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  • "Even with people you love, you can disagree, and you need efficient ways to resolve those disagreements so everyone is happy." Tweet This
  • "A lot of what we need to do in this era of parenting [with older kids] is to think about the problem holistically." Tweet This
  • "[E]verything has pluses and minuses. Once you recognize that, it becomes easier to talk about some of these decisions, because you aren’t looking for the thing that’s going to be the best in all situations." Tweet This
Category: Parents, Interview

Brown University economist Emily Oster’s career has focused on the intersection of economics, health, and statistical methods, asking big questions about the health choices we make and how we can learn more about them. But to thousands of parents across the country, she’s better known as the author of Expecting Better and Cribsheet, books that bring a data-driven perspective to parenting, trying to help parents understand what the research really says about age-old questions of pregnancy and early infancy. Amid the COVID-19 crisis, Oster has taken on another role, offering a data-informed, sometimes-contrarian perspective on the cost and benefits of school closures and other kid-related policies.

Last week, Oster released her third book, The Family Firm, which extends her data-driven parenting perspective into the period between toddlerhood and adolescence. The book builds on her experience as a business school professor to offer lessons and insights on how families can try to solve parenting problems with a little more rationality and a little more data in their corner. Oster recently shared more about her book with IFS.

Charles Fain Lehman: The central metaphor of your book is “the family firm,” applying the logic of managing a business to managing your home. Some readers might be turned off by the idea of thinking about their families as a business, seeing it as promoting a culture already too obsessed with work. What would you say to those concerns?

Professor Emily Oster: First, there’s a piece of what I’m trying to pull about the workplace is the efficiency, not the bad things. I think there’s a way of using the tools that is productive, that is different from saying your family is a company. 

But I think there’s something else to what you say, which is for some people, this idea is too detached and too unemotional. I think there, I would push back a little, and say one of the issues that comes up in our household is that we are too eager to think that just because we all love each other, everything is going to go great. In fact, even with people who you love, you can disagree, and you need efficient ways to resolve those disagreements so everyone is happy. And this is kind of saying, we know how to do that, and if we take a little bit of the emotion out, we can actually be happier with each other, which of course will reinforce that we like each other very much.

Lehman: One of your key ideas is that families should have a “big picture,” a sort of mission statement for themselves. That’s counterintuitive, insofar as most families focus more on the day-to-day. Why should parents be thinking about their families as a project in this way?

Oster: The big picture as I see it has two components. One is this “mission statement.” I think there’s a lot of value in just saying, “what is the main thing we’re trying to achieve?” Partly because if we disagree about that, that’s something we should address, and at least understand why we disagree.

But when I think about crafting this big picture, there is a lot of this logistical stuff wrapped up in that. Part of having the same big picture is having the same things that we think are really important that are going to take priority over other things when we’re in a situation where there’s conflict between two things, we can’t do two things at the same time, how are we going to prioritize? And if we have those conversations a little bit in the abstract, it’s going to make it much easier at those moments.

Lehman: As you write in the book, many of the problems parents face with older kids are hard to answer definitively with data. “Should I send Suzy to soccer camp?” is a different kind of question from “does swaddling work?” But you spend a lot of time exploring and discussing data. How should parents think about using research for these more specific, more complex questions? When is it good to turn to the research, and when isn’t it?

Oster: In almost none of these cases with older kids is the data going to be enough on its own. A lot of what we need to do in this era of parenting is to think about the problem holistically—I talk about the idea of framing the question, of thinking about what you’re trying to answer, of getting a sense of all the pieces of what we need an answer to—and then often you will find, okay, a little bit of what I need [to] answer is going to be informed by data. So maybe there are a bunch of questions about whether or not my kids are going to go to summer camp, but there’s a little piece of the data around what we are trying to achieve with summer camp, or what things kids get out of it, where I can slot that in to figure out what kind of camp might be best for my kid, for example. 

So, I think the role of data is to answer some specific questions. The role of the decision frame is to wrap around those questions and figure out what we are actually looking for in that data, knowing that it isn’t going to answer everything in one go, usually.

Lehman: Economics is, at least in some sense, the study of trade-offs. Trade-offs are a big part of parenting as well—you cover this in your case study of sending one child to a private school, for example, or of whether or not to “redshirt” your child. What can economics as a discipline teach parents about how to make tough decisions?

Oster: I think the main thing is that economics is all about risks and benefits. People say that they don’t like economists because everything is “on the one hand, on the other hand.” And it’s true that the discipline is really focused on the idea that in almost no situation is it obvious what to do; almost everything has pluses and minuses. Once you recognize that, it becomes easier to talk about some of these decisions, because you aren’t looking for the thing that’s going to be the best in all situations. You’re recognizing that there are going to be some good things about all of these choices, and we’re going to have to choose one of them, knowing that it isn’t the best on all of the dimensions. That’s the core idea, and that’s sort of what economics brings.

Lehman: One of the processes you encourage is conducting regular “family meetings” to discuss potential plans, often but not always including kids. How do you think about including children in the decision-making process? How should we balance their lessened understanding with including their wants and needs?

Oster: The key to involving kids is to only give them choices that are feasible. That they can understand, but that are feasible is I think a better way to put it. Dinner is a good example. When should I involve the kids in choices about dinner? Probably not with the frame of “tell me anything in the whole world you want for dinner,” because then we would just have hamburgers and French fries every night. But you could say, here are the set of things that we could choose from, and you give them that choice.

When we think more broadly, if you ask a question about, do I want to involve my kid in a discussion about extracurriculars, the answer may well be “yes,” but you want to involve them in the space of things you think are feasible. If you’ve decided it’s not feasible to do travel soccer, you shouldn’t ask them how they feel about that, because you’re not going to end up doing it anyway. So the main thing is that you would like to involve kids in some ways as much as possible, but it’s not fair to bring them into choices where ultimately, there really isn’t a choice for them to make.