The Right Choices in Parenting

When parents avoid the complexities of independent decision making, they may fail to understand where analysis remains crucial.

Adult hand holding a child's hand
Getty / The Atlantic

The mandates of modern parenting can be dizzying. But in the effort to optimize our parenting, we may lose sight of the values we hope to impart to our children—and the skills necessary for individual decision making.

A conversation with economist Emily Oster helps with understanding the nuances of choice-making in parenthood.

This episode was produced by Rebecca Rashid and is hosted by Arthur Brooks. Editing by A.C. Valdez and Claudine Ebeid. Fact-check by Ena Alvarado. Engineering by Matthew Simonson.

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This transcript has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Brooks: You know, being a parent is a little like not seeing a gorilla. There’s this experiment that two psychologists at my university undertook in 1999. It’s a famous paper that they wrote called Gorillas in Our Midst.

It was a psychology experiment that looked at when people are focusing on one trivial thing, how they can become effectively blind to a much bigger thing. Now, that’s what it’s like to be the parent of a little kid.

You’re not paying attention to being happy and having a happy baby. You’re worried about whether or not you boiled that pacifier. You’re not worried about the big picture of what’s going on in your family and the relationships that you’re building, because you’re so completely distracted by counting the number of times the kid went to the bathroom today.

I’m guilty. I mean, when my kids were little, I could tell you every bit of minutia about what was going on in their little lives. But a lot of the time I wasn’t thinking about the stuff that I would really like to remember today, which is: What were we feeling? Where were we going? How were they developing?

Brooks: If there’s any area of life where our expectations for ourselves seem impossible to meet, it’s parenting. We tend to be fixated on parenting outcomes. And that really never works. I want to understand how parents can actually make good decisions or maybe just good-enough decisions and be happy at the same time.

Oster: I’m Emily Oster. I’m a professor of economics at Brown University and the author of Expecting Better, Cribsheet, and The Family Firm.

Brooks: Emily Oster is an author on many sensitive issues in parenting. As a trained economist, Oster takes a data-centric approach to parental decision making, teaching parents how to best understand the data behind the so-called “mandates” of modern parenting.

Oster is an economist, not a mental-health professional. But her analytical approach to this personal subject provides a new lens into the complexities of any individual decision making.

Oster: A lot of my work is on data, and is on data in parenting and using data to make decisions in pregnancy and around child rearing. And then also writing about the decision-making part of it—the part of economics where we think about trading off costs and benefits and trying to have structured approaches to how we make choices. And the sort of central thesis of everything I do is that those tools which we might ordinarily think of as useful in business settings are also pretty useful in our personal lives.

So Expecting Better, which is the first book I wrote, was really a book that I wrote while I was pregnant. Some [pregnant] people are like, Well, could I have a cup of coffee? Like, maybe I’ll read a few different sources and just kind of decide what works for me. But I was like: No, I got to go down the rabbit hole on this. I’m going to find out, what are all the studies about coffee saying? And what’s the interesting empirical issues associated with this question, and how can I explain it to people?

So there’s almost a sort of statistician approach, even more than an economist approach. But at a minimum, the decisions that we make should be made with all of the facts in mind. And it’s almost never the case that the data is going to tell you the decision. But we almost can’t approach the decision without knowing the evidence behind it.

Brooks: Do you think that since subsequent to the birth of your children, that you do a lot of stuff differently with your own kids on the basis of your research? Is this how you’re approaching parenting day to day?

Oster: Particularly when they were younger, yes. So I think that there’s a little bit of a progression. So you know, I—like everyone else—have my first kid, and then I guess they thought I would have time to figure out how to do it. You know, I would have time to do the research. But actually when you have your first kid, there’s no time to do anything except just basically hang on to the roller coaster and hope that they buckled you in correctly, right? And so that was a sort of chaotic mess for a few years.

When we had our second, I felt like I was in a much better position to be prepared. Because it was much easier to focus on the questions or the areas of decision making that I thought were really important.

When you write things about parenting, and particularly when you write about how to work through the hard parts of parenting—getting your kid to sleep, dealing with discipline—it’s very easy to write what you should do. It’s very hard to implement those things.

Brooks: We’re talking in the abstract about parenting. So give me an example of something where the data say “You got to do this”—and then you wind up never doing this.

Oster: When you are encouraging your kids to sleep or trying to enforce a sleep schedule, particularly with an older kid, data tells you basically three things.

You need to have a bedtime routine. You shouldn’t have screens before bed. And if your child is coming out of the room routinely, disrupting you—which is a common thing that little kids or older kids do—you should be consistent every time in the way you react.

So if you have said, “That was the last hug,” then every time they come out, you should take them back into the room, put them in the bed, don’t do another hug, leave when they come out again, you put them back in the room. Okay.

So it turns out that will work. If you can implement that, that is basically very effective and actually works pretty quickly. It works within a few days. But it is almost impossible, I find, to implement.

One of my kids who is older, she’s a very good sleeper. But with my other kid, it’s like a little more variable. And we have many nights where he will come out a lot of times, and I will say “This is the last time I’m going to do this.” But I cannot follow through on that.

I just know if I just do it one more time, then, like, eventually he will just go to sleep and the investment in the moment of like—do I want to be holding the door closed while he screams? Is that what I want to do with my night? Even though I know that if I do the other thing, it’s going to have these long-term consequences. Things like that are just hard to follow through on.

Brooks: Okay, so the picture that I’m getting here is that you should keep an open mind and be open to evidence. And you, Emily Oster, have a boatload of evidence because of what you do for a living. But parents have evidence too, based on their experiences—and they should be willing and flexible to update what they do and not be dogmatic on the basis of what people are telling them, right?

Oster: I think it’s particularly important as kids get older. So it is going to be much less frequently the case that we can make statements like “The data show X.”

So to give you a concrete example, there’s a lot of really good data showing that introducing allergens like peanuts, eggs to your kids earlier rather than later reduces the risk of allergies later. So it turns out it’s just a really good idea to give your kids allergens early. It’s shown in randomized trials. It’s relatively straightforward to implement. There are more things like that in little-kid parenting, where the data will tell you either “This is important” or “This is not important.”

As your kids get bigger, the things that are coming up are more complicated, and they get really wrapped up in questions around: What are our family values? What are we trying to achieve? What do we want our days to look like? And once you’re in that world, there is, I think, more space for just these differences in the outcomes.

But what I think people should share, or what I think would help people in these spaces, is just being more deliberate in the way they are making those decisions. It’s not that you should or should not rely on the internet. It’s that when you come into some complicated decision or some choice, you should sit down and think about the choice and give the choice the space that it needs in your brain. And I think that’s often what we are missing in this era of parenting.

Brooks: Now, you’re not a pediatrician, and you’re not a psychologist. You’re an economist. What led you as an economist to take up this topic of parenting and families, and how to be parents, and how to be kids?

Oster: I think for me, I kind of came into parenting with the tools from my job. I was familiar or comfortable with the idea of using tools of data analysis and structured decision making in my life before my parenting, and most of the writing that I do about parenting uses those tools, takes those insights.

Brooks: I married a non-American. So my wife’s from Barcelona, and like most people from Spain, she thinks that Americans are all about fads and panics, that all of American culture is a combination of fads and panics. And it’s like we’re all going to do this, we all stand for the current thing, or we’re all freaked out and protesting this thing all the time. So she said, “You know what? I don’t think anything matters that much except love.” And she’s sort of a “monist” in this way. How terrible is that rule?

Oster: I don’t think that’s a terrible rule. We know on the one hand, if we compare across resource levels or we compare across income groups in the U.S., that there are big differences in, say, school achievement for kids based on what happens in the first years. So obviously, something that is going on is really important for various aspects of kids’ development. And yet it’s very difficult to identify any individual piece of that—any individual thing that you, as a parent, could do to enhance this achievement metric or whatever it is.

And I—I think, like your wife—have always sort of interpreted that result as sort of something about not so much love, but even just sort of stability. The idea that there’s a lot of value to a kind of stable, well-resourced home. And that is something that, you know, we could be thinking about policy solutions, too. But that is not the same as, like, “Does your Montessori preschool have only wooden toys?” or whatever.

Brooks: You write a lot about parenting mandates. So give me an example of a parenting mandate.

Oster: So there’s this idea that if you’re making infant formula, you have to boil the water. And it’s an example where it turns out the reason to do that is effectively a hypothetical risk for something that is more or less not, definitely not, going to happen. Or it’s like a tiny, tiny, tiny probability thing.

And I talk about this as, “unfunded parenting mandates.” Things where you are told, “Here’s all of the 57,000 things you need to do.” And if you add up the time for all of those things, it’s, you know, 72 hours every day. And it’s like, Well, I only have 24 hours. Like, which of these things should I do?

Brooks: So what should we do instead? I understand why there are rules. I guess that some of our listeners would say, “Well, what a privileged conversation.” You know, these people that have access to all this good data and were raised in really stable homes.

And they can sit there and say that we don’t need parenting mandates—where a lot of people didn’t have access to this information, and easy rules are the best way to do it. What’s your mandate on mandates?

Oster: What’s hard—and I mean, this is a sort of key issue in public health communication, one that came up all the time in the COVID pandemic as well—we somehow need a way to communicate to people levels of risk.

So co-sleeping is a good example of this. So the kind of rhetoric that we have on co-sleeping is, like, under no circumstance should you sleep in the bed with your baby. This is like public-health advice on this—you know, “That’s extremely dangerous,” and we don’t provide that with much nuance. And in fact, if you look at the data on that, it is pretty nuanced, in the sense that there are safer and less safe ways to co-sleep.

So I think even in the safest [situation], it carries some small risk. But it is much riskier if one of the parents is smoking; if there are a lot of covers in the bed. If the baby is premature, early on in life there’s all kinds of subtleties to that. Which I think could be communicated but aren’t.

And people are left in a situation in which they almost may find it impossible. And you haven’t provided them with another alternative. So people say, “You’ve literally told me I can’t sleep with my baby, and my baby will only sleep with me.”

So there’s no solution for this. And that’s where you get into situations—and this is a real thing that happens—where people say, “Well, I’m going to try really hard to stay awake. I’m going to hold the baby, because that’s the only way it’ll sleep, and I’m going to try really hard to stay awake. I’m going to sit on the couch. You told me the worst possible thing is to sleep in the bed with my baby.”

Well, it turns out the worst possible thing is to fall asleep accidentally on the couch with your baby. That is like 50 times as dangerous as co-sleeping in the safest way. Now, by not providing any subtlety in our public-health messaging, we’ve left people in a situation where the choice that they will make—trying to achieve what you want—is a worse choice.

And I don’t have a solution to that. But I do think that we need to be far more thoughtful about the way we’re sending these messages, because we’re sending them to people and not to autonomous robots who are able to just say the things that we want.

Brooks: I mean, there are really irresponsible ways to throw out the rulebook and say, basically, “I don’t believe any of this, so I’m going to smoke while I’m pregnant.” And there’s a ton of evidence that says you shouldn’t do that, even less should you drink while you’re pregnant, for example. And there are all kinds of ways that you can put your baby at risk.

But there are some people that are more nuanced about that. You know, they’re parents who are kind of countercultural parents, and they say, “I’m going to do these things because I want to do these things, and I want to have a deep connection with my child.” What’s your view on sort of countercultural parenting where you “figure it out” like people did for millennia?

Oster: The broader thing I think a lot of people struggle with is whiplashing between decisions. So probably the worst decision-making approach is to do one thing because one book says it, and then as soon as you read a different book or your mom comes to visit, do the other thing. The more you can make one choice and try to stick to it, the easier your parenting is going to be.

I mean, I think up to these issues that you raised, which is like there are some things, you know, which are very dangerous, you should not do. I think actually that’s completely great. What I think many people struggle with, is that they struggle to implement that.

So in the reality of “I’m just going to go with my gut,” it doesn’t work for everybody. Because for many people that can lead to “Well, I actually wasn’t really sure, and now I’m rethinking it because of the thing that person at the playground said to me.” Then I think we’re in a space where you actually almost aren’t able to “go with your gut,” because the stimulus of the information is the way you want to go, but you haven’t managed to process it correctly.

Brooks: One of the reasons that people don’t follow mandates is, as you point out in your work, because kids force a deviation from the script. There’s lots of cases of this, you know, “I want another hug”—and it’s really compelling.

Oster: Kids are people, too. There’s many moments in parenting—whether it’s sleep or food or something else—where you realize, Oh, I actually can’t force this person to do this thing. It closely relates to a set of questions around how much autonomy your kids have, and how much of the way that your family operates is going to be driven by the things that the kid wants and when you should start thinking about that.

When does your kid get a say in what extracurriculars they do? When your kid is 15, presumably they do get a pretty significant say in what extracurriculars they’re doing. But where’s that line? What’s the time that you make that choice? And how do you know it’s going to be the right choice, or not the right choice, in the long run? I think that part of kid autonomy around decision making is really challenging.

Brooks: You’ve heard about the “free range” parenting debate, which is this debate about whether or not we overstructure our kids’ lives and we overprotect our kids. You know, within normal boundaries of the current conversation, where would you put yourself in this debate?

Oster: So in terms of physical autonomy—which is almost how I think of “free range” parenting—how much do you let your kid walk to the library by themselves, or walk home? I actually think, relative to my peer group, I’m somewhat far on this.

I actually think there’s a lot of value to kids in having them navigate the world outside of your four walls on their own. It’s pretty important.

Brooks: Okay, so you’re more free range than most people of your generation. Most parents of your generation. And you have this not because you don’t believe that risk exists, but because you as an economist are trying to assess risk versus reward. Is that fair to say?

Oster: I think that’s fair to say.

Brooks: I think probably also you would assert—and I would agree with you—that the reason that more people don’t subscribe to this point of view is because all they hear about is the risk. They don’t hear about the reward.

I mean, you don’t hear on the news, you know, “Child walks to the library alone and has a great time and becomes better adjusted.” That’s not a headline, when the kid doesn’t get snatched. And so that’s a problem, isn’t it? When it’s all risk and reward in the way that we hear about parenting?

I had a technique that I used when my kids were in high school. So I made my kids write a business plan. And they made very original business plans, and they all kind of did their own thing. Do you agree with that approach? And how do you feel about trying to tease out the way that our kids can be their own person from the very beginning? Or is that a dangerous way of approaching parenthood?

Oster: I mean, I’m not sure I would tell everyone to make their kids make a business plan—although what I like that you’re getting at, that I really find resonant, is the idea of your kids kind of not being an extension of your dreams fulfilled or unfulfilled.

We all have these images, or these ideas, for what our kids are going to be, or what they’re going to be excited about. And a lot of times they’re the things that we’re good at, or the things that resonate with us.

And for many of us, a part of parenting that is challenging is seeing, you know, Okay, well, this is what my kid wants to do. And maybe it’s not the thing I envisioned for them. Maybe it’s not the thing that I envisioned for myself, but it’s a thing that they like. I need to sort of celebrate the ways in which this person is in fact a person. And that becomes so much more vivid and visual as your kids get older.

And that’s a part of my own parenting I find both very rewarding, and also very hard. You know, it’s easy for me to kind of connect with the pieces of, like my daughter, that we are very similar—but much harder on the things that she’s good at that I’m not. But they’re also the most fun things to be, like, “Oh my gosh, I could never do that. Like, yeah, I could just absolutely never do that. And I’m so impressed that you can.”

Brooks: What do you think is the single biggest mistake that American parents are making today?

Oster: Probably overthinking it. And I mean: I feel like this is such a ridiculous thing for someone like me to say, whose entire thing is like, “Think more about your parenting and be more deliberate.” But probably there is a sort of mistake somewhere in here around planning it too much or relying too much on this idea that “If I could only get this one, like if I could only find the one key, there’s like one key to getting it right.” There’s no key to getting it right.

Brooks: Thank you to our How To listeners who help make this show what it is. We asked you to tell us about your most clever parenting moment. And here’s what you said.

Listener Submission: Hi, this is Marilyn from Oak Park, Illinois. And I think one of my cleverest parenting moments was when my daughter was in middle school and she posted something that we thought she shouldn’t have on social media.

As punishment for her irresponsible use of technology, we took away her phone and told her that for the next week she couldn’t use any technology that wasn’t available in 1976—which was when I was in middle school.

She could only use the landline phone in the kitchen and had to stand next to the wall pretending the phone was on a cord. Years later, we still talk about how fun that week was, and I think all of us learned some good lessons.

Brooks: I remember, for example, that I kept reading that if my baby was crying during the night, you should just let them cry it out. Cry it out. Cry it out. Cry it out. They call it “crying it out”! And it’s like, I don’t want to let them cry it out. I don’t want to do that. And so I decided I wasn’t going to. And it was fine.

He didn’t grow up to be a horrible, spoiled person. You know, he’s great. He did well in school and took responsibility for his actions, despite the fact that I didn’t let him cry it out all the time. And I remember I was kind of worried at the time that I was stunting his growth because I was trying to do something that would satisfy my own desires.

But the truth of the matter was that, as time went on, I realized that there’s just a lot more flexibility in the things that you do. And it turned out that it’s not as bad as they say, or at least I don’t know. I mean, the truth is, I still don’t know. I’ll be a grandfather and not know. So I guess I’m more comfortable with not knowing.