Child(ish) Reads: The Family Firm

Dr. Emily Oster is one of my favorite parenting authors. Her previous books (Expecting Better and Crib Sheet) come from a very informed, data-driven, evidence-based background. These have definitely made my parenting life easier when I’m navigating all of the different issues, controversial topics, and pitfalls of raising kids from pregnancy through the infant stage. Her latest book, The Family Firm, takes a look at the Early School stage and to say that she has a very different approach is a mouthful.

The truth is that by the time your kids hit the Early School stage, specifically the years between three and six, there are so many factors that will affect your parenting decision process. Whereas in the newborn and infant stage, things are pretty basic and straightforward.

The Family Firm: A Data-Driven Guide to Better Decision Making in the Early School Years
The ParentData Series, Book 3
By Dr. Emily Oster

The Family Firm talks about some common “big decisions” most families make during this time, and begins with a not-surprising fact: There are very few reliable longitudinal studies in this age group.

Meaning that any study with a specific group of children will probably yield different outcomes when applied to different group of children, simply because they have different backgrounds, ethnicities, family dynamic and values.  It’s not as straightforward as “Do this and your kid will be successful.”

Here are some of my favorite takeaways from the book:

  1. Framing

You can’t always look for the exact correct answer, but you can frame the question and options correctly.

Big decisions aren’t easy. They are multifaceted and need much more time and discussion with your family. If you are see-sawing between decisions, this is a bad sign and you need to give the decision more time and thought.

Four Fs for big decisions:
Frame the question
Fact-find: gather evidence and logistics
Final Decision: family meeting

The biggest lesson that I have taken away from this book, as I have mentioned in a previous post, is to “frame it for your family”. This means that when you are looking at options for your big decisions, the most popular or trendiest thing might not always be the best fit for your family.  

The first and biggest example given in the book is: If your kid has a summer birthday, should you redshirt them one year before starting kindergarten? 

A multitude of factors will affect this decision, like:  

  • Do they have separation anxiety if you leave them?
  • If you opt not to do public Kindergarten, can your family afford an additional year of daycare or PreK?
  • Can your child make it through a whole day without a nap, or are they appropriately potty-trained?
  • Do you have older siblings in the same school?
  • Do you go with a public or private Kindergarten?
  • Are there other programs available: co-op, religious schools, homeschooling, virtual school, etc?

Is there conclusive evidence that kids will perform better academically if they are the youngest in their grade versus the oldest in their grade? Perhaps, but even these stats vary when you factor in family income, family history of college, parental preparedness, prior experience in daycare, older or younger siblings, etc.

So many factors, but at the end of the day, what really drives the decision is what works best for your family.

When you frame it for your family, you cut out all of the stress, the pressure and the comparison/competition that comes with being a parent, and you simply make decisions based on what works for the people in your life. 

2. Decisions aren’t always final.

Parenting is all about making mistakes. If you and your partner make a decision and you find that it is not what’s best for your family, then make a decision to change. This is the Follow-up section of the Four F’s.

I get that this isn’t as simple or straightforward, and a lot of decisions feel like you are stuck once you make them. But this process helps you figure out what your priorities are as a family.

Say you’ve made it a priority to spend every night eating dinner together, and you sign up for an extracurricular activity that takes place in the late evening, how do you balance that?

  • Do you get take out on those nights?
  • If one parent is at the activity, is the other one cooking?
  • If you make dinner later, will it affect your child’s sleep?

Again, so many factors can affect this one well-meaning intention of eating dinner together. And with kids, this is bound to get more complicated as you juggle activities, work schedules, birthday parties, play dates, homework etc.  

When you give yourself the time and grace to walk back on a decision, this takes the pressure off of trying to always get it right the first time.

3. Family Firm

Another thing I liked about the decisions at the Early School stage is that it’s not just between you and your partner. You can ask your kids for their input.

If you are adamant about them taking piano lessons, perhaps ask them first if they even like piano. Or if your kid is good at soccer but their friends are doing basketball, maybe they want to stay with their friends more than they like soccer. Both of these answers are totally acceptable.

Don’t feel pressure to make decisions by yourselves. And if your kids change their mind, which they probably will do from time to time, it gives you another chance to reassess the situation together and get them on board with priorities as family. Dr. Oster also suggests that you think of a family motto. I can see this being very effective in building family bonds as your kids grow.

4. Parenting Style

In the book, there is a whole chapter discussing parenting styles and whether or not one is preferable to another. Helicopter, snow plow, tiger, attachment, etc. You know because we wrote about it last year.

I loved Dr. Oster’s loose attitude when it came to parenting styles. You’d think that if you initially committed to being an attachment parent, that you would have to adopt ALL of the attachment parent traits. Not necessarily.

Do you think there are Tiger moms out there that are full Tiger, or maybe just Tiger-ish?

No one style is statistically better or has better successful outcomes than another. What’s more is that rarely do parents look at other factors before deciding on a style. Yes, you may want to helicopter your child in elementary and middle school, but are they going to be accepting of it in high school or college? Helicopter-parented kids can be more academically successful, but only if they already have a happy relationship with their parent. If you think helicoptering will improve your relationship with disgruntled tween, you might want to rethink that.

 5. The Tool Box

A sneaky tip that Oster suggests when making scheduling decisions is to create a “fake” calendar. Print out a sheet calendar and fill in a sample schedule of what one month would like if you made a particular decision. Do you foresee any conflicts or rearrangements? Are all the pieces fitting together? If it looks too overwhelming, it probably is.

Troy and I have used a shared Google calendar for almost 10 years. It helps us track each other’s travel, appointments, and recently the girls’ appointments and grandparent sleepovers. This helps us know what we’re doing and if we need extra back up. 

Now that our girls are getting into extracurricular activities, we can put practice times or rehearsal dates in the calendar and see what this does to our schedule. Plotting out this visual helps us make decisions on which activities we can commit to and which can maybe be saved for a later date.

Managing a family can be difficult when there’s so many moving parts. So if some tools, particularly productivity or office tools, would be helpful for keeping your household together, then by all means, go ahead and use them.

I remember growing up with the Mom wall calendars. You have a column for each member of the family and everyone could see what everyone else was doing. If a shared Google calendar works for you, great. If you have older kids and you need to have a text chain, do it. Set up calendar appointments or use other smart tools to stay connected. This also takes some pressure off of moms who are so often the default information hub.

Not gonna lie. I love this book series. The takeaway sentiment for the previous two books was a very easy “Don’t stress. You’ll gonna be fine.” This book is different in that it acknowledges that decisions in this age range can actually be difficult. But when you orient everything to your family compass, it makes those decisions significantly easier.  

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