Emily Oster: We Should All Be Running Our Families Like Corporations

In her new book, the economist and parenting guru argues that the best way to raise a growing family is to manage them, like a boss.

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During the diaper days prior to potty training, my role was pretty straightforward: Keep the kids safe, feed them, and get them to sleep. But now? The needs of my 9-year-old and near 4-year-old are far less clear. Sure, I’m still keeping my kids safe, fed, and encouraging good sleep habits. But I’m also trying to prepare them with a moral and pragmatic compass that can guide them when they are on their own.

This new phase is fun in a Wild West kind of way. It feels like I’m really parenting now — not just following a guidebook. It’s also disorienting. With no guide, I’m in charge — but the outcomes have higher stakes and are shared across the entire family. Economist and bestselling parenting author Emily Oster has a business allegory for this that guides her latest book, The Family Firm: I’ve moved up the ranks and have a more managerial role. That is, I get to call the shots, but I’m on the hook for the failure or success of our endeavors.You’ll know Oster for Cribsheets, a brilliant lay of the data-driven parenting landscape, and Expecting Better, the pregnancy book that you probably remember told you it’s ok to drink wine, among far more important study exploders. In The Family Firm, the author dives into a world filled with more nuance and complexity — a period of parenting that is more like leading a business than anything else. And Oster plays the executive coach in this metaphor, guiding us along the path to raising happy, productive, balanced kids who are ready to make it on their own — or at least move on to the teen years (I smell a second edition). No, Oster is not offering a single path on getting through the elementary years. She’s very clear on this point: There isn’t one. But as you parent through these years, certain themes come up. Sticking points appear that research can help to clear up — like, how much sleep to get, how much sugar is too much, or whether your kid really needs a hobby. Oster is at her best as she ably and enthusiastically dives into studies and offers the scientific lay of the land. It’s what you’ll remember from Cribsheets and Expecting Better. But in The Family Firm, we’re reminded that Oster is an economist — and her systemized look at parenting and a family as part of an economy of outcomes (serving the Happy Thriving Child Economy) is downright brilliant. It’s essentially the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, but for parents who just want to know when the hell to enroll their kid into Kindergarten. There’s a little coaching, a little inspiration, and a massive leap in working through the tough logistical problems of helping your elementary-age kid figure it out. In other words, this book will be a revelation for parents who think in terms of tactics. out now

Tyghe Trimble: Your book is for 5- to 12-year-olds, a time of childhood that, it seems to me, you seem more comfortable with than infancy. Emily Oster: I’m not a huge baby person and I feel like as my kids have gotten older, it’s easier for me too. I was with my brother and his four-month-old a while back. They left us with the baby and he just wouldn’t stop crying. I eventually did the thing that I do to get my kids to sleep — which is to sing the same song over and over and over again until I defeat them. And in the moment, I was thinking, boy, I don’t really miss this. Still, this problem was very simple and manageable relative to the kinds of things we’re facing [with older kids]. You say that with older children you’ve become a manager. Before, you were a junior employee with straightforward tasks. Now, you’re running a team..,And the team, you know, is kind of fun to run. But also sometimes you really do kind of wish you could just, like, get the boss a coffee.So in your managerial structure, you have a hierarchy of priorities. You have Organizing principles or Frameworks versus Mission and Values. Can you explain that? My overarching principle is to talk about parenting deliberately and think through choices in an organized way. I think I have found a way to break these into two pieces. One is the big picture — a framework saying you should step back and think about what you want your life and the values that are important. But then there’s the other piece that asks, what are the activities that are most important? Because we can have the same values and still disagree about what that should look like. If every single week, we disagree about what it looks like it’s not enough for there to be values. You need to have a mission statement for the big picture and then really look at the nuts and bolts. These are things that businesses do to try to make the day-to-day run smoothly. Your day-to-day should eventually reflect your values.Do you have a family mission statement?No. And you’re not the first person to ask me that question. My husband and I talk a lot about the kind of overall things that we want for our family but we’ve never actually written anything down. It’s probably something we should do. Maybe it will turn out we have a different statement, but I doubt that. One thing that jumped out. You talk about your organizing principle of a 6 pm dinner. What’s the purpose of this kind of organizing principle and in a business parlance what’s the KPI?There’s an awful lot of correlation between having a regular family dinner and a lot of good outcomes for kids. It’s very difficult to attribute causality to those relationships, despite how strong they are in the correlations. But I think, the bigger sort of overarching point about this is that for some people it is very important. And if it is something that is important to you and it’s something that you want to do, it is kind of a key organizing principle because so much of the rest of your life ends up being organized around that. So it’s important to me because it is the time we reconnect with the kids and with each other, but particularly with the kids. It is the only 30 minutes in the day where you sit down and you say, “Hey, how was your day? How was camp? How was school?” The energy that goes into the bureaucracy of certain businesses seems like it could stress out both the parents and kids. Can these missions or organizing principles and low-stress ever walk hand-in-hand, or is this just kind of a stressful time for kids and a parent?It’s hard for this time of parenting not to feel kind of busy and stressed. There are multiple parents and maybe multiple kids and I think it’s hard for it not to feel stressful. But I also think it would be a mistake to say that these tools add stress, and my hope is that they would lower stress. A lot of in-the-moment stresses are when we disagree and when we find our two things we want to do are in conflict with each other. But the fact is this era of parenting is very high-stress.You make a good point that a lot of this time does require bureaucracy But what if your mission as a parent is to be a little more anti-establishment and runs counter to bureaucracy. Where does happiness factor in?A lot of people have this reaction: “I don’t want to bring business into my house because everyone loves each other.” But for a lot of families there can be conflict that comes out of just assuming loving each o means that we agree on what Tuesday should look like. There is some value to taking some emotion out of parenting and admitting that. you can love somebody but still want a concrete conversation about the places that you do disagree. What do you think about the timing of the book coming out in the fall amid the pandemic? How do you think about people, picking this book up in August, and having still a lot of uncertainty over their head?For some of us, the life disruptions that have been generated by this time have given us an opportunity to rethink how our life looks. I think there is an opportunity to pick up a book and say, “Hey here’s a framework for imagining what I want my life to to look like. Is there something that would make me happier?”Right. So after the stress and anxiety gets out of the way. We have a moment to actually put thought into those motions. Particularly around questions like what’s the work schedule going to look like for two parents. What are my kids going to be doing for school or, what are they going to be doing outside of school? We have the chance to make new choices.

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