Every year, the parents of nearly a million summer-born five-year-olds have to make an important choice: Should I enroll my child in kindergarten this year or next? Most go ahead and put their kid in school, but about 16 percent opt to "redshirt," holding their child back a year. The putative reason is that six-year-olds are more intellectually capable than five-year-olds, and so redshirting gives a kid a leg up that will, over 12 years of schooling, compound into major academic returns. But is that true? Are kids helped or hindered by being older than their peers? Does redshirting even do anything at all?
Such stressful decisions—judgments that require us to balance many factors, marred by uncertainty and a sense of enormous import—are a constant feature of parenting. Yet many parents make them haphazardly, relying on a combination of emotional intuition, friends' anecdotes, and short-term thinking. The core argument of The Family Firm, the latest book from economist Emily Oster, is that with just a little effort, making such choices becomes a whole lot easier.
Oster, a professor at Brown, focuses professionally on health economics and statistical methods. But she has made her name off her prior two data-driven books on parenting: 2013's Expecting Better, which reviewed what research has to say about pregnancy, and 2019's Cribsheet, which covers data on the first few years of life. More recently, Oster has also attracted attention as something of a COVID contrarian, inveighing particularly against school closures and other restrictions on low-risk kids.
In subject matter, The Family Firm follows Oster's two prior books, discussing parenting between pre-school and early adolescence. Those books were constructed as a series of classic parenting questions—What can't I eat during pregnancy? When can my baby eat solids, and which?—paired with a thorough review of what research had to say on the matter (often not much, which is informative in itself).
But unlike pregnancy and early childhood, Oster writes, the early school years pose more complicated questions. Whether or not to redshirt your child is a different kind of question from whether soft cheese is safe for pregnant women to eat and entails weighing not just the average effects on measurables like test scores, but both unmeasured or unmeasurable variables like social performance, and the particular effects on your child, who has hopefully developed a personality since those first few months ex utero.
Data, then, can only tell you so much about how to make those decisions. But that doesn’t mean economics has nothing to offer parents of older kids. Rather, Oster draws on her experience as a business school professor to suggest that economic reasoning—the art of making decision-making given constraints—can tell us a lot about how to make some of these hard decisions a little better.
Thus the title of the book. Oster's point is not that you should run your household like a business but that perhaps some of the techniques you use to make decisions in the workplace could help your home life too. She suggests coming up with a family "mission statement" (though it's called a "big picture") to help structure your personal goals. And she lays out a decision-making process, the "Four Fs": Frame the question, fact-find, make a final decision, and follow up later. Through a series of B-school-style case studies, she walks through this approach for everything from planning a family meal to whether you should be a "helicopter" parent.
Of course, real parenting, just like the real day-to-day of your job, is never this straightforward. Both are frequently charged with emotion, as rational decision-making takes a back seat to the desire to prove that actually, you know better, dammit! But Oster is right that having a plan—some agreed-upon, big-picture goals and a process for making decisions—can make those tense moments a little less tense.
A major theme of Oster's last two books is that parents could stand to chill out a bit. Take breastfeeding: The sheer furor over whether moms should breastfeed (and whether they are terrible mothers for choosing not to) massively outweighs the evidence for its effects. Breastfeeding probably has benefits, but not enough to make it a health threat to your child if you bottle-feed or enough that you should waste time feeling bad about it if biology or career means you, personally, aren't able to. More generally, the balance of the evidence often does not support anyone's strongly held opinion; the lesson is usually to not worry so much.
Some readers may see Oster as encouraging their home lives to be suffused with the same anxious energy as their work lives, in the name of efficiency and "workism." But her point is really the opposite: Some careful, economics-inspired thinking can help reduce the anxiety, tension, and stress in your home, just as (in principle) it should in your office.
For that alone, The Family Firm is worth picking up. After all, what parent couldn't use a little less stress?
The Family Firm: A Data-Driven Guide to Better Decision Making in the Early School Years
by Emily Oster
Penguin, 320 pp., $28
Charles Fain Lehman is a Fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a Contributing Editor of City Journal. Previously, he was a Staff Writer with the Washington Free Beacon.