Reading The Family Firm

Emily Oster’s newest book on parenting dropped to my Kindle this week. I recommend it to parents if your oldest child is between 2 and 8 years old.*

Her first book in this genre (she invented this genre) was Expecting Better. In that book, pregnant women could get clear answers. Oster could put a precise estimate on the risk of, for example, eating sushi while pregnant. Then it was fairly easy to decide, for yourself, if you would eat sushi.

Right now, I have decisions like this: My 6-year-old says sushi is “yucky”. If I force him to eat it, will he get into a better college? Should I send him to bed without any food if he won’t eat the sushi I made for family dinner?

These are the questions that us, the original Expecting Better crew, now have. The answers are usually vague. That might bother you, if you’d like exact instructions for parenting. Still, I found this book helpful for thinking about parenting. Oster is not going to give you an absolute yes or no on video games for kids. She will summarize all of the relevant studies. Then you have help to set your own boundaries for your own kids based on your Big Picture family goals.


If there were more rigorous studies concerning video games or competitive hockey, then The Family Firm would be a different book. Social scientists don’t worry much about the family that can afford to facilitate travel hockey but might not so that their child can have more dinners at home.

One take away is that you can, mostly, set up a schedule for your child that suits you and the family culture you want. The exception is if you are outside of the bumpers. She does not want to tell parents what to do… however, if your second grader is staying up until midnight playing video games then you will know that phantom Emily Oster disapproves.

One helpful purpose of the book is getting to learn where those bumpers are. In a world of information driven by outrage headlines, that can be hard to discern on your own.  For example, Oster will not try to unequivocally talk you out of letting your son play American football. She will walk you through the data on concussions. Parents should consider the risk of injury along with many other costs and benefits.**

The first part of the book is about how to make decisions, but I would say it is really about how to live a good life. Oster says you should make a long-term plan, and then create a strategic schedule, and then follow through on what it takes to achieve your vision. She used to teach MBA classes, and she points out that this is how successful businesses run.

This mirrors the advice I have read about how to have a fulfilling intellectual career.*** You can’t trust your impulses. On any given morning, you will want to sleep in and eat chips and watch TV.  

If you want to create something with enduring value then you need to

  • Take some time to engage in strategic planning
  • Make a calendar
  • Get up early and execute the plan with discipline every day

In the case of parenting, it helps if two co-parents plan according to a shared vision and execute faithfully every day.

I enjoyed her sense of humor. I imagine that some moms will get annoyed when they read the first few chapters. They will be irritated to think that Jesse Shapiro actually does what he is asked to do after a single annual planning meeting. But just because every household doesn’t run so smoothly, parents still benefit from these ideas on home management. I was re-inspired to meal plan.

If tips on decision-making frameworks are not interesting to you, then you can easily skip Part I of the book and move on to data-driven chapters organized by topic (e.g. summer camp, reading, sleep).

In my life, I’m sure that Emily Oster would tell me to relax about baseball. Baseball has consumed a lot of my mental energy in the past year. My son does not play baseball. That’s why I worry. Other boys are playing baseball and my 6-year-old is falling behind. I just asked him if he wants to play this fall. He said no. I tried to talk him into it. He doesn’t want to play. Now I’m worried he’ll never play. If I had started him earlier on baseball instead of soccer, then he would be more prepared. It was a pandemic. Should I blame myself? Have I already screwed it all up? After reading Oster’s chapter on sports, I feel better about the situation. I have never muted anything on social media before, but maybe all I need to do to achieve perfect peace is mute the baseball moms on Facebook.

*I never bought Cribsheet because my oldest had aged out of the advice group when it came out. Like many others, I became an Oster fan when I could rely on Expecting Better during my own first pregnancy. In the past year, I have also promoted Oster’s volunteer Covid data soldiering in some of my blogs.

** I broke my leg playing soccer. Neither I nor my parents have ever doubted that playing soccer was good for me. I got back on the field as soon as I recovered.

*** Two books I have read on the topic are Deep Work and Getting Things Done. Ironically, I can’t seem to get through the second one.

7 thoughts on “Reading The Family Firm

  1. Viktor August 9, 2021 / 2:21 am

    Dear Joy: just discovered this blog — in true GMU tradition, it is an absolute delight. I’ll be checking out Emily Oster’s book, too (my son is turning 2 next week, so I can start reading then).


    • Joy August 10, 2021 / 3:26 pm

      So glad to hear that, Viktor!


  2. Scott Buchanan August 10, 2021 / 10:37 am

    Liked: “You can’t trust your impulses. On any given morning, you will want to sleep in and eat chips and watch TV.”


  3. James Bailey August 10, 2021 / 2:54 pm

    Will check it out.
    If you want to feel better about baseball, read “Range” by David Epstein


    • James Bailey August 10, 2021 / 2:56 pm

      Argues that great athletes typically sample a lot of sports before specializing as teenagers, rather than starting super young


      • Joy August 10, 2021 / 3:28 pm

        Thanks! Oster specifically says not to compare your kid to what you see on social media. I know, on one level, that it’s fine to not do baseball in Fall 2021. But it is funny how easily parents get FOMO over these things.


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