New parents receive such an abundance of child-rearing advice—anecdotes about sleep training and breastfeeding, warnings about overscheduling, horror stories about potty training and preschool—that making the right decisions for children sometimes seems impossible. In an effort to help parents make more informed choices, economist Emily Oster—whose first book, 2013’s Expecting Better, used statistical data to debunk common pregnancy myths—applies the same sort of analysis to the early childhood years in Cribsheet (Penguin Press, Apr.).
You’re an economist who’s married to an economist, and you’re the daughter of two economists. How does this field of study inform your new book and your parenting style?
Economics is a science of decision making. And one of the things we spend a lot of time thinking about is people making choices, trading off costs and benefits.
That was how my parents thought about parenting. I have many childhood memories of my mother saying things like, “I’m going to get the groceries delivered because my time is very valuable.”
The other thing is, the kind of economics I do is very data intensive, and we worry a lot about causality and trying to understand relationships in data. And that comes up a lot in this book: before you get to making a decision, you need to understand what the evidence said about these different choices.
All of those tools are applicable in my job, but also can be applicable in parenting, and I try to make them applicable in my own parenting where possible.
Cribsheet focuses on the early childhood years. What are some of the issues it addresses, and what might readers find surprising?
It looks at a lot of issues around sleep, including things like sleep training. We look at cosleeping, daycare vs. nanny, stay-at-home parent vs. mom and dad working outside the home. There are a lot of these hot-button issues that we try to get at.
Breastfeeding comes up a lot. The book argues that there are some small benefits to breastfeeding, but they’re nothing on the order of what the rhetoric would have you believe about the magical benefits. There just isn’t any evidence for the idea that feeding breast milk to a baby is the most important thing that you can possibly do, or that if you don’t nurse your baby, you’re condemning them to a life of obesity and poor test scores.
Why do so many pregnancy and parenting myths persist?
People learn a lot from their own experiences. And then they think that, because it works for them, or their kid turned out good, that that’s informative about the behavior. People have a very hard time making decisions with data, and a very easy time making decisions with anecdotes.
What’s your book’s biggest takeaway for parents?
There’s one very broad takeaway, which is that not everyone is going to make the same decisions—and that’s okay. There is so much pressure that parents put on other parents to behave in the way that they behaved, and that parents put on themselves. You have to make these decisions for yourselves based on what works for your family.