The #1 Parenting Mistake, According to Emily Oster (Plus Her Predictions for the 2021 School Year)

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For some parents, Emily Oster has been the science-minded, non-hysterical voice of reason throughout this pandemic, offering advice on how to assess risk, reward and safety. (If you follow her newsletter or IG stories, then you know what we’re talking about.) 

But for many, the Brown University economics professor has been a guiding force since well before we knew words like “viral load” and “PCR,” thanks to her books Cribsheet and Expecting Better, which offer data-backed approaches to everything from swaddling to drinking coffee during pregnancy.

Her newest book, The Family Firm: A Data-Driven Guide to Better Decision Making in the Early School Years, brings this approach to older children. The central conceit is that families, like businesses, need a mission statement—an agreed-upon goal or set of goals that helps them make better decisions.

We recently sat down with Oster to ask her about this goal-setting technique, as well as the coming school year and the one mistake she wishes parents would stop making. 


PureWow: We love the concept of a family mission statement. What are some examples?

Emily Oster: A mission statement might be something like, “We’re going to prioritize concentrated family time,” or “We are going to prioritize church and school.” Basically, it’s something short that lays out your family’s top priorities. But along with this mission statement, I think people should write down the things they really want to do. Write down the three things you most want to do every weekday and the three things you most want to do every weekend. That’s how you are going to achieve structure in your life. You can have three top priorities; you can’t have fifty.

PW: What’s the biggest mistake you see parents making?

EO: I think it’s making decisions that matter without thinking about how they fit together. It’s making decisions on the margin. For example: birthday parties. A lot of us make decisions about what birthday parties our kids go to as if every party is an individual decision. But if you have three kids, with 20 kids in each class, that means you’re going to 60 birthday parties a year! That might not be in line with your priority of having flexible weekends.

PW: Let’s turn to the coming school year. What makes you hopeful?

EO: What I am hopeful about is that there is a lot of commitment to in-person learning, and that one thing we learned from last year is that it is possible to have safe in-person learning. I think we will see kids in classes consistently, over the fall.

PW: And what’s keeping you up at night?

EO: Two things. First of all, the practical logistics of that. I think school districts thought that everything was over in June—as many of us did—and they didn’t come up with a plan. And the CDC has been good on things like masking, but when it comes to things like “what are you going to do when there’s a case?" or "how are you going to think about quarantining?” everyone’s rolling their bone again.

The other piece is that parents are really afraid and feel abandoned, and I’m worried about the way we are messaging to them. Like, there’s this simultaneous message of, “kids are low-risk, they don’t get seriously ill,” and then also, “if your kid gets Covid that’s the worst thing that could ever happen.” That’s a mismatch. 

PW: What’s the most important thing families can do to stay safe and keep kids in school this fall?

EO: The main effing thing is that people need to get vaccinated.

jillian quint

Editor-in-Chief, Avid Reader, Wallpaper Enthusiast

Jillian Quint is the Editor-in-Chief of PureWow, where she oversees the editorial staff and all the fabulous content you read every day. Jillian began her career as a book editor...