Why This Is The Moment To Make Your Family 'Mission Statement'

Before you dive back into pre-pandemic routines this fall, Emily Oster wants you to get really clear on your family's values.
Emily Oster's new book urges families to make mission statements.
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Emily Oster's new book urges families to make mission statements.

The past year and a half has been long, hard and logistically bonkers for families with young kids at home.

While the pandemic certainly isn’t over, many parents do feel a huge sense of relief as we inch closer to what looks like (for now, at least) a more typical school year. Groups such as the American Academy of Pediatrics and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have called for kids around the country to return to the classroom. At the same time, many parents who haven’t already returned to the office for work will likely do so to some degree this fall.

Although being able to slide back into old routines might feel pretty darn glorious, economist and parenting guru Emily Oster suggests that doing so without pausing to consider your family’s “big picture” is a mistake.

Oster’s new book, “The Family Firm: A Data-Driven Guide to Better Decision Making in the Early School Years,” provides a framework for parents of 5- to 12-year-olds when it comes to making decisions on everything from nutrition to when kids should get their first phones. She believes this is a moment when many families would benefit from creating mission statements — and she’s got a practical guide for what they should entail.

“With all of the terrible things that have gone on over the past 18 months, there is an opportunity, as we move out of this, to have important conversations even in families where routines have been long established,” the author told HuffPost. “What are the things we were doing before that we want to go back to? What are the things we were doing before that we think, ‘You know what? Actually, I didn’t miss that.’ It is a real opportunity for that kind of reflection to happen.”

What your family mission statement should include

The purpose of a family mission statement is really to help you and whoever else you parent with articulate your big, high-level values. But Oster doesn’t see it as simply a lofty expression of ideals. Instead, it’s a practical document that will help your family sort through parenting decisions every day.

“When I talk about creating the family Big Picture, I’m talking about these overall principles,” Oster writes in “The Family Firm.” “But I’m also talking about confronting, ‘What does Thursday night look like?’”

To start, everyone who is a parenting stakeholder in your family should get a piece of paper. Write down an overarching family mission statement in a single sentence. Next, jot down three main goals for your children.

“Big life goals,” Oster writes in her book. “Not like, ‘Use a fork better,’ even if you desperately, desperately want that.”

After that, it’s time to think about yourself. What are three priorities you want to make sure you get time for? Write those down.

Then, list three activities that are must-dos for your family on most weekdays. Oster’s, for example, include eating at least one meal with the kids, getting some work done and being around for bedtime.

Finally, list three activities you think of as must-dos on the weekend. Sports? Spending time with family? Religious activities?

“There’s an important distinction between woo-woo, kind of big-picture family mission statements and really diving into some of these specifics,” she told HuffPost.

Penguin Random House

Why it’s worth it

Oster wrote “The Family Firm” before the pandemic, though she has, of course, become a go-to (if controversial) resource for many families over the last year and a half.

While her new book does not address COVID-19 or its impact on families and family decision-making, Oster said she thinks family mission statements are more important than ever in this moment of profound transition for so many parents and kids. (In non-COVID times, she suggests creating a mission statement around the time your child starts school and revisiting it as they get older.)

“The idea of the mission statement is really to surface your most important priorities to everyone in the family, and I think the reason that is really important is often, in families, those things go unsaid,” Oster said. “We have this idea that we all love each other, so of course we kind of agree on our family’s mission. Sometimes, that’s actually not true.”

If you’re co-parents with somebody else, you might find that what you’ve written down during this exercise looks pretty different, especially if you’re both emerging from the pandemic with new values and priorities. Don’t let that frighten you, Oster said, adding that what you really don’t want is to be acting on different priorities without having talked about them first and realizing they’re different.

“The value of putting out our views, even if they lead to disagreements, is that it gives us an opportunity to talk about why we disagree,” she said. Once you’ve got some clarity around your own parenting priorities, you’re able to have a clearer, calmer discussion about the ways in which you can come together.

“We are pretty conflict averse, for reasonable reasons, in a way that we’re not always at work,” Oster said. “But I see this as bringing the potential conflict forward, but bringing it into a quieter moment where we’re not mad.”