Parenting guru Emily Oster: ‘My kids watch TV every night’

Author on her controversial interventions on Covid schooling and data-driven approach

‘This idea that somehow if your kids watch a little bit of violence they’re going to turn into violent people – that just doesn’t seem to be borne out in the data.’ Photograph: Getty Images

‘This idea that somehow if your kids watch a little bit of violence they’re going to turn into violent people – that just doesn’t seem to be borne out in the data.’ Photograph: Getty Images

 

When Emily Oster’s first child was a baby, she would not sleep through the night. So Oster and her husband Jesse, both economics professors, read endless sleep books. They bought swaddling blankets, and a special rocking baby sleeper that played music, and learned the “five S” method, which involved a lot of swaying and shushing. But they only really cracked it when their doctor explained the basics of sleep training, or letting the baby cry it out. As Oster would later tell the millions of readers devoted to her data-driven analysis of parenting methods, there’s a vast trove of evidence showing this one actually works (without causing the baby harm). But that doesn’t make sitting on the stairs and listening to the wailing any less tough.

“With my first one, we lived just down the street from a bar,” confesses Oster on a video call from her office at Brown University, Rhode Island, where she specialises in health and development economics. “And at this one point I just went to the bar – I said, ‘Jesse, you have to do this.’ The second child was a lot easier.”

It’s this mixture of a clear-eyed commitment to following the science, leavened with a wry acceptance that life is rarely that simple, which turned Oster’s first two evidence-based parenting books – Expecting Better, about pregnancy, and its baby-to-toddler sequel Cribsheet – into bestsellers in the US, while earning her a cult following among a certain kind of rational-minded British parent. (When I ask on Twitter what Oster fans like about her, the first three responses come from a senior think-tank fellow, an NHS policy manager, and a behavioural scientist; the phrase “treats you like a grown-up” featured heavily.) She leaves her readers feeling smart and empowered to make their own choices, but never judged.

This idea that if your kids watch a bit of violence they’re going to turn into violent people – that just doesn’t seem to be borne out

Now her children, Penelope and Finn, are 10 and six respectively and her new book, The Family Firm, navigates the primary school years. She brings data to bear on everything from worrying that your kids should be doing more extracurricular activities (to paraphrase: no, they don’t have to spend hour after hour pursuing piano or ballet to a semi-professional level), to the perennial dilemma over screen time. “My kids watch TV every night,” says Oster cheerfully, pointing out that if your child elected to stare at a blank wall for half an hour while you had a glass of wine and made dinner, you’d probably delight in their capacity for meditation. “So in some senses the fact that what they’re meditating to is the Miraculous cartoon show, it isn’t obviously any worse. Everybody needs downtime.”

There is something oddly poignant about publishing a hymn to data in a pandemic year that has left us all fluent in the language of log graphs, exponential growth and following the science. Yet even Oster admits science can’t definitively answer the complex questions of the preteen years, from what to do when your daughter falls out with her friends to whether your son is old enough for a sleepover. The real key here, she argues, is good decision-making: which to her means running your family like a business, governed by a set of clear organising principles from which considered decisions can logically flow. Having systems and routines, she argues, also makes it easier to delegate confidently, avoiding the classic, typically female, trap of becoming the keeper of all domestic knowledge and thus ending up responsible for everything.

So how does she do it? She synchronises electronic calendars with her husband, uses corporate task management software to track family projects, and sets reminders for repeat parenting tasks on her computer: “When you need to remember something every year, why are you holding that in your head? The computer has no problem remembering that.” She even recommends sending follow-up emails to your partner, summarising the outcome of a discussion about the kids in bullet form. Seriously? “It may seem impersonal,” she concedes. “But on the other hand, it’s really unpleasant to fight with them later and say, ‘I said this!’ and have them say, ‘No, you didn’t!’”

The routine she and her husband adopted to stop their son dawdling on school mornings (downstairs by 7.05am sharp, a 7.25am “hard stop” to breakfast) may seem militarily precise to some but, she says, her family likes consistency. Yet for all her formidable organisational powers, parenting through a pandemic still tested her in unexpected ways.

Emily Fair Oster was named on the flip of a coin. Her parents, both Yale economists, felt it unfair for their children automatically to take their father’s surname: the coin toss determined that Emily and her youngest brother got their mother Sharon Oster’s surname, while their middle brother got her father Ray Fair’s, an unusually radical feminist statement for 1970s America. “They [her parents] were totally into this and of course none of us followed up on it,” she says. “My brothers’ wives both took their names. I didn’t take Jesse’s name, but both of the kids have his name. We’ve regressed.” Yet she has inherited something of her mother’s logical mindset, judging by the elder Oster’s reaction to The Family Firm. “She was like, ‘Yes, good, the data’s very interesting but I mean everybody already knows this is how you should make decisions,’” she says, laughing. “It was said in a nice way, but I was like, ‘No, that’s how you do it.’”

It was through her mother that Emily first entered the world of academic research, aged two. Sharon Oster had mentioned to a colleague researching child language development that her toddler often fell asleep chatting to herself. Intrigued, the woman asked her to place a tape recorder under Emily’s cot. Narratives From The Crib, the resulting study based on months of recording, is now a standard psychology text; students still pore over transcripts of her babbling about going toy shopping tomorrow. And while some might find the idea of being secretly taped faintly creepy, Oster enjoys catching echoes of her 41-year-old self in baby Emily. “This sort of recapping of what happened [that day] and what is going to happen is something that I still do quite a lot. I don’t do it out loud, but I can exactly see the line from that kid to where my brain is now.”

There is something very stripped back about Emily Oster. She appears on my screen in a plain black top, against a perfectly blank white background; no lipstick, no clutter or distraction. (She once claimed only to wear MM.LaFleur, an American label specialising in immaculately cut sheath dresses, leaving one less thing to think about). What she loves about data, she says, is its precision. “In the absence of data we are so compelled by anecdote, and we are drawn to not necessarily the last thing we saw or heard, but to making conclusions that are not general to the overall picture. For me, I read data the way you would read the words of an anecdote. When I see the graphs, that’s just the way that I can understand the world.”

The same precision comes across in her descriptions of her parenting, so I ask whether there are ever times where her home life all descends into chaos and she becomes less? “Rigid?” she interrupts self-deprecatingly. “Actually, I will say candidly that I think it’s something I could do more of. There have been times in our family life when we’ve done crazy things, like go live somewhere else for a few months, and I think it was really good for all of us.” But routine was, she says, a comfort during the pandemic.

Prof Emily Oster: ‘I think my skin has thickened a lot over the last year.’ Photograph: Don Emmert/AFP via Getty Images
Prof Emily Oster: ‘I think my skin has thickened a lot over the last year.’ Photograph: Don Emmert/AFP via Getty Images

It’s clear that homeschooling last spring, while holding down two demanding jobs, tested even the organised Oster household. “There were moments in the spring when it was raining, I made the kids go outside for ‘recess’ because I had to do a phone call – so they’re playing a game outside called Stick Fight, where they pick up sticks and fight with them and you’re like, ‘Just don’t hit the windows, that’s all I want,’” she recalls with a groan. “We tried to maintain some basic organisation but it was a big challenge. We all watched a lot of TV.”

But doing what she knew best, and trying to understand Covid through the data, made her feel slightly more in control. “To be able to say, ‘Well I’m watching this case rate or trying to figure out that’ – it’s a way to understand and claim some ownership over your own life,” she says.

As Oster searched for data surrounding the spread of the virus in schools, however, she became convinced the US government simply wasn’t collecting enough of it. So with some like-minded colleagues she started her own rough database. By last summer she was confident enough to argue publicly that schools should reopen in autumn with mitigating measures, and to question the evidence base for children wearing masks even outside in the playground. It seemed profoundly wrong to her, she says, that in some states bars opened again but schools did not, while other countries prioritised education. But nonetheless, her public interventions – using the platform her books and Substack parenting newsletter ParentData had afforded her – stirred up a hornet’s nest.

Oster was publicly attacked by teachers scared of returning to the classroom, but also by some public health experts, arguing that as a non-virologist she was straying too far out of her professional lane. One epidemiologist praised her data collection efforts, but suggested that her advice worked best for offering guidance for “upper middle-class, urban, suburban, sort of coastal people”, echoing a broader criticism that the risks of school reopening might be higher for low-income kids living in neighbourhoods with high Covid rates. (Although she retorts, “But those are the kids who need to be at school! We looked back over the last year at who are the kids most affected by not being at school; it’s disproportionately students of colour, lower-income students.”)

It wasn’t her first brush with controversy. She wrote in Expecting Better that the occasional glass of wine in pregnancy probably won’t hurt, summarising two studies that showed no difference between the children of women who abstain and those who have up to a drink a day. This ran contrary to official advice that American mothers should strictly abstain for nine months, and led to Oster being publicly rebuked by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists on the grounds that there is no known safe lower limit for alcohol in pregnancy (she still maintains that overly strict public health advice is likely to be ignored).

But this latest backlash was more personal. On social media, she was called a “charlatan” and a “monster”. Asked how bad the abuse got, she grimaces briefly: “People write me mean stuff. Somebody wrote to the provost at the university about how I was bringing shame on the university. I think my skin has thickened a lot over the last year but I still find it sort of challenging to be trolled on social media.”

Equally uncomfortable for Oster, who says she “politically skews left”, was the way some saw her allied with right-wing lockdown sceptics when she had originally been motivated by what she sees as the Trump administration’s failure to collect data on a virus they didn’t want to acknowledge. Does she now regret getting involved? “Of course there have been moments where I’ve wanted to crawl under a rock over the last 18 months and not have people yell at me so much. But I think broadly that I added a voice that was helpful at times, and so I’m not sorry that I did that.” If nothing else, it must make entering sensitive debates about issues like working motherhood feel like a comparative cinch.

The two cornerstones of her own parenting day are, she says, fixed bedtimes and always eating supper together as a family. Yet surprisingly, she concedes the mythical benefits of the latter may be oversold. On the one hand, as she says, “Almost every good adolescent outcome you can find linked to this behaviour.” But that doesn’t mean, she points out, that family dinners magically make everything all right. It might be that eating together is just something that harmonious, relatively privileged families are more likely to be able to do, a symptom, not a cause of their happiness. “If you think about how much of your life has to be organised around this in order to do this, you have to know that the families who do this are different from the families who don’t. But if you think, if this were having an effect what would it be – is it literally having dinner? I think it’s not. It’s the concentrated time to take a breath and connect with the kid.” That focused time may well be valuable, she says, but don’t beat yourself up if it happens somewhere other than over dinner.

If it is important to you, you need to figure out how you’re going to schedule your spontaneity

Something similar, she thinks, is true of screen time and social media. Comparing outcomes for children who watch lots of TV and children who don’t may, she argues, simply reflect other aspects of their family life. More controversially, she argues that the content they’re watching may be less critical than some parents fear: “You should be careful that your kids are not watching things that terrify them or make them upset, but this idea that somehow if they watch a little bit of violence they’re going to turn into violent people – that just doesn’t seem to be borne out in the data.” The real problem with screen time, she thinks, is the opportunity cost; hours spent gaming are hours not spent playing sport, reading or seeing friends.

As for social media, she thinks we still don’t have good enough data yet. Some studies suggest children who spend a lot of time on it are less happy, but it’s unclear whether unhappy or lonely children are driven to spend longer searching for validation online in the first place. “There was one [adult] study somebody did measuring when are people the happiest during the day, and one of the things was people are really unhappy while they’re watching TV, and it was like ‘maybe TV makes people unhappy’. No, that’s what I’m doing when I’m in a crummy mood, I’m tired, I just want to zone out in front of reality TV – it’s not that reality TV is making me unhappy.” Yet screen time isn’t a free for all chez Oster; her children only watch TV before dinner, plus a bit more at the weekend. Clear and consistent rules, she argues, let children know where they stand.

Could her organised, logical approach work even for a more chaotic, spontaneous family that’s happy winging it through life? “It’s such a weird idea, but if you’re like, ‘I want it to be the case that on the weekend we can just do whatever if we want’ – if you don’t articulate that, then what you’re going to find as a person with kids is that when you get up on the weekend, two-thirds of the time you’re going to have a birthday party. It’s going to be, ‘I wanted to lie in a field and be spontaneous but I gotta go to this at 2.30 to 4.30[pm]?’” she says. “If something is important to you, you need to figure out how you’re going to prioritise it and, you know, schedule your spontaneity.” At this point, she bursts out laughing at herself: “That should be my tagline. Schedule your spontaneity!” It’s not a bad title for the next book.

‘When can I get a phone?’

In this extract from her new book, Emily Oster answers the key modern parenting question
If you are parenting in the modern age, there will come a time when you will face the great question: “When can I get a phone?” It might come when your child is 10 years old, but more likely five, or eight. It will be followed by arguments such as: “All my friends have got one!”; “If I don’t get one, I’ll never be invited to X or Y or Z”; “Don’t you want me to be able to call you if something is wrong?”

However, when you investigate, the internet is a source of cautionary tales: “Phones Linked To Anxiety In Teen Girls”, or “Phones Shown To Lower Student Achievement”. And yet everyone else’s child seems to have a phone. Are you going to be the only one?

This is a new kind of parenting dilemma. When you’re caring for a baby, and wondering, “Is it a good idea to swaddle?”, the decision feels overwhelming in its newness. But from the vantage point of having an older child, the question of whether to swaddle can also seem incredibly tractable.There is, for example, an actual answer to the question of whether swaddling is a good idea (yes). It’s based on data, research, evidence. It’s reasonably consistent across healthy babies. And it is also simply not that important in the grand scheme of things. If you swaddle your baby, they will sleep better early on. But if you do not, nothing terrible will happen.

When to get your child a phone feels nothing like this. There isn’t much data, and it almost certainly has wildly different effects depending on the child. The best answer to these questions could well be different for two children in the same family, let alone two different families.

The question itself may not be immediately clear. Is it whether the child should have a “dummy phone” that only calls their parents and the police? Or whether they should have the latest, slickest smartphone?

First things first. What are the possible benefits of giving your child a phone? I can see three primary ones: logistical improvements (they can call you to be picked up); safety (you can track where they are, and they can call if there is a problem), and social benefits (they can text their friends etc). And what’s the possible cost? Beyond the money, I see two more concerns: the first is that your child might get so absorbed in the phone (texting, using apps, taking pictures of themselves with a bunny-ears filter) that they neglect other things; and, second, possible social friction (online bullying, anxiety, Fomo). Many people worry that their child may think a phone will make them popular and happy but that the opposite might be true.

You may need to think about your own habits, too. No phone at the table might also mean no phone for you

There is no randomised trial that will tell us whether children who get a phone at 11 are happier and more successful than those who get one at 13. But there is still fact-finding to do. What is the logistical value for your child having a phone? Think through the day. When would they use it? Are there often times when they’d need to be in touch with you? If you are finding that your child is frequently waiting for you in the cold because practice ended early, that could be an argument for a phone. If you are fielding a lot of midday calls from school about forgotten homework, shoes or jackets, that could be an argument for a phone (or for a different morning reminder system). Conversely, if you cannot think of a single situation in the past month in which your child would need to call you from a mobile phone, it suggests the benefit may be small.

Do you perceive a safety value in a phone? What would it be? One reason is location tracking. Most phones let you see where your child is at all times. If your child is walking a long way home from school or between activities, maybe this would make you feel more comfortable. Some parenting approaches would say this is too much monitoring. For others, the ability to see their child’s location opens up the ability to give them more freedom.

Then there’s the issue of phone screen absorption. I know families who have written all sorts of rules about this: no screens at the table, no screens upstairs, phones plugged in at the house entryway and not touched etc. You may need to think about your own habits, too. In other words, no phone at the table might also mean no phone for you.

If you decide your child can have a phone, when will you revisit how it’s going? If you decide they can’t, when will you reopen the discussion? Six months from now? A year? Agreeing on a timeline is an input to harmony. If you just say, “We’ll discuss later”, a motivated person might take that to mean tomorrow.

If the phone has already been introduced, now is the time to reflect on how it is going. One question is about responsibility: has the phone been lost or broken? When I told my daughter about this, her primary suggestion was that the rule should be: if you break the phone, you don’t get another one until you are much older. This suggestion has the flavour of an eight-year-old (and one who is related to an adult who breaks their phone a lot), but it does have a ring of truth.

Beyond that, though, have people been adhering to the rules? Does it seem like phone engagement (either social or not) is becoming a problem? If the value of the phone is logistics, has it helped? Maybe you got a dummy phone, it’s never been used, it’s been lost six times, and everyone’s kind of done with it. The follow-up questions will vary. But no decision of this magnitude should be left without reflection.

Good luck: like many parenting choices, this isn’t an easy one, and it doesn’t have a right answer. (But, when in doubt, go with 12.) – Guardian

This is an edited extract from The Family Firm: A Data-Driven Guide to Better Decision Making in the Early School Years, by Emily Oster (Profile)

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