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Parenting is a full-time job – and being successful at a job needs strategies which, believe it or not, can work just as well to run a family as they do to run a business.
Economics professor Emily Oster, a mother of two and pregnancy and parenting author, has combined all her skills and experience to write The Family Firm, to explain exactly how to manage your family just like a business manager.
“With school-age kids, your job as a parent suddenly begins to look a lot like you’re a logistical manager,” she says. “Families can do this better – with less chaos, with more happiness – if they embrace the challenge and start to run their family a bit more like a business.”
And this is how to do it…
When your family faces a big decision – which school a child should go to, whether they should get a phone – arrange meetings to talk through the decision the way you would at work.
“I’d recommend at least one meeting at the start to talk through the choices you have, and what information you need to decide,” suggests Oster. “And then, once you’ve got that information, a meeting at the end to make a final decision.”
By putting these meetings on the schedule – either with just the adults, or with older children involved – you can make sure the decision is made thoughtfully but also efficiently, she explains.
Outline principles everyone can follow
Some family decisions occur every day – what’s an appropriate after-school snack, what time is bedtime? “In a lot of families, the answer to these questions live in the brain of only one person,” says Oster. “This is a problem – it asks too much of that one person, and also leaves the rest of the decision-makers in the family struggling to get it right.”
She says a better approach is to write down these principles or thoughts. “Take them out of someone’s head and put them on paper – or, better yet, in a Google doc. This has the benefit of forcing everyone to agree on the priorities and once you’ve written them down, anyone can implement them, without even asking.”
Engage your kids
Oster says that in the family business your kids may be employees, or even board members. “Either way, they should take their place as engaged decision-makers when it’s appropriate,” she says. “If you engage your kids in decisions, they’ll be more likely to listen to you – just like if you ask your employees what they think, they’ll be more engaged.”
She says it’s the parent’s job to figure out the options, but there’s no reason children can’t suggest what they want to do. Such engagement can extend to responsibility, she points out, as children have a greater capacity than we sometimes give them credit for to do things on their own.
“There’s no reason your eight year old can’t get their own breakfast, or pack their own lunch, or remember their own socks,” she says. “Eventually, they’ll need to do all these things on their own, and small steps towards this type of independence can help them – and you.”
When you put headphones on and everybody starts to talk to you. #FamilyProblems
— Family Problems (@Familyprob) June 13, 2012
Bring conflict to the surface
At work, many disagreements are highlighted on purpose, and Oster explains: “When we’re making a big decision in our jobs, we sit down together to talk it through even though we know for big decisions these meetings can be contentious, even angry. A main reason for this is that if we surface our disagreements, we can make better decisions. And we’re likely to argue less if we expect to disagree, if we’re planning a discussion. You can take this lesson home.”
She gives an example of when one parent might want the kids to have an early bedtime, while the other is fine about them staying up late. If they sit down to talk about a bedtime rules agreement, the likelihood is they’ll disagree, so they may avoid such a discussion. However, Oster stresses: “You need to realise that you’ll disagree regardless – not discussing it doesn’t eliminate the disagreement, it just pushes it off.
“Better to surface your conflicts on purpose – disagree a little now, fight less later.”
Don’t forget: decisions can be changed
Oster points out that many families have a tendency to make decisions once and assume that’s it forever – so if your child goes to an after-school club, that will just carry on regardless.
However, a lot of the choices we make are adaptable and can be changed, she stresses, using the example of a child who has piano lessons for two years and hates it, so wants to quit, but his parents can’t stop thinking about the money they’ve ‘wasted’ for two years and how the lessons might not have been a good idea in the first place.
“Part of what’s hard about this is we want our decisions to have been right – there’s a challenge in admitting that you should have done it differently,” she explains. “But, as economists would say, those costs – the wasted money and time – are sunk. You can’t get them back with your decisions now. All you can do is make the better decision going forward.”
She says the decision to change will be much easier if you plan it. “If you articulate up front a plan to revisit, you’re less likely to feel bad about having to do it. So, plan a follow-up when you make your decision in the first place.”
The Family Firm by Emily Oster is published by Souvenir Press, priced £14.99. Available now.