On Emily Oster on EconTalk
By Janet Bufton
It is very hard not to give advice. Especially when it’s about something important.
Recent EconTalk guest, Emily Oster, is remarkable for the approach she takes in her new book, Cribsheet: A Data-Driven Guide to Better, More Relaxed Parenting, From Birth to Preschool, which is the topic of her conversation with host Russ Roberts, —and in her previous book, Expecting Better (the topic of a previous EconTalk conversation). Rather than passing judgement on parents for their choices, Oster focuses on giving parents the tools they need to make better decisions.
The family is one of Roberts’ favourite topics. As he points out, the very first EconTalk episode was The Economics of Parenting with Don Cox. Recently, he’s hosted Amy Tuteur on birth, natural parenting, and Pushback and discussed co-sleeping in an episode with Sebastian Junger on Tribe.
Junger believes that the history of humanity has been one in which parents and children stayed close together in the same room (or the same cave). As a result, he thinks that forcing kids to sleep on their own is, at least a little bit, cruel or unnatural.
Junger has a strong opinion about co-sleeping: it’s natural, it’s caring, it’s best. He compares children sleeping in a room without their parents to a baby chimpanzee separated in a cage away from its mother (“it will go really crazy pretty quickly”) or to children left alone in the woods, knowing they’re going to be eaten and screaming for help. He acknowledges that parents who are overweight or who have been drinking have good reasons not to have their baby in bed with them, but otherwise is sceptical that much good is done by separating babies from their parents.
Tuteur (perhaps appropriately, given the title of her book) pushes back. Junger’s argument, she says, is nonsense—nonsense to claim that there was ever a single, natural way of raising children, and nonsense to claim that different choices for different families will damage kids. Tuteur is certainly less judgemental than Junger, who compares crying in a crib to screaming for help in the woods, but Tuteur is also trying to debunk what she calls the “paleo-fantasy” of assuming natural childbirth and parenting are best.
While she is careful not to condemn mothers and families for choosing methods favoured by the natural parenting movement (she and her husband had a family bed and she breastfed all of her children), Tuteur traces the natural/attachment parenting movement back to efforts to control women. In the 1950s, she says, the rationale for encouraging breastfeeding among Catholic mothers’ groups was that formula enabled women to go to work, while promoting breastfeeding as better for babies would also encourage mothers to stay at home rather than staying in the workforce. Likewise, she says, the original basis for attachment parenting was marketed as that of a vision of the family passed down from God: with the husband as the head of the household and the wife and mother solely occupied with caring for her husband and children. Although these origins shouldn’t be enough to damn its specific recommendations, it certainly feels like they throw a wet blanket on the natural parenting movement.
But why should this be? In her conversation with Roberts, Oster seems to understand why someone who’d made the choices Tuteur did would be reluctant to recognize natural parenting’s origins in attempts to control women. When we talk to one another about parenting, says Oster, “it seems like people just want…to convince other people that the choices they are making are the right ones for everyone… ‘Because I would only make the right choice.’” It’s tempting, in this mindset, to see those who share our decisions, and the philosophy that motivates them, as unambiguously good.
The empathy that makes this recognition possible has helped Oster’s books win acclaim from expecting parents and sets Roberts’ conversation with her apart from those with Junger and Tuteur. Perhaps surprisingly to some readers (though maybe not to long-time Econlib readers or EconTalk listeners), her training as an economist, paired with a hefty dose of humility, makes finding that empathy easier. By critically approaching the evidence with a good grasp of how causal links are established and taking seriously the reasons and the ways that people make decisions, Oster is able to disarm some of the most volatile grenades in the Mommy Wars.
Expecting Better is, broadly speaking, a tool for expecting parents to perform their own risk assessments during pregnancy while Cribsheet provides parents with the information they need to perform cost-benefit analyses in parenting decisions. The difference between the two books, explored on EconTalk, is influenced by the fact that cost-benefit analyses differ a lot more among families than risk tolerance differs among individuals.
The standard approach to advice for parenting (and pregnancy) is to issue recommendations that can make it sound like there’s one right answer that applies to everyone. The Canadian Paediatric Society will inform you that breastfeeding is “the normal and unequalled method of feeding infants” and so what’s recommended is “exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months” of a baby’s life. “Breastfeeding and human milk are the normative standards for infant feeding and nutrition… The American Academy of Paediatrics reaffirms its recommendation of exclusive breastfeeding for about 6 months…”
In defence of the official recommendations, they are more nuanced than their main takeaways could lead you to believe. Paediatricians do not think mothers who are unable to breastfeed are negligent. But handling recommendations the way that they do feeds into our instinct to treat the advice we happen to want to follow as The Best Advice For Every Baby and other advice as not only wrong, but stupid or evil.
What Oster emphasizes on EconTalk, maybe even more than in the book, is that what she wants is for families to feel like they are thinking about the decisions they’re making in the right way, rather than to focus on searching for a single right decision. The data that motivates official recommendations are based on the benefits of different decisions, but it can’t show each family what the costs are.
For example, while breastfeeding is natural, it’s also hard. It takes a lot of time and doesn’t come easily to everyone. Setting recommendations based only on breastfeeding’s (often exaggerated) benefits sets up parents to feel as though not breastfeeding exclusively fails their child. Ignoring costs sets up parents to feel as though infinite sacrifices are not only justified but required by those who want the best for their children.
Oster discusses the costs and benefits of breastfeeding, co-sleeping, and sleep training with Roberts, taking the time to discuss the evidence in favour of official recommendations as well as the costs of following these recommendations. Her even more thorough discussions in the book give parents the tools not only to make a decision about their best options, but to think about contingency plans if something isn’t working out. Recognizing costs and benefits is different from making recommendations about what’s right and wrong because it allows families to adapt to their particular circumstances.
Even when Oster offers a clear recommendation (Vaccinate your children. Don’t hit them.), her overall, data-driven approach helps her to do so in a more constructive and less polarizing way than the ways in which such controversial topics are often handled. Rather than assuming that those who disagree are crazy lunatics, she engages their concerns, offering a breakdown of the recognized risks and the statistical understanding that helps put concerns into perspective.
Ultimately, it is Oster’s ability to take seriously other parents’ values, beliefs, and constraints that makes her work—and her conversation with Roberts—so appealing. Perhaps unintentionally, her humble and sincere application of the principles of economic assessment, combined with acknowledgement of genuine and well-intentioned disagreement when making important decisions, models not only a better approach for decision making for parents, but for our interaction and discourse with one another more generally.
 Canadian Paediatric Society (2018). “Nutrition for healthy term infants, birth to six months: an overview”. April 2, 2013, reaffirmed February 28, 2018.
 American Academy of Paediatrics (2012). “Breastfeeding and the Use of Human Milk”. March 2012, Volume 129, Issue 3, From the American Academy of Pediatrics Policy Statement.
Janet Bufton (Neilson) co-founded the Institute for Liberal Studies in 2006 and has worked as a program coordinator with the Institute for Liberal Studies since 2013. She manages the Liberal Studies Guides project.