Author: Emily Oster
Pages: 320 (Hardcover)
I’ve been planning to red-shirt my oldest child for kindergarten ever since I found out his sex at the 20-week ultrasound. While I pride myself on being evidence-based, I will admit that this decision was not particularly well researched, but formed out of a combination of vaguely acknowledged impressions about boys with summer birthdays, a family history of dyslexia, and the academic (as opposed to play-based) nature of most kindergartens in the U.S. Maybe you’ve struggled with this or a similar parenting dilemma. A year too late to help me, economist Emily Oster presents a data-driven approach to kindergarten red-shirting (and many other parenting dilemmas like “when should my kid get a phone?”) in her recent book, The Family Firm.
The Family Firm takes the data-driven approach Oster popularized in her two previous parenting books, Expecting Better (pregnancy) and Crib Sheets (early childhood), and modifies it to apply to the elementary school years. She is the first to admit that the types of problems (and thus the required approach to solving them) change as kids enter elementary school. The questions shift from ones with yes-no answers (“Is green poop normal”) to ones with less well defined answers (“What kind of school should my child attend?”). At this point, Oster comments, “ it was tempting to throw up my hands and decide that data wasn’t relevant, that I should just give up on being systematic with all this and go with my gut or whatever random thing had occurred to me most recently. But that wasn’t right. There was still relevant data…but that data wasn’t useful alone anymore. I needed more scaffolding surrounding it” (7). So she proposes a framework: the “family firm.”
“…types of problems…change as kids enter elementary school. The questions shift from ones with yes-no answers to ones with less well-defined answers.”
The basic idea behind The Family Firm is that many of the questions the elementary school years have a parallel to the questions that companies face. For example, the question, “should your child play travel soccer?” (family) has a lot of similarities to the question, “should we acquire this other shampoo brand?” (company) (9). Oster, a former business school professor, puts forward the idea that the tools you would use to make decisions in the business world can be similarly deployed to make most of the notable parenting decisions that arise during the early elementary years, including (but by no means limited to) red-shirting a kindergartener, school choice, sleepaway camp, the right age for a phone, and more.
Since none of these questions has an obvious “right answer,” and indeed, even a “best answer” (if one exists) will almost certainly vary from family to family, Oster proposes a set of questions—the “Four Fs” to help readers answer these questions for themselves as they arise: Frame the Question, Fact Find, Final Decision, and Follow-Up (55). Before jumping into the details of the framework, the data summaries, and the case-studies, Oster encourages readers to first pause and create their family’s “Big Picture.” This what-will-we-prioritize process goes beyond a family mission statement (though she encourages having one) into more practical principles that allow you to more easily make concrete decisions about things like bedtime, week-night sleepover requests, and when homework gets done. She points out that “failing to articulate priorities is a recipe for conflict in cases where there are multiple decision makers (say, two parents) in the household” (40).
Oster advocates that “the first step in creating your family firm is to outline your mission, and then think carefully about what your family will prioritize, what your day looks like, and the basic logistics of your family” (41). Even if you’ve done this earlier in your parenting journey, she recommends revisiting these guiding principles as your kids transition to the school years, since “this is often around the time things calm down at least a bit and you get more mental space to think about your choices” (41). The remainder of the first chapter articulates some activities and questions, interspersed with vignettes to help the reader create their own big picture.
After presenting the Four Fs framework in Chapter 2, Oster spends the next chapter talking about some of her favorite tools for organizing her family firm. I appreciate her examples of how she uses G-suite (with additions of a task management board and a menu planning app) to run her family’s firm. This clearly works for her brain—and mine—but I know from personal experience that my brain works differently than my partner’s, which leads me to suspect that trying to implement some of these strategies as presented might create friction in my household. Ffor example, my household’s drastically different approaches menu planning—we recently agreed that I will stop proposing apps and systems and he will stop asking me “what do you want for dinner tonight?” at lunch time; everyone wins. So, while I happen to agree with her that these tools are extremely useful for organizing life, this seems like a slight nudge towards a “one-size-fits-all” method in a book that otherwise takes a “figure out what works for your family” approach, and I wish she had presented a few more options or pictures of what this could look like.
With the Big Picture and tools in place, Oster now presents “the data,” such as it is. She is very up front that much of the relevant data is inconclusive at best, and that some of the outcomes we may care most about for our children are difficult, if not impossible, to measure in scientific studies. The data portion of the book is divided into two sections. In part two of the book, Oster summarizes the data on several key areas that will likely inform every family’s Big Picture: sleep, impact of two working parents, nutrition, and parenting style (i.e. helicopter vs free-range). The third part provides specific data targeting a set of common, but not universal big decisions, structured around business-style case studies demonstrating how to use the Four Fs in the decision making process.
In researching and presenting all this data, Oster works hard to stay neutral and present data from all sides of the question, though occasionally I wonder if her attempt to remain neutral means she’s missing something. The place this impression strikes me most strongly is in the entertainment section. In the chapter introduction, she casually dismisses the technology-rewires-your-brain discussion (for example, see The Shallows by Nicholas Carr1 ) with the comment “Spoiler alert: Everything changes your brain” (235). She’s absolutely right, but the tone makes me wonder what sorts of evidence she looked for (and conversely what evidence she didn’t) in writing this chapter. That said, the evidence she does present in the chapter is quite interesting, and I particularly like her dissociation of entertainment into the “staring at the wall” activity and the content on the wall.
“The idea of setting and regularly reviewing your family’s Big Picture seems valuable for individuals or partners in any life stage, particularly since life stages change periodically.”
After reviewing the data, she concludes that “some kids struggle with social media, some do not. Just as some will struggle with food, or video games, or television. And some will hugely benefit from it” (252). The data in this chapter is interspersed with many comments about how incomplete and nascent the data is, and along those lines, I think there are two additional things worth noting. One is that concerned people have been predicting the downfall of civilization as the result of new communications technologies at least since the invention of the printing press. The second is that the pace of this technological change has become quite rapid, and so negative outcomes may be hard to notice and quantify until they are pronounced. At the time of writing this, there is ongoing debate about the potentially harmful effects of products like Instagram on teen girls’ mental health. This latest debate has surfaced since The Family Firm was published in August 2021, and so, perhaps especially on this particular topic, it’s worth revisiting the research regularly as you make your decisions. Ultimately, though, no matter how you decide to approach entertainment or social media in your family firm, “there is no substitute for thinking” (252).
Packed with data and practical examples for creating family decision making structures, The Family Firm feels most useful for parents with kids close to or already involved in elementary school, though the usefulness of your family’s Big Picture and the Four Fs seems likely to outlast the lower school years. The idea of setting and regularly reviewing your family’s Big Picture seems valuable for individuals or partners in any life stage, particularly since life stages change periodically. Overall, Oster is an engaging writer and the book is a fun, fast read (or listen—she reads the audio version herself and it feels like a conversation with the author). It’s easy to see why many people are drawn to her presentation of data-driven parenting approaches. And they’re helpful. After reading the evidence and thinking through the pieces Oster presents, I’m satisfied with the decision we made to red-shirt our son for kindergarten. In keeping with Oster’s Four Fs, however, we followed-up, and when his new school did an assessment in the spring before his late-entry kindergarten year, they placed him…in first grade. Parenting. Even with a system, it’s all about adapting to the data you have at the moment.
The Shallows Review: https://inallthings.org/technology-and-the-mind-body-and-soul/?highlight=the%20shallows ↩