A Smarter Way to Make Decisions About Your Kids

January 26, 2022 K.O. Herston 0 Comments

This article by Dr. Emily Poster, a professor of economics at Brown University, in The New York Times is interesting.

Parenting Means Making a Million Decisions. Here’s How to Choose Better.

When we become parents, we expect to be many things: someone who wakes in the middle of the night and who cleans up food from the floor; someone who comforts, who loves, who disciplines, who celebrates. What we perhaps did not expect is to take on the job of logistics manager. It creeps up on us as children age. The floor may get cleaner and the midnight wake-ups less frequent, but in their place is the stress of competing demands on our children’s time and ours. Which school to go to and how to get there? Is evening math tutoring necessary? What do we do about summer camp? How can three children with two parents be at three birthday parties on Saturday at 2 p.m.?

Making these questions more challenging is that they feel weightier than early parenting choices, that they matter more in the long term and that making a mistake is somehow worse. On top of this, an older child has more demands and more opinions. The decisions feel important and hard, and many parents feel lost as to how to make them well.

Consider this: One day, your 9-year-old daughter arrives home with the exciting news that she has been invited to join the travel soccer team. She really wants to do it. In fact, she insists, if you do not let her, you will literally ruin her life.

It’s easy to think of this as a question about soccer, about one activity. But it’s not; it’s a question of priorities. The soccer team may have four evening practices a week and one weekend day (at least!) spent at tournaments. If you say yes, this will take over a lot of your days. (Of course, if you say no, you’ll ruin your daughter’s life.)For many of us, the pandemic has brought these decisions into a new light. During lockdown, we turned off so much of what we were doing. As families re-emerge, there is an opportunity to choose what we actually want to return to. Our schedules are blank slates, waiting for us to design them in a way that we might like better. At the same time, we have to make all those difficult choices anew.

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Early parenting experiences haven’t necessarily prepared us. With a baby, so much is immediate. With toddlers or older children, most parents know that “giving in to the loudest whining” isn’t the best way to decide, but it’s hard to know what to replace that with.

In my own case, I made a business of using data to make decisions in early parenting — relying heavily on what science said about the choices I was considering. Unfortunately for me, the data approach is incomplete when the logistics of a household with older children come into the picture. I found myself scrounging for any scrap of data that might help, and then making decisions sometimes almost at random, often at the last minute. The haphazard aspect of this process was stressful. Not having a plan resulted in what felt like an avoidable fuss.

And then I realized, there are better ways to do this.

Taking a cue from my past life as a business school professor, I thought about how well-run companies make important decisions. They are deliberate. They have structured processes — evaluation steps, meetings, a timeline. This is what is often missing in our parenting. We face complex decisions without the deliberate processes to make choices. But if we can add those to our toolbox, our decision-making at home can improve.

Our schedules are blank slates, waiting for us to design them in a way that we might like better.

Concretely, deliberate parenting means two things. The first is being clear up front about what is important to each family member and what is important to the family collectively. Some of this is abstract; most parents try to get their family aligned along some core values. But a larger part is answering questions like, What would my ideal Tuesday look like? This may seem mundane, but your life is made of Tuesdays. If your Tuesdays are not what you hope, you may not be as happy as you can be.In my family, we have decided that having dinner together, at 6 p.m., is among our most important priorities. I could give several reasons for this, but the main reason is simply that for both my husband and me, it’s part of an ideal day. Recognizing this shapes a lot of our other decisions.

Here’s one example: My daughter’s primary athletic activity is running, and at some point a fellow parent mentioned a youth running club at the local high school. When I looked into it, I found out that it meets at 6 p.m. twice a week, conflicting with dinner. This made it a non-starter, and I don’t know that I even raised it with the rest of the family as an option. But if we hadn’t established, up front, that dinner takes priority, I can easily imagine having made a different choice. And after a few more choices like that, our ideal day would be gone.

It would be a mistake, though, to think that in this stage of parenting, personal preferences are all that matter. There are still places where the data is compelling enough that parents would be wise to consider it seriously.

Bedtime and sleep are perhaps the best examples. Imagine a scenario in which a family has two kids in elementary school and one parent gets a new job. It’s a great job! But the commute is long, and that parent can’t realistically be home before 8:30 p.m. The kids go to bed at 7:30. How would you weigh the value of a child’s seeing both parents in the evenings against the value of sleep?

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Answering this requires, among other things, an understanding of the evidence on sleep. Does one hour less sleep matter?

It may not seem like a lot but, it turns out, it does. In one randomized controlled trial, children ages 8 to 12 did worse on tests of working memory and math (and their parents reported lower attention and poorer emotional control) after several days in which they slept just an hour less than usual each night. Evidence from other studies, on variations in school start times that have a relatively small impact on sleep, also makes clear that more sleep helps kids.Does this necessarily mean that you wouldn’t want to push bedtime to accommodate the long-commute parent? No. But it’s a part of the picture. And you can make decisions about bedtime and dinner once, and then move on.

The other hallmarks of this stage, though, are the bigger decisions — about school, activities, emotional challenges and, of course, when can I get a phone?

This leads us to the second element of parenting deliberately: giving these occasional big decisions the attention they deserve without giving them all of the attention. Striking that balance requires a system for making these choices. There are a lot of good systems, but I’m going to suggest one that is easy to remember, the Four F’s: Frame the question, fact find, final decision and follow up.

To see how this piece of the approach might work, let’s examine a hypothetical family trying to choose a school for the oldest of their three children, a 5-year-old. Here’s the problem. They live in a good public school district (it’s part of the reason they bought a house there) but as they approach kindergarten, they’re wondering if maybe they should send their oldest to the private school in their town. Is it worth it?

What’s difficult about this question is the many moving parts. Financial constraints, logistics, questions about how to figure out what is the better school, or the better school for their child. This can lead to a kind of decision paralysis, where we’re thinking about the decision all the time, but never actually making it. The Four F’s system forces the decision into a time frame.

How would that work?

This may seem obvious — we’ve already established that the family needs to choose between the public school and the private school — but this first step is to frame the question. This is also an opportunity to establish feasibility. Private school is expensive. Is it possible, and what would it mean giving up? The family has three children; if they send one child, is that committing them to sending the other two? Before even getting into the data on school quality, there is a need to ask the basic question of whether there really is a choice to be made.

The family thinks private school is feasible, if a stretch. The second big question: Is it worth it? This is the moment for fact finding. Is private school really better? Part of what makes this question so hard is knowing what we mean by “better.” Much of the research-based data defines “better” as “It leads to better test scores.”

In my family, we have decided that having dinner together, at 6 p.m., is among our most important priorities.

Even this limited question is complicated to answer.

A basic issue is that you cannot simply evaluate whether private schools produce better outcomes than public schools by comparing children who go to the two kinds of schools. Private school attendance is associated with many other features of families, which may affect the outcomes for children. So a straightforward comparison is unlikely to yield anything of value.

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What to do? The ideal is to look at some type of randomized controlled trial. If researchers could randomly allocate children to schools, they could learn about whether some types of schools deliver better outcomes than others. It turns out this is partly possible, using data from school lotteries, in which schools allocate their classroom spots through a random selection process.

Charter schools have been used to study the effects of school lotteries, but there’s also some evidence relevant to private schools. Lotteries for monetary vouchers that can be used for private schools have been run in a number of cities, including New York and Washington, and studies on children who received the vouchers do seem to find some moderate positive effects, especially for African-American students. An older study in Milwaukee found faster growth in math test scores for students who won a voucher lottery, compared with those who didn’t, and a more recent study in Washington found that students with vouchers had higher high school graduation rates.

The results are not overwhelmingly positive. One issue is that private schools that participate in voucher programs can be of lower quality than average, which is why they have open slots available for voucher programs. For this family, the voucher data may not be that useful.

It might be more helpful to them to look at the features of a school that correlate to better test scores. Among the most consistent findings is the role of class size: A large number of studies have demonstrated that smaller class sizes raise student achievement in both the short and longer term. At least one paper, which attempted to look closely at what makes some charter schools work well, argued that more instructional time, more comprehensive teacher feedback and more tutoring, among other measures, are correlated with success.

Pulling this all together, the family should use the fact-finding portion of this decision making to collect more information about the two schools — their class sizes, their teacher training and their test scores. They should also find out whether the “feel” of the school would work for their child.

The final step here is to plan a time to make a final decision, recognizing that they will need to grapple with questions that go beyond the data. It is impossible to be sure the decision is right; but it is possible to know you made it in the right way. And even a big decision like this isn’t necessarily permanent. “Follow up” means to plan a time, perhaps after the first year, to consider whether a change is needed.A system like this may seem like a lot of work and not sufficient to address deeper structural issues faced by so many American families, like the need for more pay, better child care, more parental leave and stronger family ties.

This isn’t a magical formula. I do believe strongly, however, that all the constraints that families face (money, time, energy) are reasons to seek out better decision making, not to give up on it.

Parenting deliberately — in any decision — isn’t going to give us all the control we want. If the past 18 months have taught nothing else, it is the lesson that some parts of life are simply beyond our control. And there is so much at stake. If I choose the wrong school, or allow my child to use social media too early or fail to nurture some special talent, am I forever affecting the person my child can become? That is really what it is about. The choices we make will shape, at least in part, the adult our child becomes. We can never know whether our choices are right. But every parent can have the confidence to know that we made the choices in the right way, that we did our best in the moment. And that, itself, should deliver comfort.

Source: Parenting Means Making a Million Decisions. Here’s How to Choose Better. (The New York Times, July 31, 2021).

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A Smarter Way to Make Decisions About Your Kids was last modified: January 23rd, 2022 by K.O. Herston

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