Emily Oster standing with her arms crossed in front of her book The Family Firm

Emily Oster Can’t Have It Both Ways

Why Emily Oster’s The Family Firm and the optimization of parenting are making me sad.

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Six years ago, when I was just the teensiest bit pregnant, I called my sister Rebekah, a nurse-midwife, and asked her what the f*ck I was supposed to do. Was there, like, a thing about cheese? Did I need to stop taking those fish oil pills I always forgot to take? Should I stop going to that spin class with the “tough love” instructor who had yet to give me the personalized shoutouts he bestowed on his favorite students despite the fact that I worked so hard that my crotch felt like it would fall off? Her response (after almost a decade of coaching pregnant women and, as her midwife pals call it, “catching babies”) was very simple: “There is one book — and it’s the only one you need.”

That book, Expecting Better, by Emily Oster, which now has over 4,000 ratings on Amazon, has become the bible of anyone progressive who finds themselves with child. Reading it, alongside the conservative and condescending What to Expect When You’re Expecting, the classic pregnancy reference book that Oster’s title pokes fun at, was a revelation. Its basic premise — that medical professionals and pregnancy guides feed us information that is vague and incomplete, and that we are completely capable (with Oster’s guidance) of muddling through the true data and making informed decisions for ourselves — was an antidote to pregnancy anxiety.

It truly was the book to read if you wanted to be treated like an independent-thinking adult and not a lab-manufactured doll that incubated humans free of her own wants (the occasional glass of wine) and needs (also, the wine). Oster did not promise us that we were in control or that everything would be OK, only that it was OK that we weren’t in control and that it was very likely that everything would be OK.

I became, like many of the book’s disciples, a complete fanatic and ordered a copy for everyone in my life who announced a pregnancy (Bezos’ spyware tells me I have purchased nine copies of it on Amazon alone). In our prenatal class, my husband began referring to me as a “truther” because I would scoff at the doctor’s insistence that we not consume oysters or make a snarky retort when anyone worried about the dangers of hot yoga.

The thing is, though, once I had my kid, he started taking in the world around him and expressing his opinions and having thoughts and feelings that, eventually, had nothing to do with me, and things got a little more complicated. There were more decisions to make, there was immediate feedback when things were not working, there were times when I could not monitor him, and even times when statistics, and my own training as a teacher and educational psychologist, couldn’t do diddly squat to help me.

Sure, I knew about infant attachment and that it was probably good to give him some focused attention, but how much of it did he really need? Was it better to spend lots of time with him but be kind of overwhelmed, or ship him off to a caregiver but feel less stressed and more myself? How did I know that he was generally happy, despite the fact that he had to scream and cry to let us know what he needed? And most importantly, how did I make sure he didn’t grow up to be an asshole?

The thing is, though, once I had my kid, he started taking in the world around him and expressing his opinions, and things got a little more complicated.

Oster published her second book, Cribsheet, just after my son’s third birthday. My sister and I texted excitedly about it, and I preordered it with zeal.

But this time, Oster took less care to underscore the limitations of the data. She was telling us that we could make something of it. In fact, the book hinges on this idea: trying to figure out when, say, to potty train our toddlers is a useful pursuit for parents to take on, one that would somehow make a difference in our child’s lives and have some measurable outcome we could look for to tell us that it was a success. From so many years of working with children, I knew that there are so many internal and external factors that go into how one decision will impact one child.

I had worked on research studies with children and observed firsthand how you could almost never control for enough of these factors to really believe in the cause and effect of a single ingredient, or produce effects that were not only statistically but practically significant.

And I also knew how, just as in pregnancy, even scant data, repeated enough times on the playground, can make parents convinced that something is necessary or harmful for their children. While her first book had helped me embrace the crapshoot of having children, this one was scrambling to deny it. I placed my copy in the nearest little lending library, and wondered if I should have written in a disclaimer.

Oster’s latest book, called The Family Firm: A Data-Driven Guide to Better Decision Making in the Early School Years, not only continues with the premise that we can look to research to give us substantial advice about things like whether to “redshirt” our children in kindergarten by holding them back a year, but it also plays to a version of modern, privileged parenting that I find deeply problematic.

When we were growing fetuses, the stakes were high — miscarriage, brain damage, spina bifida. But now, Oster seems to be talking about decisions that, in my professional opinion, could not be very consequential for the children of the educated, well-off people reading her books. Reading her book excerpt for The New York Times, I winced as I watched Oster apply her “four-point framework” (frame the question, fact-find, make a final decision, and follow up) to whether to send a child to a “good” public school or a private school where they can get a potentially “better” education.

Why do my kids have to have the most successful version of potty training, when they have more opportunities than almost all other children on the planet?

In Cribsheet, Oster helped parents navigate preschool decisions with data that is largely intended to show the benefits of early intervention for children from low-income backgrounds. It would be one thing if we were talking about parents who come from marginalized groups, who have been denied opportunities, deciding which school would be best for their child’s future. But the people who read Oster’s books are people whose kids, as far as the narrow definitions of success that she deals in go, will be fine. They shouldn’t be worried about their kids making enough money to live comfortably; they should be worried about their kids being well-adjusted and knowing how to relate to other human beings, things that Oster claims she cares about but then writes a whole book leading parents astray from. Why do my kids have to have the most successful version of potty training, when they have more opportunities than almost all other children on the planet? The outcomes discussed don’t reflect my values as a parent, and they seem to reflect one very self-serving view of a good childhood. Oster makes a nod to there being more ways to analyze child outcomes than test scores, but then proceeds to use them anyway.

Oster’s brand may be one of nonchalance or laid-back parenting, but it is really anything but. She likes to position herself as advising parents to chill out — but she is also writing a book for a highly powerful and successful parent group about using data to optimize childhood and run your family like a business. You can’t have it both ways. Embedded in her discussions is the idea that parents need only to make the most expert-based decisions for the children they manage, in order to steer them on an imaginary track that will make them turn out how they want them to turn out and give them some small advantage that they most certainly don’t need. She is using her expertise in order to encourage privileged parents to fill their parenting hours making decisions that, if they have any impact at all, reinforce that privilege.

In playing to parents’ anxiety around such choices as whether to send their child to a private school or the well-resourced public school in their well-resourced town, Oster not only tells parents the lie that they can overcome this anxiety, which is the cornerstone of parenting, by being rational, but also that it’s socially acceptable to agonize over getting the best of the best for our children.

I have worked with enough successful parents, in enough settings, to know that Oster’s kind of thinking keeps parents from noticing who, exactly, their children actually are, what needs they have and how those needs might change, and how to demonstrate for their children what it means to live in the real world — a world where money does not actually get you happiness, test scores do not equate to learning, and sometimes the best thing you can do for your child is sacrifice some of their privilege for the good of the community you live in.

I have worked with enough successful parents, in enough settings, to know that Oster’s kind of thinking keeps parents from noticing who, exactly, their children actually are.

Beyond my professional apprehensions, I realize that much of my ire at Oster’s current approach to parenting advice comes with my own struggles to resist such nitpicking, which bombards modern parents in ads, articles, message boards, and books like hers. When I was a new parent, I knew that I shouldn’t worry too much about breastfeeding, the potential of sleep training, and other early parenting obsessions, as most babies seemed to get by if they were loved and generally cared for. But the pull of these obsessions was strong — they were sometimes all I talked about with my mom friends — as was the myth that if I focused on something like breastfeeding, which might give my child a few more IQ points and a few fewer allergies, I would ward off much greater dangers or somehow protect me and my child from the terrors of living.

As a financially secure, white mother in America, I am often being encouraged to use my parenting energy on the very questions Oster explores, and this many years into the game, I see that the more I allow myself to be distracted by such discussions, the less I am able to do the real work of parenting; to learn how to trust your own instincts and to think about your child in the context of your community.

Perhaps Oster is onto something with how to reach these parents, the ones who are high-performing, who don’t know a ton about children but who are eager for data, because she is one of them and speaks their language. Perhaps, in luring them in with the promise of data-based decision-making, but then offering a modicum of reasonableness, she may be making more headway than someone with my perspective ever would with my “ride the wave” philosophy. And yet, we fundamentally disagree about the idea that the research on children amounts to much, or that encouraging parents to consider childhood to be a results-based endeavor, however couched in caveats, is a worthwhile pursuit. Her star is certainly rising, and I fear that with her increased platform, she is giving parents a new reason to avoid the challenges of living a moral life, with children, and instead, to feed the machine of individualism, which doesn’t seem to make anyone happy.

What makes me happy is not trying to make too much sense of it all, so for now I think I’ll continue to run my family (though I don’t delude myself into believing I’m really in charge) like a children’s theater production: I know many mistakes will be made, I have no idea if we will achieve our goals, and sometimes I question the utility of even doing it at all. But at least if I can get out of my head long enough, I’ll do some good for the people around me, and, god forbid, enjoy myself.

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