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You Should Not Run Your Family Like a Business

The economist Emily Oster’s “Expecting Better” made parenting less daunting. Her new book, “The Family Firm,” does the opposite.

There is a scene in Moneyball that recounts the old way of evaluating baseball players. A rabble of aging scouts sit in a boardroom tossing out the characteristics of prospects they like: “Good face … good body … lot of pop coming off the bat … passes the eye candy test.” Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) is rolling his eyes. Transfixed by their own romantic projections of the players’ abilities, the scouts are making poor decisions. Beane’s solution is to build a lineup using sabermetrics, appraising players according to their stats rather than gut instinct. When you corral a good set of numbers, that’s when you can blow out the lights, pushing a team with two dimes rattling in a cup into the postseason and beating a rigged game.

The Family Firm: A Data-Driven Guide to Better Decision Making in the Early School Years
by Emily Oster
Penguin Press, 320 pp., $28.00

In recent years, the parenting advice industry has taken on shades of Moneyball. There is an abundance of data on the benefits of everything from nursery paint colors to “parentese”; you can find regression analyses of behavioral problems in infants who attended daycare in early infancy and studies on the impact of baby-led weaning on satiation. Consultants are on hand to troubleshoot sleep, feeding, behavioral, and learning issues, and the CEO Mom has arrived to talk about skills transfer. If we just learn how to harness the knowledge, it seems, we can be the GMs of our own winning families.

The problem for today’s parent is the volume of information, much of it contradictory. Pregnant women are warned to avoid consuming raw fish, or fish too far up the food chain, but to get enough nutrients; to avoid an induction but also not wait too long to give birth; to nurse on demand but keep the baby in a separate sleep space. This was the field across which Emily Oster, an economist at Brown University, slugged her 2013 bestseller Expecting Better: Why the Conventional Pregnancy Wisdom Is Wrong—And What You Really Need to Know. Oster dug through the research to produce a conversational, book-length metastudy, concluding that some common recommendations were wildly outdated or lacking in evidence. She found that sushi carries a low risk of food poisoning, which is unpleasant but not novel to pregnancy, and was criticized for reporting accurately that there is little evidence that small amounts of wine can harm a developing fetus. She gave unflinching numbers and charts on the risks of miscarriage and stillbirth where induction dates and maternal age are concerned, and on the incidence of sudden infant death syndrome among different sleeping behaviors. This was the information Oster craved while pregnant herself; figures capable of keeping a parent’s worst fears at bay.

Oster’s book gave (highly educated) parents-to-be permission to make their own decisions based on the data at hand. Where fellow Ivy League professor turned parenting expert Amy Chua promoted an authoritarian “Tiger Mom” philosophy, Oster was an agnostic, believing not in one particular method but in the data itself. In 2019, she published Cribsheet: A Data-Driven Guide to Better, More Relaxed Parenting, From Birth to Preschool, which dissected the research on topics like circumcision, breastfeeding, vaccinations, and potty training. It was another hit, and as parents clamored for better guidance in the early days of the pandemic, she launched ParentData, a Substack devoted to Covid-19, drawing louder critiques this time of her credibility as an economist offering public health guidance.

Oster’s newest book, The Family Firm: A Data-Driven Guide to Better Decision Making in the Early School Years, tackles school-age parenting, again using data. “Many of the tools and processes you need to manage this period of life are exactly the ones businesses use to function well,” she explains, introducing what she calls the “Family Firm Toolbox,” an approach as much Jim Collins as it is Freakonomics. The appeal of Oster’s earlier books was that they simplified the often-bewildering task of parenting. But how well can data guide a parent through the murkier questions of raising a child in the world?

The decision-making process at the center of The Family Firm begins with the four F’s—Framing the Question, Fact-Finding, Final Decision, and Follow-Up, or what your manager might call a “postmortem”—allowing you to McKinsey your way to the best decisions on extracurriculars (see: concussion rates by sport), sleep, summer camp, and getting your kid a smartphone. There are worksheets for you to establish your “family mission,” identify key long-term goals for your children, and set up guidelines for everything from socializing to diet—Oster’s family meal policy includes the dictum, “No carbs for snacks.”

Oster used this process to decide whether her daughter would take part in the lower-school production of Frozen (“If you never see my kid play Elsa on Broadway, now you’ll know why”) and join a running club. Your “personal option set” will vary but can be addressed with the same rubric. For example, the decision on whether to “red-shirt” your child—hold them back from kindergarten if they are among the youngest of that year’s cohort—has key inputs: Kids who are red-shirted may overachieve on academic exams at 18, while those who aren’t can see higher lifetime earnings (due to an extra year spent in the workforce) but also a lower chance of sporting success and higher incidence of ADHD diagnoses. Keep in mind that the age of school entry is “endogenous” to a family’s characteristics—some families can’t afford to delay kindergarten—so it’s important that the data are met with executive insight.

Parents doing “due diligence” on schools can see how the process worked for Oster and her husband, who use shared Google Calendars and the project management software Asana at home to manage their children’s schedules, as well as Jira at work, while “other families swear by Trello.” For parents of the 5–12 age set, who might have a short window to sign up for zoo camp, “the consequences of messing up can feel more extreme,” writes Oster, and this system is designed to minimize losses. In places, econometrics can credibly bring you to a neat conclusion—if you have three children in classes of 20, you might evaluate each birthday party invitation “on the margin” but, in aggregate, risk spending money and time on 60 parties across the year if you accept them all, she notes—but elsewhere the endeavor looks a lot like long division. After weighing the pros and cons around social media, Oster concludes, “There is no substitute for thinking.” (“The (Data) Bottom Line” on whether sleep matters: “Sleep matters!”)

Oster is aware that non-MBAs might not see the shimmering beauty of her System: “You might not save hours doing this. But it does give you the ability to use your time efficiently and to make better decisions. By giving yourself more calendar time, you can do the actual work in a moment that works for you.” Given the uncertainty over everything from climate to the future jobs market to the state of democracy, parents fond of organization may well love this kind of scaffolding.

Still, approaching your family as a human resources department looks like a lot of work. Whereas Oster’s earlier books were about cutting through misconceptions and making expectant parents’ lives easier, The Family Firm adds a burden. It also raises the competitive stakes. Since Jennifer Senior’s 2014 parenting bestseller All Joy and No Fun, the scourge of overparenting has only worsened. “The more economically useless children have become, the more aggressively we’ve tried to protect them,” Senior wrote then of the women applying themselves ever more rigorously to the act of parenting. Helicopter parenting has, in its more extreme manifestations, seen a rise in mood disorders and loss of resilience in children—hallmarks of an increasingly anxious meritocracy. “Time and again, I observe parents making decisions they hope will benefit their kids yet are more likely to debilitate them,” wrote Bay Area psychologist Madeline Levine in Ready or Not: Preparing Our Kids to Thrive in an Uncertain and Rapidly Changing World. When parents are choosing extracurricular activities for elementary schoolers, writes Oster, part of the Big Picture they have in mind is college admissions.

You should consider your child’s happiness when making decisions, she says, “but it isn’t a part you should look to the data for.” Nor is it something you can engineer. The effect of Chief Happiness Officers in the workplace often seems to be additional forced fun when you’d rather just go home. Through observing the highs and lows of intensive parenting for a year, Senior noted that “no graph in the world can do full justice to these unexpected moments” of joy. When we tilt our heads to the Google Sheet of outcomes and spend our nights dragging Trello cards for dental visits into the “done” column, what do we miss about the aimless, nonsensical world of our children—their good faces, their mad bodies, the crack of a bat (in the living room)?

Can we even trust the data when the variables in our own lives are so uncontrollable? The metrics that designate a “troubled public school district” and warrant charter or private schools the only “likely options” are not explored in depth in The Family Firm, nor are the self-fulfilling effects of opting out of the public system. A framework based on your “family mission” and rooted in the data is one that aims to optimize individual parental decisions, just as a firm will always prioritize its own bottom line over the community good. Academic outcomes, lifetime earnings, happiness—these are a function of privilege, it turns out, regardless of your decision-making skills.

After the outsize success of the Oakland A’s, other baseball teams soon adopted sabermetrics, making it harder once again for under-resourced teams to beat the odds. You can do your best to make the best possible decisions but shouldn’t forget why it all feels so intense: The game is unfair.