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Emily Oster’s Book, the Family Firm, Helps Parents Make Better Decisions Using Data

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  • Emily Oster is an author, data economist, and professor of economics at Brown University.
  • The following is an excerpt from her book, “THE FAMILY FIRM: A Data-Driven Guide to Better Decision Making in the Early School Years”.
  • In it, Oster details an exercise all caregivers can take to help align family values and lower daily stress.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

The following is an excerpt from “The Family Firm: A Data-Driven Guide to Better Decision Making in the Early School Years” by Emily Oster.

In a business‑school class in negotiations, a common topic is the “Theory of Anchoring.” Basically, the opening bid in a negotiation “anchors” the price. 

By the same token, collective decisions can be thrown off by having one person publicly state their views first. If we are trying to decide, as a firm, how much to bid for a company, and the first person to speak suggests $20 million, I may be embarrassed to say I thought it was worth only $2 million.

But knowing that we disagree is valuable! One approach to learning that is to ask people to write down their valuations privately and then share them simultaneously.

Take a similar approach with your family.

Start with all the parenting stakeholders, whoever that is in your family. This exercise is likely to be useful even if you are parenting alone, just not for quite the same reasons. Everyone gets a piece of paper and writes down:

  • Your overarching family mission statement. Whatever you want! One sentence: What is your main goal for the family?
  • Three main goals for your children (big life goals; not something like “Use a fork better,” even if you desperately, desperately want that).
  • Three priorities for you, things you care about (could be working, exercising, seeing friends); what do you want to make sure you get time for?
  • Three activities you see as must do on (most) weekdays. (For example, mine would be: 1) eat at least one meal with the kids; 2) get some work done; 3) be there for bedtime. If I get all three things in a day, I’m likely to be happy.)
  • Three activities you see as must do on (most) weekends (for example, religious services, extra tutoring, competitive sports, hiking, seeing grandparents).

And then you switch papers and discuss.

What comes out of this?

Well, it depends. Maybe you’re completely aligned and what comes out are some touchpoints you both agree on for developing your family schedule and principles. Or maybe you’re not aligned. Maybe my ideal weekend is competitive sports and math tutoring, and yours is hiking the Appalachian Trail and camping. Would be good to know now.

This may also reveal things we care about and agree on but that differ from what we are doing now. For example, this may reveal that I would like to be a stay‑at‑home parent. And my partner might think that’s a great idea and even have some thoughts on how to make it work financially. If we haven’t discussed it before, I may not know that my partner would support that. Or the inverse: Maybe I’ve been staying at home, but I’m dying to go back to work and was afraid to bring it up. For these reasons, it is important to be honest in these discussions, even if you think what you want isn’t achievable.

(A note: If you are parenting alone, I still think this is a valuable approach, since in the chaos of parenting, you may not stop often enough to reflect on what you really want to be doing in each moment.)

There is no obvious end to this conversation. It’s one you’ve probably started before you got to this point, and one you’ll continue. But have the conversion until you feel like you’re in enough alignment to put your mission statement into concrete practice.

Writing down your goals for your family will not give you control. Control in family life is illusory — things happen that you do not expect, the world throws you curveballs. No amount of note‑taking and planning can avoid this. But not everything is unexpected, and we can avoid much daily stress by at least being clear about our real hopes for our family.

From “THE FAMILY FIRM: A Data-Driven Guide to Better Decision Making in the Early School Years” by Emily Oster, to be published by Penguin Press, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2021 by Emily Oster.  

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