The Family Firm by Emily Oster

Should you get your kid a phone?

A seemingly simple question like that can be quite hard to answer. What kind of phone? A smartphone? A “dumbphone”? What will you say when your kid begins pestering you because all their friends have one?

Emily Oster, in her book, The Family Firm: A Data-Driven Guide to Better Decision Making in the Early School Years, seeks to provide parents with a framework for their decision-making based on studies and data. Her rationale is that if as parents we are able to frame the question we are trying to answer about parenting correctly, we can make better decisions for her kids.

The biggest positive of her book is the emphasis on a family “Big Picture.” A Big Picture is a vision for our family life. What are we going to be about as a family? What are the things which are important to us? For example, some families may really value eating dinner together. Having such a value as family meals will inevitably shape the way your family functions. Most importantly, Oster encourages families to be thoughtful about what kind of family you are striving to have.

Oster then proposes a framework for decision-making based on four F’s: Frame the Question, Fact-Find, Final Decision, and Follow Up. Oster wants parents to thinking carefully about what question that they are trying to answer (Frame the Question). Knowing the question can lead parents to searching for answers (Fact-Find). Once the data is in, it needs to be processed and shaped into a decision (Final Decision). But once a decision is made it still needs to be evaluated (Follow Up).

The rest of the book Oster applies her framework to common issues facing parents in the early school years (ages 5-12): sleep, childcare and parental work, nutrition, parenting style, school, extracurricular activities, feelings, and entertainment. To some degree, Oster seems to overcomplicate parenting. In some ways, she seems like a typical upper-middle class parent who gets stressed about everything. She spends chapters diving deep into sleep and nutrition only to come out and say “yes, sleep is really good and needed for kids”, and “yes, eating a lot of junk food is bad.” Maybe we don’t really need “big data” and drawn out decision-making process for things which are common sense.

Oster also points out something that Christians have been saying for a long-time: family-life matters. In her chapter on bullying, she recognizes that “Having a stable and happy home life seems to protect kids against the worst effects stemming from bullying by peers” (227). Moreover, a stable family life undercuts the long-term damage of bullying (227). Oster admits that “you probably do not need data and evidence to say that coming from a stable family is good for kids’ outcomes” (227). A good family life is good for kids.

Since having a stable family life is so important according to the “data,” the question that Oster does not ask seems to be the missing piece in discussions of family life. The question Oster leaves aside is, “What is a stable family?” Christians, for years, have been advocating that a stable family is one built on God’s design.

What the Scripture tell us that stable families first begin with a man and a woman covenanting together in marriage for a lifetime. Out of their loving union, children may result. According to the Scriptures, the foundation of a stable family would have a father and mother in the home. Of course, Scripture also indicates that “thicker” ties are also the norm where a child is raised not only in a home with a mother and a father but also tied together with aunts and uncles, cousins, and friends, and in the Christian vision, brothers and sisters in Christ.

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