INTERVIEW

Why Emily Oster’s parenting wisdom is wildly popular with some and lambasted by others

On the eve of the release of the "data parenting" expert's new book, the author explains her approach

By Gail Cornwall
Published August 3, 2021 4:00PM (EDT)
Emily Oster | Parenting (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images/Rachel Hulin)
Emily Oster | Parenting (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images/Rachel Hulin)

What business does an economist have telling people how to raise their children? Why does Emily Oster refuse to stay in her lane? Does she have a blind spot when it comes to equity?

Many parents around the country are familiar with Oster precisely because her writing seems to strike such a nerve. Some parents I know swear by her advice; others loathe it. She's carved out a very unique niche among those who write on parenting: the "data parent" approach, which means essentially taking an aggregate view of parenting strategies to see what is most effective and good for kids.

We spoke last week about her new book, titled "The Family Firm." In this book, the third in the "ParentData" series, Oster tackles "the post-toddler, preteen stage — that is, the ages of five to twelve."

As a mom, and as a parenting and education writer, I largely enjoyed "Expecting Better" (pregnancy) and "Cribsheet" (birth to preschool), released in 2013 and 2019, respectively. Since then, I've read every issue of Oster's Substack newsletter, most of her popular press articles, and many, many tweets—as well as the controversy surrounding it all. So I was happy to get my hands on an advance copy of "The Family Firm."

In it, Oster's prose flows well (as usual) lightly sprinkled with the dry wit that suffuses her other books (e.g., "For older kids … exposure helps with non-bitter vegetables, but for bitter vegetables, researchers show better effects with what they call 'associative conditioning,' or what I call 'dip'").

After reading, I found myself sitting with some hard questions. The perpetually-intrepid Oster was game to field them. 

As always, our exchange has been edited for clarity and relative brevity.

I want to start with what you're known for, which is analyzing academic research and questioning rules and norms that don't find support in it. Tell us about the Mozart effect.

So, the idea with the Mozart effect is that if your kids listen to classical music or learn to play an instrument, they'll be smarter and do better on tests and have all kinds of good outcomes. And the reason that people think this is an initial study that played music for some college students and then gave them IQ tests. The kids who'd listened to Mozart did better on the tests. What's interesting about a result like that, is it gets blown up into some kind of secret parenting hack. But then when you dig into the data a little more, it turns out that it's not really applicable. People came back and tried to replicate this, and they couldn't. To the extent that there is an effect, it's much, much smaller than initial studies, and it doesn't really seem to be about Mozart per se. It's a good example of how we take a little thing and it becomes a big thing.

And it sounds like the media is partially to blame if you look at all the headlines that come out of a study like that. And then consumerism ... 

Yeah, there's a lot of anxiety in our current parenting environment and a lot of desire to do the right thing for your kid. And if somebody tells you the key to that is this Baby Einstein CD or pumping Mozart into the womb, there's a lot of people who are paying money to do that. And of course, that's something companies like to take advantage of.

You often point to the difference between identifying a correlation between two things and proving that one caused the other. With the Mozart effect, you wrote that only some families can afford music lessons and concerts. Those same families give their kids lots of other advantages that could show up in test scores, and if researchers don't control for things like that, it looks like Mozart causes the increase in scores when it doesn't. 

Yeah. This is a pervasive problem in more or less every analysis of outcomes for kids and parenting practices. And often, our attempts to control for family differences are still really insufficient. I think in practice, in many cases, it's simply not possible to really adjust for those completely. I think that's the core of a lot of our problems with how we interpret these studies. 

In "The Family Firm," you're really upfront that during the early school years there aren't as many questions like the Mozart effect where you can parse the data and say, "Actually, this accepted wisdom is kind of bunk." Decisions are more amorphous, and they're more individualized. Tell us how you pivoted in this book. 

There's so much heterogeneity across kids and across families, both in what questions they have and in how to think about the answers to those. I have two kids and the questions—"what's the right kind of afterschool activity" or "what's the right kind of school for them," even—need to be addressed differently just within my family, let alone between families. It didn't mean that there wasn't data, but at some point I realized that there was a need to figure out how to use the data. And so the first part of the book is the decision-making structure for how you can optimally organize your life. 

When it comes to your "Four Fs" decision-making framework, one of the points you make a lot is that we should aim not necessarily to make a correct decision, but to make it well. You tell readers not to be impulsive, to think through how these questions are related. Family dinner and ice skating are one choice, not two. If you sign your kids up for competitive ice skating, your family won't be eating together. What do you say to someone who picks up the book and says, "Okay, but 'be thoughtful' doesn't give me much." Why is this a book and not a newsletter post or an article?

I think the reason it's not is because much of what I try to do in the book is give you some practical tools. It's great to have a mission, to say what my family's goal is in this very broad sense. But also, you need to say what the details should look like. And if I picked out one thing that you should do, it's to fill out the worksheets at the end of the book. Okay, now write down 4:00 to 5:00 p.m. on Tuesday. Where do you want to be? What's going to make you happy?

After laying out this framework, you turn to specific areas of research, like screen time and displacement.

Yeah, the main message there was that the screen time is both what you're watching but also that when you're watching TV you're not doing something else. I think we often combine those, but we should really separate them. In many ways, the most important thing about understanding the effect of screens is if you're watching TV there's something else you're not doing. And the question is, what is that thing and is there a reason that thing would be a better thing to do or a worse thing to do?

I totally cheered when I read that analysis. And then I got to the section on homework. You looked at the same data I've looked at showing a small positive impact of homework, which is much smaller in the elementary years than in the older ones. You essentially say, "Well, there's a small positive effect. Okay, homework." And I go, "Holy crap, we're assigning homework to millions of little kids, when all we can show is this very small positive effect that seems to disappear at their age. Why?"

That's interesting. It sounds like your frame on this is there's something bad about assigning homework, and I see why you're connecting it to the screen time debate, because if we think the view is "this is displacing something that we like, that we think is better," then the fact that it's a small effect would suggest that should be weighed against something else. I think that what I have is a more neutral frame, and then maybe the decision is in the space of "homework is okay."

So I'll push you just a touch, because—

Yeah, do it. 

Because I think if this were "Expecting Better," and we were talking about pregnant women being told to do something every evening throughout pregnancy, and we could only show this very small positive effect that really only makes a difference in the last trimester, I feel like you might've come out a different way.

That's interesting. But to push back in the other direction, let's say what they tell people is every evening before bed you should do three push-ups. There's some relatively small thing which is not like it's unpleasant, it's a small thing. And maybe instead we should think about homework for kids as something that should really be more of a choice because some people will find it really awful. 

Right, and sometimes they assign 25 push-ups and if you have some women who have trainers spotting them and others with shaking arms and tears and no support … Anyway, I'm reading, and I get to the education section. You conclude—correctly, in my opinion—that there's not a lot of evidence showing a reliable and overarching quality difference between instruction in public schools and private schools or charter schools.

Yeah. 

And then, I guess I was hoping for more of a myth-busting frame here too, because I think it's widely assumed that most public schools are definitely not as good as most private schools. 

Yeah. The biggest issue in the private school data space is that it is not that good. And so, I don't think I would look at that and be like, "It's a waste of money to send your kid to Fieldston rather than the local public school." If money were free, if Fieldston was free, is it better? Maybe it's not. But so much of the data we have on private schools is based on basically comparing public schools to a set of private school options that are, say, undersubscribed, that are accessible with vouchers. So, I think that using that data to make a broad-based statement like private schools are not as good, or are better, or are similar—that doesn't feel like something we can say.

So then, it seems like the conclusion from the school section might be, "We don't have enough data to say." 

I think that's right. I mean, I think that basically there are a few things that come out a little bit stronger, which is I think in places where the district public schools are very underperforming, on average the charter school outcomes are a bit better. But for the most part, we don't know. 

Right, which would still surprise most people. And what I'm getting at is … you do a good job of saying something like, "Other people have written entire books on just this one topic." But you still give your take. It's similar to the homework discussion. You have two people looking at the same data and arriving at these differing frames. What does that mean for your book? Is that the point, that reasonable minds can differ? 

Yeah, I think that is very true, and I think it's true differently in some ways than it was in "Cribsheet." Because I feel like in "Cribsheet" we can all agree what the data says. And then just because of preferences, choices would be different. We can all see the circumcision data, but some of us will circumcise our kids and some of us won't, because there are small pluses and small minuses and preferences are important. I think what you're getting at here, which I actually totally agree with, is now we're in a space where it's very hard even for very informed people who have read all of the data to come to some agreement about what the evidence says, which really opens up the importance of the recognition that you're going to be making these choices in an evidence-poor environment in a lot of situations. 

That makes complete sense. But then—and I know you're expecting this because you've gotten so much flack when it comes to your arguments around reopening schools—what do you make of the "stay in your lane" argument? People have said, "You're an economist. You're not an epidemiologist." If there's no clear answer, why not leave it to the education researchers?

I am an economist who does applied research; I'm not a person whose primary research is on education. But in terms of reading this literature and understanding it, I think that I have a reasonable claim to understand what's in the data. I think that it is right that there are many more things that one could say in this space. And I think it's also true that for people who are making these decisions, if that is a really key component of your decision, my guess is people will look elsewhere, go and read another three books about schools and different schools and school choice. There might've been a different way to do this, which is to say I'm just going to give you the decision frame, and then I'm going to point you to the other places where you get evidence. But I also think what I'm providing here is this little sampling.

Let's talk about your readers going off to read more books. There's been pushback on the audience you write for. Essentially, the criticism is that you're this relatively well-off white lady writing for other relatively well-off white ladies. Is that valid? Unfair?

It would be wrong to say that is not valid, in the sense that that is a reasonable description of my demographic. And I think that, at least to some extent, it is a description of the demographic who is most reading the books that I write. The piece I would push back on, is the idea that these kinds of tools for good decision making should somehow be the purview only of people with resources. In fact, making decisions under constraints is kind of the whole thing. I'm not exactly sure beyond that what there is to say, other than that I have tried hard to make the book widely accessible for various reasons.

When you refer to "constraints," what you mean is working two jobs and not having the time to take your kid to an extracurricular activity, and you're saying that's actually anticipated and built into your formula?

Exactly. People have financial constraints. They have time constraints. And when you sit down to think about what is the right way to make this decision—should I send my kid to private school or should I not—one of the first things that's going to be in there is the question, "What are my constraints?" 

One thing I've noticed over the past year is that drilling down on the details of what you say often vindicates your specific argument. But headlines stir up a lot of s**t. Do you worry that readers will gloss over the subtleties of your analysis in "The Family Firm?" Do you worry they'll confuse your personal spin with research-backed gospel?

Sort of. I've thought a lot about that in my other writing also. But I'm not sure what there is to do other than to write precisely and say the things that I mean. I will say: I talk about my family, I talk about the choices that we make, but I try to be pretty explicit about the circumstances in the particular case that led to those conclusions. Somebody wrote to me the other day an email in reference to a post I had about sleep training, where they said, "It would be great if at the beginning of your posts you would just have a TLDR where you told us what to do. Like, TLDR: 'Sleep training's good.'" That's something I'm not interested in doing. In some ways, I'm trying a little bit to force people to read the details by not saying, "Here's the way you should actually just do this." I think that's part of why people come to my books.

Right, you try to not moralize, just saying, "Hey, here's what you're dealing with. The choice is up to you." But you could say, "One of the constraints you should think about is what's just. Is it fair that your kids go to Fieldston and get more resources than other kids?"

One of the things I start with in that chapter is like, look, when you think about this choice, there are some things we can sync to with data, most of which are test scores, but there are a lot of other things that go into people's choices, like do I want my kid to be in a diverse environment? Is my kid going to be in the minority? "Is it fair?" is also a piece of that, but it isn't something we can speak to with data. It's not summarized in the American Economic Review when looking at the relationship between charter school lotteries and test scores.

Right, not that data. But we do have research about all children benefiting from good integration programs. We have data on what's good for society.

Yeah, absolutely. But ultimately these are books about personal decision making. I guess it's true if everyone was using that frame that those sets of data would be relevant. But at the individual level, if my kid goes to this school, how is that going to speak to these broader issues of integration? Your delta on that is small.

Many say social responsibility should be part of personal decision making. 

Yeah. 

With all the critiquing of your work, do you ever feel like quitting, just pulling back from schools and kids and parenting? These areas are so controversial and so loaded for people. Does it wear on you to keep wading into these discussions?

Yeah, about three times a week, I'd say. I frequently do think maybe this is not worth it for me. I have a job and kids and other things. Despite those reservations, why do I do these things? I think there are ways that I parse data that are helpful. The thing that I am able, I hope, to do well is to take academic stuff and translate it in a way that people are able to understand. When I do that, it often helps people think about their own decisions. And that is why I keep doing it, even though sometimes people yell at me. 


Gail Cornwall

Gail Cornwall works as a mother and writer in San Francisco. Connect with Gail on Twitter, or read more at gailcornwall.com.

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