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Tech Shock: Emily Oster on the data behind parenting

In this week’s episode of the Tech Shock podcast, Vicki and Geraldine spoke to Emily Oster, economics professor and the bestselling author of Cribsheet and new book The Family Firm, about how data can help us make better parenting decisions. 

What can data tell us?

Investigating the data can be really helpful when parents are trying to make decisions in the early years - about whether to breastfeed or when to wean or start potty training. 

But, as children get older, life gets more complicated. Families that eat together, for instance, tend to have a lot of other things in common that affect outcomes for their children. It’s not necessarily the sitting down to eat that’s making the difference.

When it comes to tech, Oster said, social media might benefit one child hugely and be damaging to another. How your child will react to tech “depends on your kid in ways that are really hard to predict. Most parenting data has the same problem, which is that the choices parents make are related to a lot of other things.”  

No right or wrong decisions

Rather than focusing on whether a parenting decision is ‘correct’, Oster argues that we need to focus more on the actual process of decision-making, so that parents know that their choices (which are almost certainly going to have upsides and downsides) have been made deliberately. In her own household she uses a method she calls the Four Fs: “frame, fact-find, make a final decision and plan a follow-up.”

For example, think about buying your child a phone: You can frame this decision by thinking about what it would mean for your family. You can fact-find by looking at any research. You can finalise your decision; and then you can plan to follow up in, say, a month's time, and review your choices.

It helps, she said, to “give people the tools to feel confident in their decision-making,” even if there’s no perfect decision (and there rarely is). 

Taking the emotion out of parenting

One of the best tools for decision-making, in Oster’s view, is to take a step back from the emotional side of parenting and apply business principles, such as making a decision deliberately and firmly. 

Being a family involves many different kinds of behaviour, from offering kindness and support after a tough day to managing the politics of the school run; decision-making should reflect that. “It’s helpful if we can be a family in one corner and in another corner be people running a logistics operation, but we don’t have to have emotion in the logistics.” In other words, if the practical issues are decided calmly and ahead of time, the space for conflict is massively diminished. 

The importance of sleep

For babies, Oster’s survey of the data found that “sleep-training” - leaving babies to cry themselves to sleep - is effective and doesn’t hurt them. 

Sleep is the one area in which we do have solid, reliable data for older children. Getting enough sleep remains crucial for older children’s cognitive function and wellbeing. 

“By ensuring your child gets enough sleep,” Oster said, “you can help them to feel rested and energised, as well as improving family interaction as a whole.”

Parenting in the digital age

Oster acknowledged that parenting decisions can be even harder when it comes to what children do online, primarily because the digital world is less predictable. 

While children should be able to explore the internet freely and develop important skills like problem-solving, there are some things from which children do need protection. “Finding yourself watching a pornographic YouTube video by accident isn’t a problem I think a child should have to solve,” she said. 

Parents matter too

A lot of pressure is put on parents to bring up their children in particular ways. Many parenting decisions, from whether to bottle-feed to whether both parents should work, are framed according to whether they’re in the child’s best interests. The assumption is that whenever the answer to that is ‘yes’, parents should be self-sacrificial.

Oster argued that parents’ happiness matters too. There’s too much guilt attached to parenting. Adults have the right to be happy family members, too - and if a bottle, or going to work, makes that possible, then it’s fine. Families work best when everyone’s happy. Parents shouldn’t neglect to consider themselves.

So many choices we make as parents are based on our beliefs - and because parents are invested in their decisions about their children, the debates can be very heated. No one wants to be a bad parent. Everyone wants to believe that they’re doing their best.

In Oster’s view, it helps to take the prejudice of parental choices by looking at the data and, then, as far as you can, making deliberate decisions based on all the evidence, including what everyone in the family needs and wants. Decisions don’t have to be fixed; they should be open to revision. 

By making the practical decisions coolly, she said, parents can be calmer. And by thinking through all aspects of their choices, including their own happiness, they can feel more comfortable, and less guilty, in the knowledge that there may not be a right answer but at least they’ve reached the best solution for their particular family. For now, anyway.

Listen to episode 5 of Tech Shock, season 2: "Emily Oster"

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