Data-Driven Parenting: A Conversation with Emily Oster

How can better data help parents make better decisions? That’s the question Emily Oster has made it her mission to answer. Oster is a professor of economics at Brown University and the author of three books about data-driven parenting. The first, Expecting Better, focused on how to make informed decisions during pregnancy. The second, Cribsheet, tackled the first early years of parenting. Now, her latest book, The Family Firm: A Data-Driven Guide to Better Decision Making in the Early School Years, focuses on the notoriously tumultuous elementary years.

She recently joined Samuel Salzer and Aline Holzwarth on The Behavioral Design Podcast to discuss The Family Firm. Below is an excerpt of their conversion which covers why Oster feels it’s so important to bring data and decision-making strategies to parenting, the reasons the elementary age range is trickier than the younger years, and why a family Google Doc might feel off-putting but doesn’t have to be. A full recording of their conversation can be found here.

Heather Graci, editorial team

Samuel Salzer: To start us off, it would be interesting to hear about why you wrote your books on parenting. What is it that you hoped they would bring to the discussion? What do you hope will be different with these books in the world?

Emily Oster: There are two things that I’m trying to add with the books that I think are missing from some of this discussion. One is a kind of translation. There’s an expert, scientific consensus around something, but when we express that to people, we very rarely try to translate why we think that. But for many people, they would like to understand why you came to that conclusion.

When we come out with results in science, we rarely frame it inside “How should you make decisions differently based on this?”

The other thing, and this is more salient in the Family Firm, is bringing in a piece of the idea that when we come out with results in science, we rarely frame it inside “How should you make decisions differently based on this?” A lot of the tools I’m trying to give people are how you can combine decision-making with some of these pieces of data to incorporate them in your life, rather than just be like, “Okay, I don’t know what to do with this.”

Samuel Salzer: One of the main premises [in Family Firm] is that we don’t really have a problem with taking an organized, systematic approach to decision-making at work, but we fail to do the same in the context of the home. You argue that, in some ways, we should treat our personal family decisions a little bit more like we treat business decisions. Why do you think these environments bring out such different decision-making behavior from us?

Emily Oster: I think there are a couple of things. One is that this isn’t the way we’re socialized into running our households. When you arrive at work, they tell you, here’s the way we’re doing it. But when you “arrive” in a household, we don’t have that to begin with. There’s something deeper, which is that when you are at your home with the people that you love, there is a temptation to think, “Well, because I love these people, it should just kind of work. I shouldn’t have to sit down and have a meeting with my spouse about how we’re going to organize our life because we love each other—we’re just going to make it work together.”

Some of these tools I talk about—you could have shared Google Docs and you could send each other follow up emails—people are like, “Who are you married to?”

Aline Holzwarth: Another economist?

Emily Oster: Yeah, another economist. But because of the feeling that this is so impersonal, people have been reluctant to adopt some of these tools. There’s a little bit of a shift that could be useful. To say, “Hey, I can have a happy, loving, emotionally rich relationship with these people and also use Google Forms, and that may not bring in as much conflict as we think. In fact, I may be able to have a nicer relationship with this person if I’m not always resentful about why they aren’t doing things the way that I said, even though I never told them that those things were important to me because we didn’t have enough Google Docs.”

There is a temptation to think, “Well, because I love these people, it should just kind of work. I shouldn’t have to sit down and have a meeting with my spouse.

Samuel Salzer: I have two friends, one of them is a behavioral scientist as well. They got into conflict based on him sending a Calendly link for them to catch up. She’s like, “Who am I to you? It’s not supposed to be this way between friends.” Have you come across similar kinds of reactions?

Emily Oster: People do have this reaction. I think it’s one thing with your friends. It’s even a further step with your spouse. I will explain to people that when Jesse and I are trying to work through something, frequently, we will have a conversation about it, and then he will send a follow-up email. “In our conversation, we agreed on the following bullet points, let me know if I’m missing anything. Love, Jesse.”

I explain to other people and they’re at first like, “What is that?” But then you say, “Well, why is that valuable?” Later, if there’s something that I’ve missed in the conversation, I can be like, “Oh, hey, that isn’t how I remember that. I thought we said this.” Then, it’s not that I do something different and later you yell at me, or I yell at you. It generates a common efficiency, knowledge that lets us move forward in making better decisions in these spaces. Sometimes when I explain that to people, they reflect a little bit, like, “Actually, that doesn’t sound as terrible as I thought I did when you first said it.”

Aline Holzwarth: In the book, you present a framework of the Four F’s for helping with some of the medium-sized decisions. Could you give us the two-sentence version of the four F’s: framing the question, fact-finding, coming up with a final decision, and then following up?

Emily Oster: The idea is to give people a way to think about these medium-sized decisions and to structure their decision-making. Decisions like this—what school should we pick, or even smaller things, should we do this activity—tend to take over people’s brains. They take all the space, but you never find the moments to really focus on them. And that is not a good way to make decisions. The idea here is that for these decisions, you really do need some focus time. But you also don’t need all the time.

Samuel Salzer: I’m curious, which one of these [four steps] have you noticed that people find the least intuitive? Which one do people struggle with most?

Emily Oster: People have a very hard time saying what their alternatives are. It’s very easy for us to say, “Should I do this or not?” It’s much harder to say, “Should I do this or that.” After you have made a decision, you should schedule a time to think about whether it was the right decision. And no one ever does that.

People have a very hard time saying what their alternatives are. It’s very easy for us to say, “Should I do this or not?” It’s much harder to say, “Should I do this or that.”

Aline Holzwarth: The fact-finding step incorporates other personal criteria that people bring to the table as well. Some of the things you cover are: What’s your budget? How much time do you have? What are the logistics involved? Do you have to drive to six different places, and you can’t be in more than one at the same time?

What are your thoughts on this combined approach in general, this sort of meshing together of data and preference? Do you think that pulling these two together will help people make better decisions?

Emily Oster: I think that this is the big challenge—this part of parenting. In Cribsheet, when I write about little kids, there’s framing around how to think about the effect sizes and the decisions, but a lot of it is really that the data tells you enough. Part of why I was initially very resistant to writing a book about older kids in this age range is that it’s almost never the case that the data is enough. There are so many logistics and family preferences and heterogeneity across kids.

The approach in the book is really to say, “Look, there is this data, and here’s a bunch of stuff in the book where I can tell you something about that data, and you can use it. But you’ll then need these other pieces.” But these other pieces aren’t something nebulous, like, “How do I feel about it?” A lot of them are also really practical facts, like, “What does my schedule look like? If my kids do these two activities two hours away from each other at the same time on Thursday, someone will need to drive each of them.” That’s it. And that’s going to be part of your logistics. So the insight in the book is to say, “It’s not just the data, it’s this other piece.” But this other piece isn’t something that we can’t wrangle. It’s something we can wrangle in the same way.

For the full conversation, including why Oster thinks optimism is underrated, spellcheck is overrated, and why there’s so much to love about every stage of parenting, check out the full conversation on The Behavioral Design Podcast.

Disclosure: Aline Holzwarth is a member of The Center for Advanced Hindsight which has provided financial support to Behavioral Scientist as an organizational donor. Organizational donors do not play a role in the editorial decisions of the magazine.