Can understanding business strategy help you parent better? One economist thinks so

Schools around the country are now back at in-person classes. But there has been a jump in the number of students quarantined, and some places are allowing distance learning again. All too often, parents are facing difficult choices. Stephanie Sy has the story of an economist who is trying to help parents navigate such challenges.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Schools around the country are now largely back in person for class, but there's been a jump in the number of students quarantined, and some places are allowing distance learning again.

    All too often, parents are facing difficult choices.

    Stephanie Sy has this story of an economist who is trying to help parents navigate.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Amid the chaos of life with young kids, parents face an endless stream of decisions.

  • Janelle Spence, Parent:

    What we let them watch, what we let them eat, what we let them do.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    And the pandemic posed new challenges.

  • Kerry Peterson, Parent:

    What are their interests, outside of technology? I don't really know anymore.

  • Kineta Sanford, Parent:

    We kind of joked over the summer that she's going to have to learn how to be social again.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Enter parenting guru to the data-obsessed millennial mom, Emily Oster, an economist by training. Her new book, "The Family Firm," employs business strategy for parenting choices. Start with the big picture, she says.

    Emily Oster, Author, "The Family Firm": Write down, what are the — like, the three top priorities for your for your family. That's, like, a very simple thing that can potentially be moving you forward.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    For the most important decisions, Oster suggests the four F's.

  • Emily Oster:

    The idea is to start by articulating exactly what your question is.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Frame the question. That's the first F. OK.

  • Emily Oster:

    Frame the question. Frame the question. Think about what your — what your concrete options you're trading off. Second thing is what I call fact-finding. And some of that is about collecting data, but it's also about kind of collecting the information your family needs, about the logistics around those choices.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Kineta Sanford's big question, whether to move, so that her daughter could attend a smaller public school.

  • Kineta Sanford:

    I really wanted her to be in a place where she would have the support that she needed. So is there a better school environment that we could put her in?

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Fact-finding included weighing the benefits to her daughter of both choices.

  • Kineta Sanford:

    Thinking about, what are some of the opportunities that one might have in a bigger school district? Do they offer more sports? Do they offer more classes? Things like that.

    But I do think the school district that we're in now, where the schools are small, class sizes are small, really is conducive to her learning.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Oster's third F is to make that final decision. The fourth F? Follow-up.

  • Emily Oster:

    Talk about this again in a year, in three months, whatever it is, and see if we want to make a different choice.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    In the book, Oster looks at data studies about fraught issues like school choice and what to feed your kids, but, unlike for toddlers and babies, the research provides less obvious answers for school-age children.

    In a few areas, data is clear, however. Sleep is one of them.

  • Emily Oster:

    Even relatively small manipulations of sleep can matter for kids' behavior and for their sort of memory and cognition. So we have done experiments where they just reduce sleep for like four days by an hour. So, it's small.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    And it made a huge difference?

  • Emily Oster:

    And it makes a huge difference.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Negative difference.

  • Emily Oster:

    A huge negative difference.

    And the other thing is that, when kids watch screens in the hour before bed, that is not good for their sleep.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    But is all screen time bad?

    Janelle Spence has five sons.

  • Janelle Spence:

    When my oldest child was an only child, he didn't watch television until he was after 2 years.

    I was in the hospital delivering my second son before my parents ever put him in front of a TV. I was like, really? Like, oh my God, TV is so bad. That's what all the experts say.

    And then, as I had more kids, it was just impossible to keep them away from the television. As that kind of happened, I'm like, well, I don't — I don't know why. Why is it really so bad?

  • Stephanie Sy:

    It's a question many parents have grappled with, especially during COVID lockdowns.

  • Kerry Peterson:

    Every day is kind of a constant struggle of, when do I get to get my iPad? When do I get to watch television? Can I turn on YouTube?

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Kerry Peterson has three kids.

  • Kerry Peterson:

    We have all been inside together for the past 18 months, trying to keep one of them quiet while the other one is on a Zoom call, things like that, I have definitely been handing them a device more often than I would like.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Oster says the data offers one simple central insight.

  • Emily Oster:

    When your kid is watching screens, they're not doing something else.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Right.

  • Emily Oster:

    And that is that is the reason to limit screens. But, also, most of what we maybe people think they know about violent video games make your kids violent, yes, that literature is not very good. There isn't a lot of reason to think that the content, per se, is problematic.

    And I think it's become much harder in the pandemic. We're all trying to work from home and while have a job and have — and, like, everybody's kids use a lot more screens. And I think one way to think about that is the choices there felt very much like, it's screens or it's me yelling at you to get out of my office.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Which is not good for kids.

  • Emily Oster:

    Which is also not for kids, right. And so I think it's much better. Screens are better than me yelling at you. This was the best use of time under those constraints.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Again, it's about the big picture. Kerry Peterson has encouraged her kids to play sports to get them away from screens.

  • Kerry Peterson:

    We try to keep them active. It's a balance between, how many evenings a week do I want to spend shuttling kids to different activities, vs. how else am I going to fill the time in the evening when they're at home? If they're just sitting at home, are they going to just be begging for an iPod?

  • Stephanie Sy:

    For Janelle Spence, the decision to let her son do travel baseball was a no-brainer, despite juggling four other kids.

  • Janelle Spence:

    He loves it. It's more of a decision of, how are we going to get him there, rather than, is he going to play?

  • Stephanie Sy:

    What does that mean for the family, though?

  • Janelle Spence:

    It means a lot of days at the ball field.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Kineta Sanford's daughter plans to do LEGO League, in addition to the running group she joined during the pandemic.

  • Kineta Sanford:

    It was really about getting her to connect with some kids outside of her school day, where they are on video all day long.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    That's a key reason to join activities, says Oster.

  • Emily Oster:

    Some people think about extracurriculars as, like, a way to, like, achieve, or like they're a path into college.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Enrichment.

  • Emily Oster:

    Enrichment of some nature. But, in fact, when you look at the literature, the big benefit to extracurriculars are this kind of sense of belonging.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    But as the Delta variant causes COVID cases to surge, decisions about extracurricular activities are again taking a backseat, especially for parents of children under 12, who can't get vaccinated.

    As a new school year begins, COVID is top of mind for Kineta Sanford.

  • Kineta Sanford:

    Will we be able to stay in school the whole entire year?

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Kerry Peterson is optimistic about her children's return.

  • Kerry Peterson:

    We are pretty confident that our kids will be safe in school, and also the fact that they just really need to get into some kind of a routine.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    As kids return to the classroom, Oster thinks mitigation measures will be key.

  • Emily Oster:

    We saw schools operate safely last year with masks, with ventilation, with teacher vaccinations by the end of the year, with some testing. And I think those are all the kinds of things we want to be layering in.

    And I think we have increasingly learned how important in person school is, and that really pushes in the direction of making it happen for everybody.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Throughout the pandemic, Oster collected data on schools and COVID. Many parents turned to her for information. But she also faced backlash for arguing against school closures last fall.

  • Emily Oster:

    It's a policy intervention that's really, really costly for kids and families, and doesn't seem to have a lot of public health benefits.

    I try to be thoughtful about this. I believe that what I'm saying is reflecting the best evidence that we have. But, boy, wouldn't it be better if there was a more concerted, centralized effort to collect some of this information?

  • Stephanie Sy:

    And in your case, it led to a lot of scrutiny and even criticism of people saying, Emily Oster is an economist, she is not an epidemiologist, she's not a public health expert or a public education expert.

    How did that land with you?

  • Emily Oster:

    In the space of COVID and schools, and trading off risks and benefits, and thinking about data, those are things that I am trained in.

    In the space of commenting on COVID and schools, most of this time, I was running the database with the most data on that. And so it felt like, on the one hand, I'm not an epidemiologist. But the idea of bringing additional perspectives, I think, is very valuable. And I'm not sure that we should say that our decisions will be made best if we listen to only one kind of expertise.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    The issues parents face these days are complex. But Oster believes different perspectives and data can help them make their own best decisions.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Stephanie Sy in Providence, Rhode Island.

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