Date August 17, 2021
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In new book, Emily Oster offers tips for family decision-making

The Brown economist’s third book, “The Family Firm,” gives parents of elementary school children the tools they need to make informed choices about schooling, extracurriculars and more.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — Before 2020, Emily Oster was best known for her two bestselling books, “Expecting Better” and “Cribsheet.” Millions of new and expectant parents across the globe used her data-driven advice to make decisions about everything from drinking alcohol in the first trimester of pregnancy to breastfeeding in the first months of a baby’s life.

Then came the COVID-19 pandemic, when Oster’s knack for synthesizing data into plain-spoken advice thrust her into an even brighter spotlight. As Americans attempted to wade through confusing, sometimes contradictory advice on whether to travel or visit loved ones, she teamed up with medical experts to create the website COVID Explained, using data on infections and spread to help people stay healthy, safe and informed. Then, observing a notable absence of formal federal data on school reopenings, Oster established herself as an unofficial guiding voice with her own School Response Dashboard.

The pandemic, and Oster’s role in it, have added valence to her newest book, “The Family Firm.” Published in August 2021 and already a New York Times bestseller, the book uses data to help guide better decision-making for parents of children ages 5 to 12. 

While “The Family Firm” might sound like a sequel to her previous books, it’s more of a spinoff, Oster said in a recent podcast interview with Brown’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs.

“When you start to get into older kids, we don’t all have the same questions,” she said. “We don’t all have the same questions at the beginning, either, but there are so many more shared experiences. As your kids age into themselves, the choices you’re making, the questions you’re asking, the things you’re worrying about, are really different across parents. [So] rather than being a linear run-through of some period of a child’s life, this book is more about: Here’s how to think about the big picture, here’s how to think about decision-making, and by the way, here’s some data you might plug into your decisions.”

The interview, part of the Watson Institute’s podcast series Trending Globally, was released Thursday, Aug. 12, and is available on Captivate, iTunes, Spotify and other podcasting platforms.

In the interview, Oster explained that “The Family Firm” is ultimately a toolkit designed to help families confront complex decisions. Every time parents and children face a potentially life-altering choice — for example, whether to send their child to a neighborhood public school or a charter school — Oster guides them through the process with her “four Fs.” First, frame the question: establish two concrete choices. Second, fact find: gather evidence, including logistical information about each school, test score data and studies about the respective impacts of public and charter schools on students’ futures. Third, final decision: rather than debating endlessly, set a time and date to hash out the pros and cons and make a choice. Fourth, follow up: schedule time to check in with the family regularly to discuss whether the decision is working for everyone.

I think there’s value to surfacing disagreements in a moment where you’ve planned to have a discussion. It will hopefully lead to a place where you’re happier.

Emily Oster Professor of Economics
Emily Oster

Oster said “The Family Firm” is less focused on data-driven problem-solving because making decisions about where to send children to school, how to introduce extracurricular activities and when to allow screen time depends heavily on a family’s circumstances — including whether and how parents work, where they live, how they spend their free time and more.

Take the question of charter schools versus public schools, for instance.

“There’s not just one answer to that question,” Oster said. “In places in which the traditional neighborhood public schools are not very good on the test score dimension, charter schools tend to deliver better outcomes. In places where the neighborhood public schools are better, charter schools tend to deliver slightly worse or equal outcomes. And that means you can’t just look at one study, or even the average effect of charter schools, and assume that would be relevant to your particular situation.”

Oster acknowledged that some parents may balk at running their families like a business — a tongue-in-cheek suggestion she offers in the book. Yet the mother of two said bringing her “work brain” home has helped the family adjudicate decisions more even-handedly than they might have otherwise.

“When we are discussing our top priorities, we’re usually doing it as a business exercise,” Oster said. “Part of what makes this hard to do in families is that people have an instinct of, ‘We love each other, we’re a family — of course we’re going to agree.’ But the thing is, you may not always agree on priorities, and some of these differences in priorities manifest in a more immediate gut-reaction sort of way. I think there’s value to surfacing disagreements in a moment where you’ve planned to have a discussion. It will hopefully lead to a place where you’re happier.”

In the interview, Oster also touched on when to include or exclude children from decision-making, how to feel good about big decisions regardless of the outcome, and what she has taken away from her time in the national spotlight in the midst of the pandemic.