THE FAMILY FIRM
A Data-Driven Guide to Better Decision Making in the Early School Years
By Emily Oster
304 pp. Penguin Press. $28.
Parents of current rising fourth graders have a specific kind of FOMO when it comes to Oster. Had we waited just one more year to have our babies, we could have had that glass of wine in our third trimesters, or sleep-trained without guilt thanks to Oster’s wildly popular 2013 book, “Expecting Better,” and its follow-up, “Cribsheet,” in which she weed-whacked conflicting research around pregnancy and babyhood, respectively. Oster is a self-described data nerd, a delightful contrarian who dared question the status quo, shush the shamers and tell parents what made sense absent the kind of paid family leave laws that would be needed if we hoped to follow the American Academy of Pediatrics’ very European-seeming guidelines on things like breastfeeding and sleep. Was it a little odd that she was an economics professor, not a doctor? Don’t you shame her! She’s a mom, too.
Now, finally, there’s an Oster book for parents of bigger kids: “The Family Firm,” which applies a business school problem-solving model to the parenting decisions of the elementary school years. Summer camp? Private school? Violin lessons? (Never mind if these aren’t your family’s biggest concerns coming out of the pandemic.) If Oster were to analyze her own work here, she’d pick it apart, weighing the evidence in a quest for smooth, causational proof. But when the variables you’re examining are old enough to walk, talk and participate in their own child rearing, there is no such detangling spray.
Most of the existing research, frustratingly, focuses on test scores and obesity as measures of kids’ well-being. Indeed, Oster is forced by her own methodology to admit, time and again, that there is no clear answer beyond the obvious. Kids need sleep, but different amounts depending on the kid; a charter school is possibly a good choice, but only certainly so if your local publics are pretty bad. She nods to a systemic lack of support, but mostly assumes it’s the family’s job to work around inequities rather than society’s job to change them. For all of her relatable eye-rolling (an alarming exception is her skepticism of the entire fields of sociology and psychology in an otherwise excellent section on character building through extracurriculars), Oster clearly loves her work, and she gamely admits her biases and shortcomings. So why not fill in those particular data gaps with the voices of a diverse group of parents, especially those who have fewer resources, and therefore fewer options? Read “The Family Firm” in the same way Oster advises you to read the research: Take what applies to your life, consider the source and skip the rest.
A Story of Teen Motherhood, College, and Creating a Better Future for Young Families
By Nicole Lynn Lewis
207 pp. Beacon. $23.
Reading Lewis’s ambitious memoir of teenage motherhood, it’s easy to imagine her wanting to write it 20 years ago, immediately after her against-all-odds graduation from college. She would have had a perfectly plotted arc, from the terror of two pink lines to the triumph of a mortarboard. And she certainly would have had drama to convey along the way: a drug-selling boyfriend who loved her, abused her and ached for the permanence of fatherhood (while she longed to save him); a mother and father whose tough love included, somehow, letting her be homeless and hungry, subsisting on Pop-Tarts; temporary housing that crumbled around her; all-nighters made of fear and guns and coffee and computers.
But because she waited, this book is so much more than a memoir. As Lewis describes her own riveting path to becoming a social entrepreneur, she weaves in data, political background, historical context and ways of counting (and not discounting) the experiences of nearly a dozen of the hundreds of teenage moms her organization, Generation Hope, has supported over recent years. The result is a book that belies “the pervasive notion that teen parents — like everyone living in poverty — are lazy” and strives to correct the bad habit of practitioners, policymakers and educators to “erroneously build interventions that define young people by a single moment in their lives.”
In other words, abstinence-only education isn’t the answer. Neither is the politicization of “welfare queens” (indeed, Lewis convincingly blames 1996’s Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act for repopularizing that unhelpful Reagan-era stereotype). Lewis proves that teen mom stories are never simple arcs but constellations of inequities of racism and class that catalyze the chemicals in that pregnancy test. Her prose has the power to undo deep-set cultural biases about poverty and parenthood. It should be required reading for every lawmaker who will vote on whether to make the current child tax credit permanent policy.
How to Be a Feminist Dad
By Jordan Shapiro
228 pp. Little, Brown Spark. $27.
In its heyday, the women’s networking club the Wing served a cheekily named grain bowl called Fork the Patriarchy. This book, Shapiro’s second, could have been titled “Freud the Patriarchy.” Billed as a guide to reframing fatherhood for the conflicted, aspirationally woke cisgender dad, it’s really a romp through the philosophy, pop culture and psychology — from Zeus to Homer Simpson to Sigmund himself — that shape our flawed ideal of what it means to be a father. Throw in the #MeToo movement, an understanding of gender as a spectrum and an urgent need for ethical parenting in an increasingly corrupt and divisive world and, well, Dad’s got a lot of responsibility these days.
Shapiro, a father of two and stepfather of two, feels this deeply, and suffers a bit from the Catch-22 of his objective: How can he instruct his reader to push back against “narcissistic patriarchal authority” without, you know, mansplaining like a lightning-wielding Zeus himself? His answer is to go energetically professorial, unpacking the bewilderment a father of a teenage girl might feel about her developing body with an explanation of vagina dentata, for instance. Some of it is a stretch (the dentata), but most is utterly mind-blowing. The division of labor that classifies mothers as nurturers and fathers as breadwinners began only in the Industrial Age. Survival of the fittest has more to do with adaptability than actual strength. And this: “Our theoretical conception of psychological maturity is intricately enmeshed with the fallacies of fatherhood.”
For a very specifically intellectually curious audience, it works. For those with less patience for Jungian archetypes and Joseph Campbell’s monomyth, skip to the last section, where Shapiro finally feels permission to give concrete advice. To be a feminist father: (1) Cultivate critical consciousness to help your kids question the status quo. (2) Practice responsive fathering — command less, listen more. (3) Reject gender essentialism and coded “bro-ism” talk. And (4) practice rigorous inclusivity to prepare your children for a world they’re ultimately remaking for us all. Here’s a fifth: Let them catch you reading this book.