About seven years ago, economist Emily Oster realized she and her husband, fellow economist Jesse Shapiro, needed a better system. They were in the midst of moving from Chicago to Providence, RI, and both starting new jobs while trying to buy and renovate a house. They had a new nanny for their 3-year-old daughter, and Oster was pregnant with their second.
“It was just like everything all at once,” Oster recalled.
Oster and Shapiro had always been organized, but they needed to take things up a notch. So they started running their family like a business, Oster writes in her new book, “The Family Firm: A Data-Driven Guide to Better Decision Making in the Early School Years” (Penguin Press), out now.
“Many of the tools and processes you most need to manage this period of life are exactly the ones that many businesses use to function well,” she writes.
Just as a successful company has a mission statement, Oster recommends that all “parenting stakeholders” sit down together and establish core values. Each person should write down their main goal for the family, three larger goals for the children, three priorities for themselves, three activities they think are essential on weekdays and three essential weekend activities. Then everyone should switch papers, discuss and come up with a mission statement for the family.
“Writing down your goals for your family will not give you control,” she writes. “Control in family life is illusory . . . but not everything is unexpected, and we can avoid much daily stress by at least being clear about our real hopes for our family.”
Establishing principles also makes smaller decisions easy. If dinner together every night is key — later in the book, Oster notes that data supports “strong correlations” between regular family meals and better academic performance — then Junior’s desire to join a sports team that practices at 6 p.m. every night should be a firm no.
For bigger decisions, she recommends families employ a “methodical approach.” First, frame questions in a manner that can actually be answered. Rather than asking “what’s the right school?” try “Is school A or B better for my child at this time?”
Then, gather the data and details to make an informed decision. Next, meet with your partner to make a clear decision. And finally, follow-up. At the end of the school year, you might meet to discuss how it went. Or you might tell a child they can’t have an iPhone, but you will meet again on the matter in two months.
Such an approach might seem like overkill, but Oster says that parents of young children often fail to make conscious decisions about their upbringing. Perhaps they automatically say yes to every party invite for the kids, then come to regret that their weekends are spent surrounded by balloons and cheap pizza.
It’s a minor issue, Oster writes, “but this kind of slippery-slope experience can pervade our parenting decisions. You let in one late-night extracurricular, then another, and pretty soon your image of dinner as a family at 6 every night has vanished. And if this dinner is a priority for you, that’s a problem.”
Oster also advises families to make use of various organizational tools for greater efficiency. She swears by a meal-planning app called Paprika that manages recipes and generates grocery lists, allowing her to easily outsource the shopping to another member of the household. And she’s a big fan of shared calendars for everyone in the household — from kids to caretakers. “The value,” she writes, “lies in the ability to coordinate without checking in.” If a regular babysitter needs a day off, she looks at the calendars. If she’s busy and her husband is free, she sends him a calendar invite to watch his own kids.
Treating your spouse like a colleague might seem unromantic, but Oster argues that it actually gives her and her husband more time to enjoy each other’s company.
“It saves a conversation,” she writes. “Or rather, saves time for more interesting topics in later conversations.”