What feels like guidance can also regress a healthy Adult-to-Adult relationship into a Parent-Child dynamic:

  • Giving every manager a step-by-step guide on how to run their team day-to-day.
  • Stepping in and failing to give time when someone falls at hurdles.
  • Allowing your team to effortlessly escalate or delegate responsibilities that make them nervous (or bore them).
  • Farmers market budgets and other parental benefits designed to instruct the external lives of our grown, adult colleagues.

Though well-meaning, these efforts chip away at our autonomy and spin us into childish behaviours, intensifying the parentalism that drives us all slightly mad. If we’re trusted to make life’s big decisions — like buying homes, raising children, or voting — shouldn’t we be trusted to navigate our careers, interact with clients, or innovate in our work?

Empowerment and agency, not oversight, should be the hallmark of effective leadership and operations. It’s about setting guardrails, not roadblocks.

Ok that’s all from me, folks. 👋

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Jessica Zwaan

G’day. 🐨 I am a person and I like to think I am good enough to do it professionally. So that’s what I do.