The Big Question: Can Data Make You a Better Parent?: Sarah Green Carmichael

This is one of a series of interviews by Bloomberg Opinion columnists on how to solve the world’s most pressing policy challenges. It has been edited for length and clarity.

Sarah Green Carmichael: You’re a professor of economics at Brown University and the bestselling author of three books on parenting, the newest of which is “The Family Firm: A Data-Driven Guide to Better Decision Making in the Early School Years.” All three rely on a ton of research and data. Personally, I have always found gathering information to be a helpful coping mechanism in the face of the unknown — and few things are a journey into the unknown like becoming a parent. To what extent is parenting something that we can do Hermione Granger-style, where you go to the library and read all the books? And to what extent do you just need to improvise?

Emily Oster, professor of economics, Brown University and author, “The Family Firm”: There’s a place for both. And you do more improv as your kids age. Early on, there are things where it feels like we can get pretty close to an answer through the Hermione Granger approach — just kill the data until you have the answer. As the questions get more complicated, it’s almost never simple enough to just be about the data. And that’s what makes it difficult. For someone like me, once you’re out of, “The data has an answer,” are you into, “OK, just do whatever?” That somehow feels wrong. “The Family Firm” says you can make some of these big decisions in a way that feels a little bit like Hermione Granger, but acknowledges that the primacy of data is less when the kids are bigger.

SGC: Why does the primacy of data wane as kids get bigger?

EO: There’s two pieces. One is that the range of questions that people have are larger. It is much less likely that you would have a study that speaks to your particular question.

The other piece is that the effect of any given treatment is going to vary much more. When you ask about something like swaddling, different babies like it a different amount. But basically, if you smash them in, a lot of them [like it]. Whereas if you asked a question like, “Is this the right kind of school?” The right kind of school for one kid is not the same as for another. The data is going to tell you the effect for the average kid, but no kid is really the average kid.

SGC: So how do you know what to decide?

EO: This is where a framework is helpful. In the book, I talk about the four F’s: frame the question, fact find, final decision, follow-up. For example, our babysitter found a tick on my son Finn’s face. We were worried about Lyme disease. So I called the pediatrician and explained the situation and was told, basically, the relevant choice was whether to treat with antibiotics in advance or not. They made it clear it was pretty much up to us. We had established that this was basically the question: should we just watch it or should we get him some doxycycline? And the relevant information was, one, what is the risk of just watching it? And two, how long had the tick been on him? That’s important because a lot of the tick issues are about time of exposure. Our fact-finding consisted of looking back at our photos from the weekend — we didn’t see the tick — and reading some of the papers on Lyme disease and tick exposure in kids. There was only like, a 10-20% chance of undetected Lyme. We discussed briefly in person and made a decision not to treat him. And our follow-up is that we check for ticks a lot more now!