ECONOMY

The Big Question: Can Data Make You a Better Parent?

This is one of a series of interviews by Bloomberg Opinion columnists on how to solve the world’s most pressing policy challenges. It has been edited for length and clarity.

Sarah Green Carmichael: You’re a professor of economics at Brown University and the bestselling author of three books on parenting, the newest of which is “The Family Firm: A Data-Driven Guide to Better Decision Making in the Early School Years.” All three rely on a ton of research and data. Personally, I have always found gathering information to be a helpful coping mechanism in the face of the unknown — and few things are a journey into the unknown like becoming a parent. To what extent is parenting something that we can do Hermione Granger-style, where you go to the library and read all the books? And to what extent do you just need to improvise?

Emily Oster, professor of economics, Brown University and author, “The Family Firm”: There’s a place for both. And you do more improv as your kids age. Early on, there are things where it feels like we can get pretty close to an answer through the Hermione Granger approach — just kill the data until you have the answer. As the questions get more complicated, it’s almost never simple enough to just be about the data. And that’s what makes it difficult. For someone like me, once you’re out of, “The data has an answer,” are you into, “OK, just do whatever?” That somehow feels wrong. “The Family Firm” says you can make some of these big decisions in a way that feels a little bit like Hermione Granger, but acknowledges that the primacy of data is less when the kids are bigger.

SGC: Why does the primacy of data wane as kids get bigger?

EO: There’s two pieces. One is that the range of questions that people have are larger. It is much less likely that you would have a study that speaks to your particular question.

The other piece is that the effect of any given treatment is going to vary much more. When you ask about something like swaddling, different babies like it a different amount. But basically, if you smash them in, a lot of them [like it]. Whereas if you asked a question like, “Is this the right kind of school?” The right kind of school for one kid is not the same as for another. The data is going to tell you the effect for the average kid, but no kid is really the average kid.

SGC: So how do you know what to decide?

EO: This is where a framework is helpful. In the book, I talk about the four F’s: frame the question, fact find, final decision, follow-up. For example, our babysitter found a tick on my son Finn’s face. We were worried about Lyme disease. So I called the pediatrician and explained the situation and was told, basically, the relevant choice was whether to treat with antibiotics in advance or not. They made it clear it was pretty much up to us. We had established that this was basically the question: should we just watch it or should we get him some doxycycline? And the relevant information was, one, what is the risk of just watching it? And two, how long had the tick been on him? That’s important because a lot of the tick issues are about time of exposure. Our fact-finding consisted of looking back at our photos from the weekend — we didn’t see the tick — and reading some of the papers on Lyme disease and tick exposure in kids. There was only like, a 10-20% chance of undetected Lyme. We discussed briefly in person and made a decision not to treat him. And our follow-up is that we check for ticks a lot more now! 

SGC: This year, I’m turning 40 and also becoming a parent. One of the things about being an older parent is that you feel like your own childhood was an incredibly long time ago. So many of the things I used to do as a kid would not even be allowed today. To what extent can a parent take guidance from their own childhood experiences?

EO: There was a time in human history when you started parenting, you know, 14 years after you were born, so probably things were very similar. But parenting was very different for my mom relative to when she grew up. Same thing a generation back. So there is a fair amount of every generation having to roll their own a little bit.

Small changes can be reinforced by social pressures in a way that removes a choice that we wish we had retained. Take walking home by yourself. When I was a kid, everyone walked home from school. That was just a thing. But now it’s considered quite weird that I let my daughter walk home from school, even though it’s two blocks and she’s 10. There’s now this herding behavior around a different equilibrium where nobody walks home.

SGC: We have a lot of labels for parents now — snowplow parents and helicopter parents and free-range parents. But one person’s helicoptering is another’s being supportive and involved.

EO: I don’t like the labels. In general, when we label things, we quickly move out of a space where you can choose your own adventure. Also, usually those labels are used pejoratively.

When you look at the data, parental involvement is good. In general, being involved with your kids is something that research has shown is beneficial. We can all recognize the line between “I talked to them about their day” and “I built their Greece diorama.” But I think part of what’s hard in parenting is, even if you are very sure you don’t want to be doing this, it’s easy to move a little bit at a time. Like everything in parenting, it’s easy to make small choices, and then suddenly you’re up in the middle of the night with a Greece diorama.

SGC: The book is structured like a business book — you talk a lot about delegating and micromanaging, having a sort of “big picture” vision, talking to stakeholders. You have the four F’s framework. Have you read a lot of business and leadership books, and are there any that you have found especially helpful?

EO: I did read a lot of those books. I had a little bit of an evolution on this, because I have a little bit of a skepticism of this space. Like, do you really need all five of Michael Porter’s five forces? But as I thought and wrote during Covid, I came to realize that there’s something very useful about having a framework. It’s partly about training a particular process. There’s a book called “The First 90 Days” that I found compelling in terms of just being a little bit different and making a point about how one should operate in a particular piece of one’s career.

SGC: At work, we think a lot about decision-making processes. But when we get home, we seem to check these skills at door. Why?

EO: People are not great at what I call situational fluency — taking their skills from one space and putting them in a different space. I think we’re much better at work about saying, “OK, what am I trying to decide?” At home we’re not as good at framing the question. We’re much more like, “Should I do this or not?” without really narrowing it down.

It feels like emotion should reign more at home. When we think about, “Should I get married to this person?” it’s not very romantic to be like, “Well, let me frame the question. Should I get married now? Or should I wait for the next person? What’s the arrival rate on that?” That’s not the way you want to make that particular decision. Because of the emotional valence of so much of what we do at home, I think it can be jarring to then say, “OK, well actually I also need to do this quite analytic thing, which is sort of like what I do at work.”

SGC: When people make different parenting choices, other parents can get very defensive. It feels like even if someone’s not criticizing you, they’re making a different choice and that feels like an implicit critique. During the pandemic, this really got just dialed up to 11. How can we lower the temperature?

EO: Part of that is just lowering our own temperature. That is all almost entirely in our control. So much of the time, we are creating the feeling of being judged. Some of the time you are being judged! But I think we’re also creating that by hearing someone’s else’s choice as a judgment of our own choice. Part of this is owning our own decisions in a way that is confident. It doesn’t really matter if the other person is in fact judging you. And I think that that’s something that we can train ourselves in.

SGC: What are some lessons that you wish we had learned faster about kids and Covid? It seems like other countries incorporated new data and moved forward with different policies and plans, like reopening schools, but in the U.S., we just have kept having the same arguments over and over and over. Are there mistakes we made because we didn’t incorporate new information quickly enough?

EO: I think that we as a society undervalued kids. There were a lot of choices we made. Some of them were not opening schools. Some of them were doing other things that raised community infection rates and made it riskier to open schools. Of many, many, many choices we made, we did not prioritize children. And I think we’ll be feeling the impact of that for a very, very, very long time.

The second piece, which is not unrelated, is that I think we underestimated kids’ ability to do hard things. Last fall we talked about, “Well, we can’t send back kids back to school because they’ll need to wear a mask all the time. And they can’t possibly do that — they’d be terrible at it.” And I think maybe we thought that because adults are bad at it, kids would be too. But kids can surprise us with their ability to adapt to new situations. They were able to adapt more than we thought that they would.

I really think we failed them. We failed. We spent a lot of last year really failing kids, all kids, but particularly lower income kids.

SGC: When you talk about kids being adaptable, I’m reminded of my grandmother. She grew up during the Great Depression, and for the rest of her life, she would always clean her plate — even sucking the marrow out of chicken bones. She couldn’t bear the idea of food going to waste. Living through that experience clearly marked her. To what extent do you think we might see some long-term effects on today’s kids from living through Covid?

EO: I think we will see some long-term effects. What form they will take will be hard to predict. We’re going to expect to see more drop-outs; among kids who were toward the end of high school, fewer of them will finish. But in terms of this more nebulous mental cost or benefit? I think it’s hard to predict.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Sarah Green Carmichael is an editor with Bloomberg Opinion. She was previously managing editor of ideas and commentary at Barron’s, and an executive editor at Harvard Business Review, where she hosted the HBR Ideacast.

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