(CNN)Caring for younger kids is often intensely physical, but with older kids, it can be intensely emotional. Why? Because there are just so many decisions to make, and in a world with a shrinking middle class, rising home prices, and a fiery social, political and natural climate, everything feels high stakes.
For those of us who are disorganized, inconsistent, suffering from extreme exhaustion, short on time, money and patience — or who just have school-age kids — Emily Oster’s new book, “The Family Firm: A Data-Driven Guide to Better Decision Making in the Early School Years,” aims to help in navigating the overwhelming pressures attached to parenting in the 21st century.
Do you start your kid in kindergarten on time, or wait a year so they’ll be the oldest in the class? (Starting a kid earlier means they might have slightly higher test scores someday…but predicts worse performance in school.) Extracurriculars? How many? How do you find a good school — and how does that affect earning potential? What’s a “good school” anyway? How much do parents’ careers affect things like test scores or obesity? How soon do kids need to learn to read?
The way to begin, she advises, is to understand your own values — and there’s a workbook to help decipher them. When a family faces a big choice, she suggests a method called “The Four Fs”: frame the question, fact-find, final decision and follow-up. Learning to make decisions both using data and using business models involves some up-front time, but it makes the process easier later.
Oster’s method is less about how to make the “right” decision than about how to make a decision well for your family. After all, the answers to certain questions — when to get your kid a phone or whether to send them to sleepaway camp — could vary among children, even within the same family.
CNN talked to Oster about making decisions in the age of snowplow parenting — in which parents try to remove obstacles rather than teach their kids to navigate them — as well as different ways to achieve a happy home.
CNN: You say that parenting in the 21st century is an exercise in “extreme logistical complexity.” What does that mean?
Emily Oster: When you cross that threshold into school-age kids and all of a sudden, your kids are doing things outside of school, you end up in a situation in which surprisingly much of your day is logistical management — scheduling activities, driving, figuring out when bedtime is or how much kids need to sleep.
I think in some ways that is different than it was than it was when I was a kid. There were fewer after-school structured extracurriculars and there was more unstructured free time — which may or may not be good but does not require the kind of logistical management that’s a hallmark of this era of parenting.
CNN: You say this is not about what decision to make, it’s about how to make it. Can you explain?
Oster: The questions that people face are really different, and the answers are likely to be really different, depending on your family, depending on which kid it is in your family, depending on all kinds of things. And it is hard to know if you made the right choice — that’s because for some of these decisions, we worry if I don’t do the right thing, there’s going to be some long-term bad thing that will happen. But you’re not going to find out about that until very long in the in the future. There’s no immediate feedback.