Creating the "Big Picture"
In his book on families, Stephen Covey, of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People fame, argues that your family needs a "mission statement." This is a grounding document to highlight your central family values. It's not dissimilar to the mission statement a firm might have. Your central family values may be religious or articulate a family-first focus. They might say something like "Prioritize family time and raise thoughtful kids." Maybe your mission articulates a particular approach to child independence (i.e., are you a free-range parent, or more of a helicopter type?).
You should have such a mission statement! But I'm going to suggest going beyond that and directly addressing the interaction between these broad priorities and concrete decisions. When I talk about creating the family Big Picture, I'm talking about these overall principles, but I'm also talking about confronting "What does Thursday night look like?"
There's a parallel to firms. The statement "Create a great search engine and don't be evil" is perhaps a good mission statement for Google, but it's not a recipe for how to run the firm. Just as "Prioritize family time and raise thoughtful kids" may be a good broad mission, but it doesn't tell you the right bedtime.
These logistical details matter, because if you fail to think about the logistics holistically, you could find yourself almost accidentally in a very different place than you imagined. Each individual choice may seem inconsequential in the moment, but they add up.
Think, for example, about birthdays. Imagine you have three kids, all in school, in classes of twenty kids each. And imagine that each kid in each class has a birthday party. That is sixty birthday parties a year. When each Evite rolls in, you think, "Oh, okay, it's just one birthday party." But by the end of the year, you've spent literally every weekend at Sky Zone, Jump For Fun, Kidz Kastle, or, my personal favorite, Dave & Buster's.
At some point you may think, "Enough is enough," and put the kibosh on attending any more parties that year. But then it's your middle daughter's best friend's birthday and she absolutely has to go. So that's another weekend down.
In economics parlance, your sequential birthday approach means you're making each invite decision "on the margin." But while adding each marginal birthday has a small effect, the aggregate may be, quite simply, not acceptable.
In the grand scheme of things, birthday parties are a minor issue. But this kind of slippery-slope experience can pervade our parenting decisions. You let in one late-night extracurricular, then another, and pretty soon your image of dinner as a family at six every night has vanished. And if this dinner is a priority for you, that's a problem.
It shouldn't escape our notice that failing to articulate these priorities is a recipe for conflict in cases where there are multiple decision makers (say, two parents) in the household. Let's say bedtime by 8:30 is a key priority for me, and I've worked out the family schedule so it happens every night that I'm around. Now imagine that I'm out of town for work and I call my partner at 10 p.m. to learn that the older child is still up, watching The Great British Baking Show.
"WHAT IS THE MATTER WITH YOU?!" I yell through the phone.
"This is your rule, not mine," comes the retort. "You want it done your way? Don't leave town."
What is the problem here? Perhaps many things, but at least one is failing to get on the same page about bedtime as a priority. If you have two (or more!) parents involved in raising a child, they'll inevitably parent at least slightly differently. My husband, for example, adheres much less stringently to the every-other-day bath system than I do. When he's in charge, baths tend to be a little less frequent. And this is okay, because although I have a particular bath system, it's not actually that important to me. In contrast, maintaining a fixed bedtime is extremely important to me. But unless we had talked it through, how would Jesse know that my feelings on bath frequency and bedtime are fundamentally different?
It is also useful to recognize that every small thing cannot be a hill to die on. If you start this process and it turns out one of you has rigid preferences about everything, that doesn't leave much space for joint problem-solving. Articulating priorities together may help you recognize which are really important to you and realize that they cannot all be equally crucial.
The first step in creating your Family Firm is to outline your mission, and then think carefully about what your family will prioritize, what your day looks like, and the basic logistics of your family. To be clear, you could think about this at any time in life-before kids, with an infant, with a toddler-but around school-entry time is a good point to revisit your mission statement carefully. For one thing, once your kid is in school, you'll adopt a schedule that you will keep-more or less-for the next thirteen years (or longer, if you have other kids). For another, this is often around the time things calm down at least a bit and you get more mental space to think about your choices.
Creating the family Big Picture is not the activity of a single afternoon, and you'll probably need to revisit pieces of it more than once as your children age. And you may choose to do this a bit differently. That's okay! Think of this as a guide or a starting point.
To help you out, I've made a workbook. In the pages that follow, I'll talk about structuring some of these conversations, about writing things down. You don't need a workbook to do this, but I think it will help.
(Also, I love workbooks. True story: My mother still remembers that at my third-grade parent-teacher conference, Mrs. Totman said, not entirely positively, "I just cannot understand why she likes workbooks so much.")
There are two basic steps. First, at the broadest level, expressing and aligning values and priorities. Second, getting to the more granular: creating the day-to-day schedule, establishing some family principles, and assigning responsibilities.
But before you get into actually doing any of this, please read the next section of the book, which has some big data pieces you might want to consider. As you think about the family schedule, knowing more about sleep-Is it important? How much do kids need?-is important. As you think about your level of parental involvement with your kid, you may want to consider what the evidence says on the relationship between parental involvement and children's independence or performance in school. The data chapters won't tell you how to make these choices for your family, but they may provide some important input.
Step 1: Values and Priorities
In a business-school class in negotiations, a common topic is the "Theory of Anchoring." Basically, the opening bid in a negotiation "anchors" the price. By the same token, collective decisions can be thrown off by having one person publicly state their views first. If we are trying to decide, as a firm, how much to bid for a company, and the first person to speak suggests $20 million, I may be embarrassed to say I thought it was worth only $2 million. But knowing that we disagree is valuable! One approach to learning that is to ask people to write down their valuations privately and then share them simultaneously.
We'll take a similar approach here. Start with all the parenting stakeholders, whoever that is in your family. This exercise is likely to be useful even if you are parenting alone, just not for quite the same reasons. Everyone gets a piece of paper (or a copy of the first workbook page) and writes down:
Your overarching family mission statement. Whatever you want! One sentence: What is your main goal for the family?
Three main goals for your children (big life goals; not something like, "Use a fork better," even if you desperately, desperately want that).
Three priorities for you, things you care about (could be working, exercising, seeing friends); what do you want to make sure you get time for?
Three activities you see as must do on (most) weekdays. (For example, mine would be: (1) eat at least one meal with the kids; (2) get some work done; (3) be there for bedtime. If I get all three things in a day, I'm likely to be happy.)
Three activities you see as must do on (most) weekends (for example, religious services, extra tutoring, competitive sports, hiking, seeing grandparents).
And then you switch papers and discuss.
What comes out of this? Well, it depends. Maybe you're completely aligned and what comes out are some touchpoints you both agree on for developing your family schedule and principles. Or maybe you're not aligned. Maybe my ideal weekend is competitive sports and math tutoring, and yours is hiking the Appalachian Trail and camping. Would be good to know now.
This may also reveal things we care about and agree on but that differ from what we are doing now. For example, this may reveal that I would like to be a stay-at-home parent. And my partner might think that's a great idea and even have some thoughts on how to make it work financially. If we haven't discussed it before, I may not know that my partner would support that. Or the inverse: Maybe I've been staying at home, but I'm dying to go back to work and was afraid to bring it up. For these reasons, it is important to be honest in these discussions, even if you think what you want isn't achievable.
(A note: If you are parenting alone, I still think this is a valuable approach, since in the chaos of parenting, you may not stop often enough to reflect on what you really want to be doing in each moment.)
There is no obvious end to this conversation. It's one you've probably started before you got to this point, and one you'll continue. But have the conversion until you feel like you're in enough alignment to put your mission statement into concrete practice.
Writing down your goals for your family will not give you control. Control in family life is illusory-things happen that you do not expect, the world throws you curveballs. No amount of note-taking and planning can avoid this. But not everything is unexpected, and we can avoid much daily stress by at least being clear about our real hopes for our family.
Step 2: The Details
The approach in this book-perhaps fitting for an economist-focuses on the practical. So while I'd urge you to start with the values and principles, the next steps dial into the details. Starting with the schedule. Literally, this step involves looking at calendars (in the workbook!) for the weekdays and weekends, and filling them in.
Give everyone a calendar. All the adult decision makers. If they are old enough, some of the children as well. Have everyone outline their suggested schedule for the week; adults, you need to do the kids' schedules, too. Note that this shouldn't be your "dream schedule" (for my kids: breakfast, TV, lunch, app time, snack, movie, dinner, bed). It should be a realistic expression of what you think the day should look like. It needn't be hyperdetailed, but it should go beyond "eat, work, eat, sleep." Try to think through some details-for example, if you agreed in step 1 to eat dinner together most nights, you need to figure out how said dinner will be produced (and by whom).
I've given an example on the next page-this is a Tuesday, and I've put in a proposal for me and each of the kids. I left Jesse on his own, but I'll note that having been married so long and having the same job, we basically have the same schedule. Although he wakes up an hour later and runs less frequently.
Once you've got these schedules written down, compare them. You're not likely to agree on everything. Maybe your ten-year-old thinks that homework should be an after-dinner activity, whereas you are adamant that it should happen right after school. Maybe your partner thinks four nights a week of take-out is a good idea, whereas you are more of a once-a-week kind of person.
But you'll come together. It's easier to coordinate schedules than values, in most cases, and you've done the work to get to the shared values.
Once you do agree on everyone's schedules, get them in writing. At a minimum, print out the family schedules and keep them somewhere (do not necessarily trust your children to keep them-one of mine just came in while I was writing this to tell me she "lost" her schedule several weeks ago). You may also consider entering these into a Google Calendar, if you choose to go all in on that (more on computing tools in the last chapter of this section).
These schedules will not keep forever. New school years or terms will bring new activities. You may need a big revisit at least once a year, and perhaps smaller revisits more often than that. But these later revisions should be easier. Like many aspects of this approach, there is a big up-front investment and a payoff later.
The second practical component of the Big Picture is a set of principles. That is, a set of family rules that are more specific than "here is our mission" but general enough to speak to decisions that come up frequently. Some of your family principles may be closely related to schedule-for example, one family principle may be "Bedtime is at 8 p.m."-but they will go beyond this.
The goal of principles, really, is to translate the set of shared values into a set of shared "rules" that anyone can implement. Consider this example: Can twelve-year-old Alexandra have a sleepover tonight? It's a Wednesday. She wants to go to her friend's house after dinner to work on their social studies project and then sleep over. Mommy arrives home from work; Alexandra asks her. Mommy knows the friend, knows that her parents will enforce a reasonable bedtime, but still, it's a weeknight sleepover.
Mommy says she has to talk about it with Mama. Mama arrives home at 6:10, dinnertime is 6:20. She is immediately accosted by the question, Alexandra standing impatiently while her parents attempt to discuss. Mama really has to pee. Regardless of the outcome, everyone ends up frustrated and annoyed.
Or Mommy just says yes. Then Mama comes home and cannot believe she wasn't consulted about this, since she is categorically opposed to school-night sleepovers. Whether Alexandra goes or not, the day ends with everyone mad.