Emily Oster on Making Data-Driven Decisions for Your Family

by Laura Lambert

Photo credit: MoMo Productions, DigitalVision/Getty Images

Emily Oster, professor of economics at Brown University and mother of two, is known for her data-driven, evidence-based take on pregnancy and parenting, starting with Expecting Better — which was hailed as What to Expect When You’re Expecting meets Freakonomics — and then Cribsheet, which demystified the toddler and preschool years. But she had long wanted to write a parenting book in the guise of a business book. Just in time for back to school, she’s done just that.

Aptly named The Family Firm: A Data-Driven Guide to Better Decision Making in the Early School Years, Oster’s latest book brings the rigors and systems of the business world to the business of parenting. Yes, there are Google sheets. Yes, there are meetings. And yes, there’s data. “Not that this will be taught in business school,” she quips. “But it has the feel of a business book.”

But since there is less data about the early school years than you might expect, Oster also provides a framework for making complex decisions that affect the whole family. For example, will you redshirt your summer baby? Does it make sense to join the travel soccer team? How do you pick the right summer camp? These decisions may feel less dire, less contested, than choosing whether to breastfeed or sleep train, but they nevertheless keep parents up at night.

And now, Emily Oster on going back to school post-Covid, how the pandemic made decision-making harder for parents, and valuable business practices to put in place when parenting.

When did you start writing The Family Firm?

I started the book in the summer and fall of 2019, shortly after Cribsheet came out. The big pieces were all in place before the pandemic.

And did the pandemic change how you’ve thought about any of the research?

Not the research. The pieces of the book about what the data says exist well outside of the pandemic. That was all in place. And a lot of the early parts of the book, about decision-making, were there, too.

Ironically, the pandemic took away a lot of these early school year decisions — there were no extracurriculars, there was no summer camp, family dinner was a given, there were no opportunity costs because everything was shut down.

That’s right. One of the things that has happened, because there were so many changes, is that we have a clean slate. More of us are in a position to say to ourselves, What do I really want to restart? What did I miss?

So, we have this unique opportunity to start anew this fall. Does that help our decision-making — or make it harder?

I think it makes it harder in a lot of ways. What this moment is asking us to do is to make a lot of decisions at the same time. It’s not any individual choice on the margins, it’s the entire picture. It’s one thing to be deliberate about one choice. It’s much harder when you’re deciding how you want all your days to look.

The hard work has some value: You’re starting from a much better place. But it’s a lot more upfront work than people are typically doing — with the idea that there’s a downstream benefit.

Is there any data to help us navigate some of the coming decisions we must face? In-person school, perhaps for the first time, for parents of young children. Sports for kids who are unvaccinated.

I would separate two pieces here. There are some very specific Covid questions, like how we think about risk. There is not the data that we want but we are getting some data. We can have data-driven conversations about those choices.

For some questions that are really new, there isn’t any data. How are we going to deal with kids who have not been in school for a long time? The main message is that we need to be aware that those choices are new. In all of parenting, you’re doing things you’ve never done before. But now we’re facing things that no one has ever done before.

Especially when there isn’t clear data, you introduce the four Fs — Frame the question; Fact-find; Final decision; Follow-up. What is the part that most Family Firms get wrong?

Many people are familiar with the idea that you should collect information — that idea is not novel. The place where people get stuck, at the beginning, is giving themselves enough of a frame to make the information useful. If we’re framing the question, Should I do this or not? — that’s easy. But sometimes the default is not so obvious.

Then, people get really stuck on the final decision. They keep revisiting and revisiting and revisiting. When the decision is not obvious, when there’s uncertainty, it’s easy to get stuck in a loop and not actually pull the trigger. Covid was rife with these decisions. There was no good choice. All you could do is make the least bad choice.

Without saying so, a lot of the book seems to be about managing the mental load — so much of which falls to moms. I feel like The Family Firm offers a way to share that role and those responsibilities. Was that intentional?

Yes, I think it is intentional. Part of sharing decision-making with one another is the ability for multiple people to take charge of things.

There’s a mental load aspect of parenting that does disproportionately fall on women. And there are a fair number of people saying, My husband can’t do it. But I also think what she’s saying is he can’t do it like she wants him to. What if we made those decisions upfront? How do you actually implement that?

So, it’s about putting in place some processes where parents can make independent decisions and take independent action, based on agreed-upon values and systems. Like, as you say, a business.

Somebody asked me the other day why people aren’t doing this in their families, even if they are very good at doing it at their job. A big issue is because it feels like family should be personal — and it feels wrong to treat it in an impersonal way. We should be able to do everything we want because we love each other. That’s true, but if you can be a little more clinical and structured about it, there are real benefits. Then you can spend more time liking each other.

  • About Emily Oster

    Emily Oster is a professor of economics at Brown University and the author of Cribsheet: A Data-Driven Guide to Better, More Relaxed Parenting, from Birth to Preschool and Expecting Better: Why the Conventional Pregnancy Wisdom Is Wrong—and What You Really Need to Know. She writes the newsletter ParentData and her work has been featured in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The Atlantic, and Bloomberg. She has two children.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.