How To Make Better Parenting Decisions
Emily Oster's new book helps parents of school-aged kids think through big choices.
Welcome to Is My Kid the Asshole?, a newsletter from science and parenting journalist Melinda Wenner Moyer, which you can read more about here. If you like it, please subscribe and/or share this post with someone else who would too.
Welcome to my latest #ExpertAuthor Q&A, which is with none other than Brown University economist Emily Oster. Oster’s new book The Family Firm: A Data-Driven Guide to Better Decision Making in the Early School Years came out a week ago, and (no surprise) it’s selling like hotcakes.
Oster has always addressed parenting questions with data, which is one of the reasons I’ve loved her work. But as kids get older, she concedes, parenting decisions get harder. They require more careful framing, and they must be considered in the context of family values and priorities. The Family Firm is like an instruction manual on how to make these bigger decisions with school-aged kids. But don’t worry, it’s data-driven, too: Oster summarizes the evidence on key issues that parents will want to weigh as they make these choices.
Here’s my interview with Oster about the book, which you can order from any bookstore. (It’s also available as an e-book and an audiobook.)
How did you decide on this particular focus for your third parenting book?
When Cribsheet came out in 2019 I was pretty committed to not writing another book. Or, rather, I struggled to see how the simple linear structure that worked for the younger kid data in Cribsheet would work for older kids. But I got a push from both my agent and editor to think about whether there was a way to surface some of the interesting data in this age range. When I started to think about that, I came around to the idea that there was a need for — basically — some kind of decision-tool wrapper around the data.
This means the book really evolved from conception to reality.
You talk about the importance of framing questions properly when making big decisions regarding kids. Can you explain a bit about what you mean, and how parents should zero in on the appropriate question to ask in a given situation?
I think best with an example. Think about the question: Should my kid get a phone? This question is very difficult to answer without being more specific. What kind of phone? For what? It's hard to debate/argue/think about a question if you haven't articulated concrete options. In the case of the phone, before you even get into answering this, we want to ask a more specific question. "Should I get my kids a phone so they can call me if soccer ends early, or should we still rely on friend's parents?" or "Should I get my kid an Android phone so they can text their friends, or should I wait another few months?" These questions are concrete enough to answer, but they also imply (for example) a possibly very different kind of phone!
I talked about this a lot in the COVID space. People would ask (last spring, also now!) whether they should send their kid to day care. They often asked this as "Should I send my kid to day care or not?" Well, what's in the "or not?" Without that, this is just too abstract.
For at least some of us, we want to make big decisions about our kids by collecting data, or thinking about logistics, or at least just contemplating the tradeoffs in some abstract way. But you can't do any of that if you don't know what the concrete options are.
Can any parent use your approaches? What if parents find business-speak and spreadsheets terrifying?
You know I'll say yes here! I don’t think this book is really about spreadsheets. At the core, it's about being deliberate in how you think about your family day-to-day and I think that's something that basically anyone can do. You don’t need a spreadsheet to sit down and think about whether you want to have dinner together, or what you want the weekends to look like in general. A lot of the tools in the book really boil down to sitting down and writing down priorities. Yes, this is drawing some lessons from how firms run, but it's also (for example) the kind of advice you'd get from a family counselor! I think I come to it in a slightly different way...
In a sense, what I hope when people read this book is that they find something in here that they can do. I talked to someone the other day who started our interview by saying "I thought this seemed like too much work but then... I realized there are pieces in here I can do, and they'd make my family life better." That's kind of what I'm trying to accomplish. So I hope people will read the book even if they find the idea of adopting this wholesale seems like it's not for them.
(Also there is a lot of fun data!)
You and I both love to dig into data to answer parenting questions. What are your suggestions for parents who aren't quite sure how to find trust-worthy data when they are struggling with a decision? Where do you recommend they look for reliable information?
I think it's easier to say what not to do, which is to look to the most recent study covered in a breathless way in the media! It's easy to get swept up in that type of narrative, and the problem is that it inevitably leads us to lurch around in our decisions. There is a space in good decision-making for following-up and rethinking your decisions, but it shouldn't be done by just reacting to the last piece of information you see.
In term of what to do, figuring out the best data on questions in this era of parenting is difficult. I think in many cases places like the American Academy of Pediatrics have a reasonable take, and of course people can read your book or mine! But in a lot of cases there is a need to combine the data with some sense of your own kid and our data is often so incomplete that, really, it's your kid that matters.
You include lots of data-driven answers on key questions parents have when kids are school-aged — regarding things like extracurriculars, sleep, bullying, and technology. On what topic did the science most surprise you, and in what way did it surprise you?
My favorite thing to study in the book was how kids learn to read. I think the reason I liked it so much is it's basically a case where you can put together all of the different pieces of data and when they're all together you get to a pretty clear conclusion. (The conclusion, by the way, is that phonics instruction is key.) I'll give you one cool fact from that part of the book.
Some researchers were studying this question and to do so they recruited a bunch of college students and, basically, tried to teach them a new script (like, writing script). The script was wiggly and had all the pieces of the word connected, but ultimately corresponded to English sounds. With one group, they taught them to read it by basically memorizing the shapes — a shape for the word "the", for example — similar to how you'd read a character-based language. With a second, they told them to figure out the phonics — what shape corresponds to what sound.
What they found is that initially the "memorize the character" group was able to move faster and learn more words. But as the researchers added more words to the lexicon, the phonics team did better. Basically, the ability to generalize became more important.
There is a bunch of other data in that chapter which points to a similar conclusion, and putting it all together was just fun.
The other interesting thing I learned was that animals like dolphins sleep with only half their brain at a time, so they can keep one eye open. That is not as actionable, but it's fun!
Updates and News:
Happy pub day to Julie Vick for her book Babies Don't Make Small Talk (So Why Should I?): The Introvert's Guide to Surviving Parenthood!
This week I’ve talked about my book on some fun podcasts and radio shows, including CBC Montreal’s Let’s Go, CBC Vancouver’s On the Coast, the Authentic Parenting podcast, Fox News’s We’re Momming Today, and the Be More Well podcast!
Remember you can buy a signed copy of my book from my local independent bookstore, Split Rock Books. They’ll ship anywhere in the U.S. and Canada!