Best of Both Worlds podcast: Emily Oster on the research (and lack thereof) on parenting

Best of Both World podcast with Laura Vanderkam

You ask, we deliver! A number of listeners/readers read Emily Oster’s books, Expecting Better and the new one, Cribsheet, and asked if she could be a Best of Both Worlds guest. So this week, Sarah and I are delighted to welcome her to the podcast.

Oster is a professor of economics at Brown University. As a mother of two, she was curious about all the research and advice thrown out there about what is best during pregnancy and the first few years. She decided to go past the headlines and look deeply at the existing studies and numbers.

The main take-away: Many of the proclamations directed at parents are based on nothing, or at least not much to get excited about.

Indeed, any time you hear the phrase “All the research shows that kids turn out best when you do…[fill in the blank],” know you are dealing with something problematic.

First, there is nothing that is shown by “all the research.” Even pretty widely accepted conclusions don’t always show up in any given study.

Second, the phrase “kids turn out best” requires a measurable end point…and what would that be? High school graduation rates? Test scores? Avoiding prison? Earnings at age 40? Pretty much any end point is going to be problematic, and incomplete (it’s hard to measure for “kind and decent person”) or not show what you’re looking for. (Parents with high education levels tend to produce children who graduate from high school, whether you send them to day care, stay home with them, or hire a nanny. Also, people use different combinations of care at different times. Kids are complex!)

In any case, Oster examines the data and talks about what is known and what may have some small influences but probably no where near as much as the hype (e.g. breastfeeding). Then there’s the stuff we really just don’t know (e.g. maternal employment) so you’re best off doing what makes you happy and works with your family.

We enjoyed talking with Oster about these topics and about her own parenting journey as she and her economist husband (they work in the same department!) raise their kids together. Please give it a listen!

3 thoughts on “Best of Both Worlds podcast: Emily Oster on the research (and lack thereof) on parenting

  1. I was one of your listeners/readers that suggest Oster as a guest – can’t wait to listen! I loved Expecting Better and can’t wait to get my hands on Cribsheet. Thanks for having her as a guest!!!

  2. I really enjoyed the episode, and the three of you had great chemistry and seemed to really get along.

    I’m a little disappointed that breastfeeding wasn’t discussed at all–it’s a pretty significant portion of Cribsheet, and I would argue that it is the most fraught issue after whether to work or stay home with kids. And there is actually data that refutes some of the claims that proponents make, such as contributing to higher IQ scores.

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