The Family Firm: A Data-Driven Guide to Better Decision Making in the Early School Years

A classic business school framework for data-driven parents to think more deliberately about school, health, extracurricular activities and more.

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Karsen: From The Parent’s Club, I’m Karsen Kolnicki. This is your briefing.


Karsen: Today, we’re discussing The Family Firm: A Data-Driven Guide to Better Decision Making in the Early School Years by Emily Oster.

This title explores the latest research on pre-teen child development. Dr. Emily Oster explains how parents of kids ages 5-12 can make data-driven decisions in important parenting situations.

Karsen: Vincent Phamvan on the key takeaways [pause] and what you need to know.


Karsen: Vincent, as a Professor of Economics at Brown University, how does Emily Oster encourage parents to approach parenting decisions like a business leader?

Vincent: As a parent and an economist, she specializes in looking at how we can use data to make better decisions. Emily Oster argues that the art of parenting and the art of business have more in common than one might think. When good business leaders need to make hard choices, they gather evidence and process data to determine the best way forward, and parents can take a similar approach. This is your how-to guide for optimized parenting.

Karsen: As the author points out, scientific studies have a lot to teach us about parenting topics, including something as universal as sleep. What does the data say about sleep and your child’s success and well-being?

Vincent: Everyone needs sleep but sleep isn’t just about recharging a child’s batteries. Studies show that it’s crucial for their development and well-being. The author references a study that looked at 3,000 high-school students in Rhode Island. The key takeaways they found were that children who had less sleep and later bedtimes also got the worst grades. Not only that, but these children were also more likely to suffer from depression. But, the link between sleep and grades is a complex one.

There was a 2010 meta-analysis that looked at the sleep habits of 20,000 children. They found that sleep wasn’t the biggest predictor of academic performance. Instead, it was children’s levels of daytime sleepiness, which suggests that each child may need different amounts of sleep to get through the day without feeling sleepy.

Karsen: Does lack of sleep cause poor performance in school?

Vincent: Surprisingly, researchers discovered that one hour of more or less sleep per night makes all the difference. At the end of the week, children who slept an hour less performed worse on memory, math tests, and had more emotional outbursts. This suggests that, even within the recommended range of nightly sleep time, more is probably better. For kids in elementary school, around 11 hours is a good idea.

Karsen: Another potential factor that may affect your kids’ academic performance and overall health is parents working full-time outside of the home. Does the author speak to this concern?

Vincent: Yes, many parents wonder if it will make a difference to their children’s lives if they work full-time. This question is common and more common amongst women. Oster looks to what the data says. It’s important to note that she says the data can’t tell us everything. It can’t say much about whether working or staying at home will make your children happier or improve your relationship with them. But it does offer insight into the effects of parental work on 2 outcomes; academic performance and obesity.

Karsen:  What are some of the key findings after studying the data?

Vincent: According to the research, children whose mothers work outside the home, tend to get better grades. However, the effect is very small and varies depending on family dynamics. There’s also evidence that having a working mother is more beneficial for daughters than for sons. When it comes to differences in income, the biggest positive effect on kids’ grades was found in cases of working mothers from low-income families. Contrary, for high-income families, the research shows a very small negative effect on academic performance when the mother works.

Karsen: What about the link between parental work and child obesity?

Vincent: Here, the evidence is stronger. According to the author’s research, children whose parents both work full-time are significantly more likely to suffer from obesity. This is especially the case with high-income families. Researchers aren’t sure why that is but what they do know is that on average, children with parents who work full-time eat less healthy food, drink more soda, and watch more TV, all risk factors for obesity.

Karsen: That’s understandable. Looking towards parents, how does working outside of the home affect parental well-being?

Vincent: If you’re a mother or plan on becoming a mother, you may find the evidence slightly discouraging. While research shows that having a career makes women happy and that having a family makes women happy, it also shows that the two don’t always work simultaneously.

In other words, having both a career and a family at the same time can result in increased stress. Mothers who work full-time report being more frazzled, tired, and miserable than mothers who stay home. It’s important to note that the data may change over time and doesn’t generalize all situations.

Karsen: Going back to food, previous research says that people’s tastes stay with them for life. Knowing this, should you offer your child only healthy food?

Vincent: Although it may be a struggle to get children to eat vegetables and not candy bars, the food your children eat matters.

Karsen: Why does it matter more at this stage?

Vincent: Oster says that’s because childhood diet has a huge impact on what people eat later in life. Tastes for certain foods can develop in the womb. One study found that children whose mothers ate a lot of carrots while pregnant reported liking carrots much more than other children.

Karsen: So this is why you should eat healthy yourself and offer your child healthy food.

Vincent: Exactly. Even as adults, people stay deeply attached to the foods they ate in childhood. One study of college students found that not only did they still like the foods they ate as children – they still ate them regularly, too.

Karsen: This makes sense why I could live off peanut butter. Does this change based on the price fluctuation of certain foods?

Vincent: There was another study that looked at people who grew up in a traditionally rice-eating area of India but as adults moved to an area that mostly ate wheat. Even though rice was more expensive there and many of the people were living in poverty, they still chose to eat rice.

Karsen: That’s interesting, too. As parents know, getting your children into the habit of eating healthy food is easier said than done, does the data offer insight to help?

Vincent: Yes, it does. When it comes to eating vegetables, the evidence suggests that repetition is the key. The more times you expose your children to veggies, the more likely they are to enjoy them. For example, Oster cites one study that gave preschool children red pepper and squash and then asked the children to rate how much they liked them. The first time, the average response was “yucky.” But after six tries, the average response had nudged up almost to “yummy.” What’s more, by the time the study ended, the children were eating more than four times more vegetables than they were at the start!

Karsen: So the takeaway here is don’t just offer your child a food once and give up when they don’t like it. Instead, give it to them again and again and again until they learn to like it.

Vincent: Yes. The next thing the author discusses is helicopter parenting. Oster argues that helicopter parenting doesn’t deserve its bad rep.

Karsen: How does she define a helicopter parent?

Vincent: The helicopter parent is the type of parent who constantly hovers around their kids, doing everything for them. For instance, they could be a parent who acts as the child’s alarm clock to make sure they get up on time. They also already have their child’s school clothes laid out and moved on to preparing breakfast then checking to make sure their backpack is packed to walk them to school.

Karsen: Although helicopter parenting has a negative reputation, is it that bad according to the data?

Vincent: One recent study found that greater parental involvement was correlated with better academic performance in high-school students. Larger analyses of studies, including those with younger children, have also found that more parental involvement leads to better grades.

Karsen:  That makes sense. Could you give an example of a student without a helicopter parent?

Vincent: Yes, the author gives an example of a 10-year-old who gets up on his own every day, packs his own backpack, and remembers his own homework. He might do this well most of the time. But he’s still a child, so he’ll inevitably forget things, and some days he’ll run late. The child with the helicopter parent, on the other hand, won’t. So over time, that may be an advantage.

This being said, helicopter parenting can easily go too far and lead to negative outcomes, especially when children are older. Several studies of college-age kids have found that heavily involved parenting leads to young people who are less engaged with peers and have higher levels of anxiety and depression. This suggests that it’s important to reduce your hovering to foster independence in your children before they head off to college.

Karsen: Is there a particular level of parental involvement that leads to good outcomes for children?

Vincent: The data suggests that it’s best to consistently encourage your children and show them what a good attitude looks like. It’s about being highly supportive and teaching them about what matters in life.

Karsen: Another important factor that affects childhood development between the ages of 5 and 12 is school. How does the data help us understand what a good school looks like and how parents can identify a good school?

Vincent: Yes, Oster analysis this data to provide evidence on what makes great schools. According to the data, great schools have a few key features in common. First, and most important, is great teachers. One study found that people who were taught by experienced kindergarten teachers not only performed better but also got larger salaries in their late twenties.

Karsen: What about parents who are trying to decide whether to send their kids to public or private schools? Does the data suggest one school is better than the other?

Vincent:  According to Oster, it’s difficult to evaluate this because families who send their children to charter schools are likely different from families whose children don’t in more ways than that. Additional differences could impact academic performance rather than the schools themselves.

But there are school districts in several states that use a lottery system to randomly decide which children are eligible to attend charter schools. Data from these districts show that kids who attend charter schools perform significantly better academically. This suggests that you might want to select a charter school over a public one if you find yourself in the position of being able to choose.

Karsen:  Another decision parents with children ages 5-12 are faced with is whether to enroll their children in sports. What are the risks and benefits associated with this decision?

Vincent: Many parents report sending their children to after-school sports clubs for the sake of their health and fitness. But in regards to children’s health, sports have some long-term benefits for kids, but potential risks too. First, Oster looks at the data in regards to childhood obesity and shares that taking part in sports has little effect on obesity. While sports almost certainly don’t make children overweight, it’s also true that kids who take part in them have been found to eat both more nutritious food and more junk food.

Other benefits associated with participating in sports as a child include retaining a higher level of aerobic fitness and the likelihood of exercising more as an adult.

Karsen: What are the costs of participating in sports?

Vincent: Specifically, some sports might benefit your child’s body but pose a risk to their brain through a concussion. Scientists now know that repeated trauma to the head can leave marks on the brain and lead to neurological problems later in life. Some of the most popular extracurricular sports like American football, soccer, wrestling, and basketball are the highest risks of concussion.

As a parent, if this potential cost seems too high, you could encourage your child to try sports with a low risk of concussion, such as running, tennis, or swimming.

Karsen: That’s a good factor to weigh when helping your child choose a sport. Another decision parents look for guidance on is how much screen time to allow their child. What does the data say here?

Vincent: The data on kids and screen time is mixed. Most modern parents worry that their kids spend too much time staring at either the television or another type of digital screen, whether it’s video games, social media, or Netflix.

Karsen:  But how anxious should you really be about this?

Vincent: According to the author, some of the fear surrounding screen time is simply because screens are new. Although it’s hard to believe now, when novels became popular in the 17th and 18th centuries, people worried that they might have a bad influence, too.

Karsen: Wow that seems crazy looking back. So, as much as parents may worry about screen time today, is the data on this issue not what we might expect?

Vincent: The average American child watches 24 hours of television a week, but it’s not clear whether television itself is doing them any harm. While studies have found that children without access to TV get better grades, that could be because these children spend more time doing something else that benefits their school performance, such as homework or reading.

When it comes to video games, the evidence varies. Laboratory studies have found that children who have just played violent video games behave more aggressively than children who have just played non-violent ones. But, researchers aren’t sure whether people with more violent tendencies are more likely to choose violent games, or whether video games make people more violent.

Karsen: Are there any firm conclusions about the effects of screen time?

Vincent: Yes, one strong conclusion about the negative effects of screen time is that it’s bad for sleep. Children with a TV in their bedroom report fewer hours of sleep and lower-quality sleep. But, this applies to adults and children who look at a screen 2 hours before bedtime. So that’s one habit you may be able to work on with your children.

Karsen: That’s definitely something I could work on breaking.

Karsen: It sounds like the key takeaway from this title is that the decisions you make for your child in grade school can impact them throughout their whole lives. To set your child up for success, focus your energies on ensuring they get good sleep, eat healthy foods, and attend a school with great teachers and small classes. While you may want your child to be independent, there’s nothing wrong with packing their homework for them and making them breakfast on a school day. In fact, it will help them stay on track.


Karsen: That’s it for your briefing. I’m Karsen Kolnicki.

Vincent: And I’m Vincent Phamvan.

Karsen: We’ll see you next time.


In The Family Firm, Brown professor of economics and mom of two Emily Oster offers a classic business school framework for data-driven parents to think more deliberately about the key issues of the elementary years: school, health, extracurricular activities, and more.

Unlike the hourly challenges of infant parenting, the big questions in this age come up less frequently. But we live with the consequences of our decisions for much longer. What’s the right kind of school and at what age should a particular kid start? How do you encourage a healthy diet? Should kids play a sport and how seriously? How do you think smartly about encouraging children’s independence? Along with these bigger questions, Oster investigates how to navigate the complexity of day-to-day family logistics.

Making these decisions is less about finding the specific answer and more about taking the right approach. Parents of this age are often still working in baby mode, which is to say, under stress and on the fly. That is a classic management problem, and Oster takes a page from her time as a business school professor at the University of Chicago to show us that a thoughtful business process can help smooth out tough family decisions.

The Family Firm is a smart and winning guide to how to think clearly–and with less ambient stress–about the key decisions of the elementary school years.

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