As is the case for many common questions about how to parent the 5-to-12 set, there’s just not much meaningful research out there about phones. Plus, so much depends on the specific kid and situation. Does this mean you should throw your hands up and just go with your gut? Absolutely not, writes Oster, who instead argues that the decision requires a lengthy multistep process of evidence gathering, logistical and financial analysis and a series of meetings. And it couldn’t hurt to include a Google Doc or two.
If that sounds like a whole lot of work, well, that’s the point. Oster’s pitch is that parenting is a job, specifically CEO of the “Family Firm.” Good bosses can’t operate on whims and the latest playground chatter. Although there are some upfront time costs to this strategy, Oster promises it leads to a better overall business model. Her book offers a targeted mini-MBA program designed to help moms and dads establish best practices for day-to-day operations and glean lessons from “case studies” that present potential scenarios, like how to respond to a kid who’s begging to go to sleep-away camp.
The first step: Craft your family’s “Big Picture,” which is essentially a vision for how your family interacts with each other and the world. What’s your schedule? What are your priorities? What are your rules? That’s the backdrop for applying Oster’s “Four F’s” whenever a decision pops up:
Frame the question: This means not just knowing that there’s a problem to solve, but defining what exactly needs to be answered to solve that problem. (So not, “Where should I send my kid to school?” but “Should I send my kid to school X or school Y?”)
Fact-find: Gather intel from a variety of sources, whether that’s scientific research or other parents you know. Consider the likely impact of your choices, maybe by making up sample schedules or budgets.
Final decision: Don’t hem and haw. Schedule a meeting and be done with it.
Follow-up: After a decision has been implemented and you’re seeing results, meet again to revisit the choice.
Because this is an Oster book, there’s data scattered everywhere — on the development of reading skills by age, on the concussion risks of playing soccer, on the benefits of dipping Brussels sprouts in sweetened cream cheese. It’s all presented in the breezy, skeptical style that’s made Oster’s work a must-read for parents who don’t have the time to investigate Finnish studies about integrating extracurriculars into the school day.
But because the vast majority of this must have been written pre-pandemic, it reads kind of like an out-of-date time capsule. The book’s first case study deals with whether to redshirt your kid, a.k.a. start school a year late. Amid Oster’s discussion of pros and cons and, of course, data, there’s nothing about the ripple effects of this bizarro year and the number of families that opted out of kindergarten.
The sections devoted to differing philosophies on subjects such as homework, screen time and tutoring all come off as quaint. And it was news to me that some parents sign their kids up for music lessons to make them better at math. (We had our daughter start ukulele this year because classes were held outdoors with each kid confined inside hula-hoops spaced six feet apart. Which, come to think of it, may have boosted her geometry skills.)
To find examples, Oster often self-deprecatingly mines her own family’s experiences. There’s the time that she and her husband, Jesse, used Google Calendar to set up a meeting with their 8-year-old daughter, Penelope, to discuss the school year schedule. (“We presented an agenda and draft schedule in advance,” she notes.) And after 4-year-old Finn had a meltdown involving a bagel and not enough time to eat it, they established “a new family principle”: “You must be downstairs by 7:05, or else someone will come get you. We cannot force you to eat, but we’ll make you come downstairs and at least briefly sit at the table. Breakfast has a hard stop at 7:25.”
Needless to say, the events of the past 18 months put these hyper-organized, hard-and-fast rules to the ultimate test. To try to figure out how to salvage some structure from utter chaos, Oster’s family spent a spring break in a rental cottage on a llama farm. “No matter how many Google Forms I used, I could not make more hours in the day,” she admits.
Despite the shifting circumstances, Oster stuck with her system and applied the four F’s to previously unfathomable questions like, “Should we see my parents?” In her attempt to fact-find, she developed an entire website devoted to coronavirus risks, “which may have taken things a bit far,” she jokes. The final decisions became a lot tougher.
It’s a needed reality check for a book that, despite its throwback vibe, benefits from some serendipitous timing, with so many people thinking about their “Big Picture” right now and launching into their sorta-post-pandemic lives. Families that had fallen off their rhythms and routines have a shot to take a step back and examine their choices. For the most part, Oster’s data-driven findings indicate that there is no universal right way to do things. So it’s up to parents to figure out the best path for them and their kids. That message is one we can all embrace, even if Oster’s workbook sheets might not be the right fit for the company you keep.
Vicky Hallett is a freelance writer and former MisFits columnist.
The Family Firm: A Data-Driven Guide to Better Decision Making in the Early School Years
By Emily Oster
Penguin Press. 320 pp. $28