What ParentData Can Teach You (And What It Can’t)

A New Dad Finds a Phd Economist Turned Parenting Guru.

Bryan J. / 3.23.21

Leave it to the new dad to find a parenting guru who is also a PhD economist.

That’s not totally accurate. When my wife was around six months pregnant in the late summer of 2019, another new mom sent us a copy of Emily Oster’s book Cribsheet: A Data-Driven Guide to Better, More Relaxed Parenting, from Birth to Preschool. When Oster had her first child, she became overwhelmed by (and resentful of!) the loud voices demanding that she parent in a certain way. So when baby number two came along, she decided to put her data-driven economist training into the service of motherhood, digging through the research to sort out which parenting patterns were factual enough to follow.

This new-father-to-be was hooked. All the data in one place to make rational and thoughtful decisions about parenting? Sign me up! (For the book, for the sequel book, and for the weekly email list …) With Oster’s help, my wife and I walked through a number of conflicted decisions about our baby Tom’s birth and first months. Circumcision, cloth diapers, co-sleeping — if we had questions or found ourselves at an impasse, one of us would grab Oster’s book to see if data was available to help us make a decision together.

One of my favorite things about Oster’s writing is her cut-through-the-B.S. style. In one of her “ParentData” emails from last October, Oster writes about how parental suffering can be a source of signaling or self-justification wrapped up in kiddo concerns:

If you’re parenting in the modern age, one thing you should know for sure is that suffering is a signal that you’re a good parent. This was reinforced for me best in an essay I read several years ago in which someone noted that being an attentive parent sometimes requires you to hold your pee in for several hours. Because it might not be best for your kids if you took a break to use the bathroom. (Frankly I do not get this at all because in my experience children have no problem being in the bathroom with you.)

This starts during gestation, when being a good parent means giving up things you enjoy, like coffee, sushi and sleeping on your back. With this background, it was no surprise to me to read this new study on how epidurals raise the risk of autism. Being a good mother should definitely mean going through an unmedicated labor. Honestly, it’s really not that bad. As my husband can tell you, I only clawed a small portion of my face off to distract myself. It’s a small price to pay!

Still, I thought it might be useful to review this study for people just in case it turns out to, maybe, not be 150% convincing.

[Snark over; data review commence.]

She goes on to eviscerate that epidural study’s methodology and to shame the researchers for publishing medically dubious clickbait. Oster’s writing and her collection of research has the unique ability to take my parenting anxieties from five-alarm fire to burnt toast.

One of the great themes of Jesus’s ministry is his holy disdain for people who conflate rules and signaling. The man had harsh words for the religious lawyers of his day, a special group of ecclesiastical adjudicators whose job was to interpret the ancient Law of Moses to their modern times. Often, these interpretations multiplied the obligations of the faithful beyond God’s original intent and were used to signal piety instead of guiding spiritual observance.

Woe to you lawyers also! For you load people with burdens hard to bear, and you yourselves do not touch the burdens with one of your fingers. (Lk 11:46)

That certainly sounds like the dynamic at play when a parent blog asserts that love is bladder control. And while God’s law is of course imbued with holy significance, other laws improperly treated as holy become heavy and unnecessary yokes. You can see why this theologically inclined dad appreciates Oster’s candor. There are plenty of people doling out new laws to live by on a regular basis, and if I’m honest, my own heart is pretty good at adding to the pile. So if a little bit of the scientific method can help me cut through the signaling morass and focus on what baby Tom really needs, it’s a winner in my book.

And yet, at the end of the day, “ParentData” has its limits. The scientific method can help navigate between beneficial patterns and signaling, but it cannot offer absolution or mercy when those laws are (inevitably) broken. Even Emily Oster knows that the data only goes so far. In a newsletter from last February, she took a break from talking about data to commiserate about the difficulties of COVID parenting:

A lot of us are feeling it. It’s harder (in some locations) to go outside. We’re up until all hours waiting on vaccine appointments to open, either for ourselves or others. School is in, no, it’s out, no, it’s back. As one friend put it, “I’m exhausted and I left my goal weight behind months ago with the Bailey’s and ice cream.”

Part of these struggles are sadness, and grief. But I think also underlying it is a simple feeling that we have no control …

I wish I could say I had a magic data-based solution for this problem but, of course, I don’t. All I can say is that we are in this together. And, at least for me, it’s productive to acknowledge that it’s okay to be a little more obsessed than usual with the things we can control.

As Oster herself points out, there are practical limits to what data (or any law for that matter) can achieve. Life itself remains unquantifiable, and the future is fundamentally unknowable. What little control we have as parents is not only an illusion, but it’s an illusion that can be lost at a moment’s notice. The data helps, and for many people feeling lost in a quagmire of parental expectation and demand, the data helps a lot. But kiddos and parents alike require something beyond the rules.

At the very end of the book of Genesis, Joseph’s eleven brothers are having doubts that their brother actually forgave them for the wrongs of the past. So they come and prostrate themselves before their wronged brother and once again ask for forgiveness, an act which causes Joseph to weep with emotion. As years of resentment and sorrow are once again brought forward in their familial relationship, Joseph, who has since risen to become the Vice President of Egypt, once again announces forgiveness to his brothers, and says to them: “So do not fear; I will provide for you and your little ones” (50:21).

In this case, the forgiveness of sins is linked to care for “your little ones,” a divine promise that warms my heart. It’s the humility to release control and trust in the provision of another that will help my youngster develop into the person God has created him to be. So with God to guide me in the right direction, the Christian gospel to “provide for my little one” when I fail, and Emily Oster’s research to cut through the rest of the junk, maybe I can figure out a way to use the bathroom without jeopardizing my child’s future.