Emily Oster on How Parents Became Obsessed With Data

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It is true that there’s a set of parents who are looking for data, and the thing that they’re looking for is “What is it going to take to make my kid successful in these measurable ways?” But I think it’s not right to say that those people don’t care about anything else, or that I don’t care about anything else. When we make decisions, data is one piece—it’s not the only piece.

Green: In your book, you veer back and forth between these two impulses you describe: On the one hand, you serve a specific kind of reader who values mastering the available data and academic literature on parenting questions. But you also gently push back on this mindset, trying to get people to see that data isn’t everything. Do you see yourself as the Pied Piper of data-addicted meritocrats, or do you see yourself as a guru coaching them up the mountain of wisdom? Something in between?

Oster: Oh my God, I don’t see myself as either of those things. Perhaps I should—they both sound amazing.

I do think that, for at least some of us, it can be very tempting to get wrapped up in some measures of success that are test-score-based and objective. That is often incomplete and, in some cases, counterproductive. I’m using this platform to say, “Hey, yes, you can use data to look at test scores and objective outcomes. But that should not be the only thing in the decision set. And sometimes that focus is totally misplaced.”

Green: Why do you think “some of us” get wrapped up in these objective measures? You describe yourself as one of these people: You once tried to research whether there was academic literature on whether your daughter should wear baby mittens. You were self-aware enough to be like, That’s insane.

Oster: Not in the moment! Later! In the moment, I was like, I need to download this paper.

Green: Well, lots of people do crazy stuff when they’re sleep-deprived with a newborn. Your sins are forgiven. Anyway, what is that draw to data, specifically when we’re thinking about these intimate questions about how we raise our children, how we structure our families, and how we relate to our communities?

Oster: I think it’s that we really, really don’t want to mess up. We want an answer for how to do it right. Somehow we got this idea that data can help us answer some of these personal questions and get them right. That carries over into parenting: This is a thing that feels like it should have an answer. It feels like data would give us control in an environment in which it’s easy to feel like I don’t have any control.

It’s a hard realization for this era of parenting that the data is basically never going to answer those questions for you. You’re never going to be sure that you made the right decision, especially in these bigger questions with older kids.

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