Emily Oster on the Family Firm
Nov 15 2021

Family-Firm-300x300.jpg Author and economist Emily Oster of Brown University talks about her book, The Family Firm, with EconTalk host Russ Roberts. Oster argues that running your family life the way you'd run your own business makes for a better family in today's crazy world. And where possible, the myriad of decisions you make should be based on hard data, at least when it's available.

Don Cox on the Economics of Parenting
Don Cox of Boston College and Russ Roberts talk about parenting and incentive compatibility.
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Author and journalist Johann Hari talks about his book, Lost Connections: Why You Are Depressed and How to Find Hope, with EconTalk host Russ Roberts. Hari, who has suffered with depression as a teenager and an adult, offers a sweeping critique of the medical establishment's...
Explore audio transcript, further reading that will help you delve deeper into this week’s episode, and vigorous conversations in the form of our comments section below.


Nov 19 2021 at 3:41am

I have really loved the recent episodes of Econtalk. I always tune in to Emily Oster and Paul Bloom anyway and they did not disappoint.

I liked that you returned to this theme of happiness and swimming in the pool. The conversations seemed to point to the “drive to contribute” and the “highs and lows” of suffering as why that is not a satisfactory picture of happiness. I personally think it’s not that at all, or at least, not everyone is driven by those things. However, I don’t think swimming in the pool can possibly be happiness for everyone. I think the drug analogy is an excellent one because it has the same problems. When you swim in the pool, you are not developing the resilience you need to encounter life’s problems, and no one, even the pool-swimmer, can escape them. So being happy in the pool is temporary and will leave you defenceless when you do come up against adversity, which you eventually will. A second reason, that is connected to the first one, is that “no man is an island”. Swimming in the pool is isolating. If this is your life choice, it will devastate your relationships because relationships require you to participate. Even if you think you are happy not participating, you often are not given the choice. Your parents, your siblings, your children will eventually demand your presence. Or alternatively, they will walk away from you. Neither of these outcomes is very conducive to happiness.

It reminds of a story that I read in the Washington Post in the ’90s about a 24 year-old kid that had worked for some tech company and got a windfall because he owned stock in it. So he decided to do what he’s always wanted to do, play video games all day. The interview was after many months of doing this and I can tell you that it was incredibly depressing and he didn’t sound very happy at all. It was isolating. It made him into a pretty boring friend and he could feel that he was connecting much anymore. So there was a real life experiment in the swimming pool, and I don’t think it worked out too well for him.

Just one other comment, you mentioned, Russ, that you were skeptical about using drugs for depression on the Emily Oster programme, but I thought both you and Johann Hari expressed a more nuanced view on that programme. My understanding was that the view was that it is not the solution for everyone and it is overused, and as someone who has had depression in the family for over two decades, I agree with that. I think you both recognized that there were cases that drugs were appropriate. Many people have had successful treatment with depressions drugs including someone in my family. When it works, it is so obvious that it is undeniable. I absolutely agree that depression is different from being sad, or even stressed, and I am mystified as well that sadness is somehow confused with depression as something you can treat with a pill. Science actually does not understand the origins of what is defined as clinical depression (not sadness), and there may be many different causalities, only some of which are treatable with drugs.

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TimePodcast Episode Highlights

Intro. [Recording date: October 18, 2021.]

Russ Roberts: Today is October 18, 2021, and my guest is economist and author Emily Oster of Brown University. This is Emily's fifth appearance here on EconTalk. She was last here in November of 2020 to talk about the pandemic.

Our topic for today is her new book, The Family Firm: A Data-Driven Guide to Better Decision Making. Emily, welcome back to EconTalk.

Emily Oster: Thanks for having me back, Russ. It's nice to see you.

Russ Roberts: Good to see you, too.


Russ Roberts: We're going to start by talking the idea that underlies the book that you think it's a good idea to treat the family like a firm. So, I wanted to give you a chance to talk about what you mean by that, and maybe I'll give you a hard time. We'll see.

Emily Oster: Great. I look forward to it.

So, when you say 'Treat your family like a firm,' I think in some ways the first thing that comes to people's mind is the idea that your kids are there to be profit-maximized, and this is some kind of, like, weird business thing. Is that what came to your mind, Russ?

Russ Roberts: A little bit, just because there's a famous paragraph that I love and listeners love, out of The Fatal Conceit by Hayek where he talks about the dangers of taking the family out into the macro-economy, the macro world of more interconnections with strangers and commercial interactions: that, that is a dangerous thing. And, similarly, he says it's dangerous to bring the economy into the household. That you, in the one case, you're going to lead to tyranny. And, the second case, you're going to destroy the family. I don't really think that's the risk [?], but it did cross my mind.

Emily Oster: Yeah, that's interesting. So, when I say that we should sort of treat our family like a firm, I think for me, it is really about the deliberateness with which we make choices. And, that when we are at our jobs, we're very comfortable with the idea that the decisions that we make are interconnected. That when I make one decision about a project, it's related to another project. Or when I make one decision--when I think about, you know, do I want to be on this committee? or should I be the department chair?--that we think about how that's going to interact with all the other pieces of our professional life.

But, when we are in our family, we often make decisions about the activities we're going to do almost without thinking about how they interact with everything else.

And, so, we can often find ourselves in a case in which we haven't recognized the interconnection of the decisions. We haven't made them deliberately enough, and then we're living a life that's quite different in structure than we had hoped that it would be.

So, the pitch is really: Take some of that deliberateness from the sort of work life and put it in family decisions. Give them the same kind of attention that you would to decisions that you make in your job.

And, I will say sort of another--there is a bit of an aspect of this that I think is less comfortable for people, but which I try to push them on a little bit, which is: when we are in our family and making choices, I think we often have this idea that, like, 'Oh, well, because we love each other, it will all work out. Because we love each other, everything will be great all the time.'

And, I think that's--loving each other is a really important thing about having your family. But, just because you love each other, doesn't mean that you are necessarily going to be perfectly aligned on whether you should do the following extracurricular. You know, that's not about loving each other.

And, I think we can separate, a little bit, some of these kind of day-to-day logistical decisions from the question of whether we love each other. And, if we could be a little more detached about some of those, we might be able to make better decisions. And, then we might like each other better.

It's almost like we want to like each other--we already love each other, but if we don't make good decisions, we're not going to like each other.


Russ Roberts: Yeah. There is a solution, I think, especially among unmarried people, that married people don't disagree. And, if they do disagree, of course, they don't argue. And, if they do argue, they don't get loud or have fights--because they love each other, right? That's why you get married, isn't it? But, that's not the human condition exactly.

So, I just want to mention that the things you were mentioning about--when you were talking about what you meant by the deliberateness and purposefulness of the firm--there is an undercurrent of the book, I would say the focus of the book is on, to some extent, data and to the extent there's evidence for some of the decisions you have to make as a parent.

But, this undercurrent was the one I think you just emphasized now, which is the one I find so interesting, is what I would call the other piece of the economist's toolkit. Yes, we have econometrics and statistical analysis. You know, and listeners know, that I'm not as keen on that as some are, but the other--just to say it lightly, says Emily.

But, the other side of our toolkit, which is the idea that there are unintended consequences--that there's opportunity costs when I choose one thing like extracurricular activity over another--that it's complex and that doing something here will affect something over there.

And, then there's collective decision-making and public choice problems, because not only they are often two parents, but there's kids with voices and urges and desires.

And I think economics has an enormous amount to say about doing that well. And I think it runs through the book; and the deliberateness piece of it runs through the book. And, I think--I've never thought about it before--but those pieces I just named--opportunity cost, unintended consequences, complexity--those really--dealing with those deliberateness is really helpful. Data helps, too, but if you don't have it, even just being deliberate is helpful.

Emily Oster: Yeah. I think for me, there was a sort of a little bit of a journey in this book moving on from the earlier books because both of my earlier books are very data forward. You know, that's my space. When I was writing about breastfeeding, or sleep training, or swaddling, or all these, like, little-kid choices, there was much more of, 'Okay, here's the data. Yeah, you're going to have to make your own decision about it.' But, in some ways, the data kind of--you see the data, then you make the decision. It's sort of the data is directly linked to that, and there wasn't as much of this other stuff in the background.

When I came to both this era of parenting--my kids are now in elementary school--and to sort of writing about it, it became very clear that there was much less of that kind of data directly-linking piece: that in some ways, a much more important set of choices, or scaffolding, or tools that we were putting in place were about how we can think about opportunity costs, how we can think about the complexity and the interactions of these decisions, how we can negotiate with each other--with the kids--to try to get to something that sort of privilege is the things that everyone cares the most about while recognizing that every hill cannot be--you cannot care the most about all of the things. Which I think is in some ways, like, a hard part of this is to say, 'Okay, well, you can't just say every single thing that we do is the most important to me.' And, as I tell people at the beginning, write down what are the three things you most want to do every day. The three things that are most important to you. And, it's three things: it's not 50 things. It's not like also we have to exactly eat this for breakfast and do exactly this. They can't all be your healthy diet. You have to have some for priorities, and you have to sort of work together with the fact that not everybody's priorities in the house are exactly the same.


Russ Roberts: I just want to mention to listeners that the very first episode of EconTalk is called "The Economics of Parenting." It's with Don Cox. It's one of my favorite episodes. It's--a lot of the early episodes I'm ashamed of because my interviewing skills were so awful. But, Don Cox is a great guest, and I recommend that episode, which tries to take some of the things we're talking about in terms of economics and applying them to the parenting challenges.

One of the things that you don't talk about, I don't think, but again is sort of a sub-theme of the book is how to deal with your partner, if you have two people trying to manage the household, instead of one.

We learn a lot about your marriage. There's some charming admissions and concessions about yourself as both a parent and a spouse. But, one of the challenges, of course, of parenting is that for many people, often, it is a communal act, not just a question of you making the decisions. You've got to make them in concert with someone else, who, strangely enough, doesn't always share your views. People say, 'When you get married, there are three things people fight about: Kids, money, and religion.' And, I'm thinking, 'Yeah, that's probably true.' There's a lot truth to that.

Emily Oster: Unfortunately, those are very broad categories.

Russ Roberts: And, they're important.

Emily Oster: It's not just that we fight. That's many fights.

Russ Roberts: And they come up all the time. That's the other part. Talk a little bit about that, because the part of the challenge of taking, I think, a deliberate approach toward raising children or anything in married life is that you do it with another person who doesn't always share your views.

Emily Oster: Yeah. I would say one of the most interesting reactions I've gotten to the book is people who said, 'Look, writing down what you want your data to look like and what your priorities are and what your mission is, that's great if you get along with your spouse. If you guys are great, then you just write it down. That's great for you. So, nice that you're like your spouse. But, I don't agree with my spouse about anything, and so we would never want to write this down.'

I think I would sort of push that back and I would say, 'Actually, that is exactly the scenario in which you do need to surface this. Right? If you agree about everything, what's the point?' Yeah, sure, maybe it's helpful to sort of articulate things in writing, but if you're actually totally aligned, then you don't need any of this.

This is most useful, I think, when you are expecting to encounter or you are encountering conflict--in part because any conflicts you have about the key priorities in your family, they will be surfaced. If I think having dinner together every night is really important and my partner does not, it's not that we're going to avoid having conflict about that. We're not getting around that. That's: Every day somebody is going to be angry. Right?

But, if you say, 'Okay, let's sit down and talk about--like, this is important to me; it's not important to you. How are we going to come together and have something where I feel valued and you feel valued and we're sort of surfacing that conflict in a moment when we're not angry?' It may be that you're still fighting about it. It may be that you still disagree. But it's better than fighting about it in nitpicky ways every day.

So, sometimes people feel like there's an opportunity to avoid these big conflicts. And, I think in most cases, there isn't really an opportunity to avoid them. If they're important, they're going to come up.

Russ Roberts: I mean, it's a really interesting question. Right? You know, people say or often will say to other people, 'Marry someone who shares your values.' Your values are a very long list, often; and you've never raised a child usually before you get married for most of us. And, we find out we're in a situation totally unprepared for it. And, we're shocked to find out or thrilled to find out that the person we're doing this with either doesn't agree with what's obvious; or, 'Thank goodness. Oh, yes. He kind of sees it the same way.' But, even that phrase, raising children and 'sees it the same way,' that's a pretty tough thing because it's a long list of stuff. It's multifaceted.

Emily Oster: Yeah, and I think it's basically impossible to imagine even the most aligned people would agree on all aspects of how you want to do this. I mean, it's just--and, everything is new; and so all of a sudden, you come up to--you know, one of the things where Jesse and I are--we're largely pretty aligned, but I think there's some lack of alignment on sort of physical freedom to give the kids. Like, I am much more in the camp of, like, it's fine if they're--as long as we sort of have a sense that they're safe, it's, like, fine for them to run around. I think he's much more cautious about that.

And so a lot of--it's not so much that we have conflict, but there's a lot of sort of working through, like, 'What are we comfortable with them doing, and how can we make it so he is comfortable? so we're both comfortable?' But again, that's the kind of thing where it's like: when you're 20 in college and even if you kind of grow up together and you like each other, and you think that in many ways you're aligned, you never have a conversation about, like, 'When our kid is 10, are we going to let them walk to the library by themself?'

Like, that doesn't come up. And nor should it. We cannot write complete contracts on this. And the question is, given that your contract will be fundamentally incomplete on many dimensions, how do you have a process in place for when that comes up that we're not just arguing about it or having somebody be uncomfortable that we've actually worked through it? And, I think a lot of this stuff in the book is really sort of tools to help people work through those questions when they do come up.


Russ Roberts: Just to add one more thing on marriage--again, it's not the focus of your book, but you're pointing these out. It resonates with me, this idea that it's useful to surface them when you're calm and not in middle of the thing, in the middle of the issue that you don't agree on.

You know, I think one of the great challenges of any kind of human interaction with a friend or a spouse or a family member is that, if you're not careful, you get these ruts of behavior. And, I think of it as sort of a text of dialogue--that, you speak your line; you know exactly what the other person is going to say back. You're waiting for them to say it so you could say, 'You're lying. You're too protective of the children.' 'Yeah, you don't care. You're taking too many chances.' And, it just escalates.

And that kind of pain in the pit of your stomach is just one of the least pleasant aspects of being married and what could be a more happy relationship.

And I think the idea of having that conversation in a calm way, and also being aware of the differences when they do arise, when that situation sort of falls on you that suddenly, 'Oh, yeah, the kids' have got to go off on their own, because so and so couldn't be there.' And, you're thinking, 'Well, that's fine. They'll just go on their own.' And, the other person is going, 'What? Wha--wha--?'

And that--being sensitive to the other person's difference from yourself, I think, is a really important part of a good marriage. And, to do it respectfully--even though, of course, the other person is a lunatic, right? I mean, how could he be so paternalistic and overly concerned and not letting that kid grow on their own? I mean, what's wrong with them?

But, you actually have to kind of step back and think you maybe, possibly have some issues yourself. And, I think when you can do that--which is really hard to do, and I've been married 32 years and I'm a little better than I was 32 years ago--but I wish I could be better still. It's hard.

Emily Oster: Yeah. No, sorry. And I think it's--particularly with kids where you both care enormously and it's kind of like, 'It's the thing I care the most about, and I want to do it right, and you don't want to do it right.' And so, like, that brings sort of these kind of conflicts up in ways that are very different than the conflicts that you had before kids around 'Who's doing the dishes?' and 'Did you do them right?' The sort of emotional balance on those things--

Russ Roberts: But, you're not talking about, like, the toothpaste cap. I mean, that's important, but, the dishes, you're right. It's a silly thing.

Emily Oster: 'Who's replacing the toilet paper in the toilet paper holder?'

Russ Roberts: Exactly. And, which way it goes, up or down. It's huge.

Emily Oster: Oh, yeah. Oh, my goodness. Important.


Russ Roberts: One of the things I think that's hardest about being a parent is being self-aware about how much you care. Because of course, you care about your kids. Everybody knows that. There's so many times I've seen parent parents do irrationally cruel, arrogant, obnoxious, vicious things to other people because they think their kids are in some kind of--not danger, not physical danger. That, you understand, right? But, just sort of a little bit of emotional danger. And we have some really powerful buttons there that are deeply embedded in us. And, I think, if nothing else, I think the deliberate part of this is helpful for thinking about that, too.

Emily Oster: Yeah, I agree. I think that there's the--for me, I would say one of the hardest things as a parent is to try to let my kids work through conflicts and work through issues that they're having on their own when I basically want to go in and, like, yell at the other parent--yell at the other kid, yell at the teacher. You know, in some way, you know, you feel your kid is being wronged, and it's just hard to let them kind of work through it themselves. I think it's important, but it's hard not to be a jerk about that.

Russ Roberts: Yeah. No, that's a great scene and it's a wonderful life where Jimmy Stewart loses it and screams at this poor innocent teacher, because his daughter has got a cold and she let him walk home without a coat. And, he's like yelling, and then the husband calls back or punches him out in a bar. I can't remember. I think he punches him out.

But, anyway, people get irrational. And my wife, who is a high school teacher, has been yelled at by people. And, I say to her--and it hurts. It's not nice. It's really a mean thing to do, but--easy for me to say. They're not yelling at me.

Emily Oster: They're not yelling at you.

Russ Roberts: Yeah. But, I always think, 'Yeah, it's just their kid. It's embarrassing.' But I get. It kind of hurt.


Russ Roberts: Let's talk about what you call the big picture approach. You say, without much expansion, that it's a good idea to write a mission statement--which is another way you're bringing some of what we might call business sense or work sense into the job of being a parent. That's easy to say. I'm curious what you think about that. You didn't spend a lot of time on that. Not the mission statement per se, but just when you think about keeping things in mind, big-picture wise, first, talk about why that's important, and what do you mean by it?

Emily Oster: So, I think it is--really what I'm sort of intending in this space is for people to sit down and think about what are the pieces of their family life that they most value, that they most want to prioritize. I think for different people, they are going to come to that. That's going to be helpful sort of coming into that in different ways.

So, I think in the case of our, sort of, like my family, we tend to be, like, very practical. A lot of the most important parts of that for me are not actually the kind of what is your overarching mission, but literally what are the, like, three things that are most important to you to do. Like, what are the things you want to see happening every day, every weekend?

Russ Roberts: Give an example.

Emily Oster: So, I think, so for us, like, having dinner together is a very central thing that is important to both my husband and I. And so that is I would sort of point, like you said, like, 'What is the thing you want to see in your day every day?' It's, like, 'Having dinner with the kids.'

And then, there is like having some time where the kids are not around. So, basically sleep, but sort of consistent bedtime.

But, you can sort of see that those things are very--they're not, kind of like, a big picture value. They're really like: This is something that is important to me to do. And, it's important to me because of some larger sort of big picture value around prioritizing family time, around, you know, prioritizing spousal time--sort of things like that.

But, actually, for me, saying what I want to do every day is the way that I am able to connect back to these sort of bigger-picture values.

I think for other people, actually, they find the idea of saying their mission statement at the beginning--like, you know, like 'We want to raise'--like, 'raising kind children.' That's an example.

And so for some people, saying that at the beginning, that's really helpful, because then they can be like, 'Okay. Well, what am I going to want to do about school that's going to feed back into that?' That, when I think about the decision about where to go to school, I want to remember my goal is to raise people who are nice. So, when I think about where they should be in school or how I want to expose them to sort of broader groups of people that I'm sort of connecting back to that.

So, I'm--the intention here a little bit--sometimes I'm not sure how much I achieved this in the book. So, I'm interested in giving people a suite of different ways to think about how to identify what is most important to them. And, for some people, that's going to be sort of thinking about it in the kind of broad overview sense. And, for some people, that's going to be more like, 'Actually, I need to write down what I want Tuesday to look like and realize that the things that are most important to me are these kind of chunks of the day.'


Russ Roberts: So, I want to come back and talk about that a little bit more from an economist's perspective, but I'm curious to at least touch on the question of the family meal. So, we had that as a ritual, and it wasn't a set time. I have a good friend who, their family, it's at 6:00 PM every night, both parents, even though they have very demanding jobs or at home at 6:00 PM every night--it's incredible. They decided that that was a priority for them.

For us, it was more just we would have dinner together. The time would vary. Over the life cycle of the children's growing up, it shifted around, of course, because of bedtime issues and other things.

But, I'm curious: You talk about that there's not a lot of data on this or you touch on it. But, why do you think it was important to you? Were you raised that way? Was it the home you grew up in that people ate together every night?

Because many people don't, by the way. Many people would say it's silly. You know, it disrupts everything else. It makes it hard to do extracurriculars. And, you may struggle with it as your kids get older, of course. But, do you have an idea of why it's important to you?

Emily Oster: Yeah. I know why it's important to me, which is that it was how I grew up. This was what it was like. I would say it almost never occurred to me until I started reflecting on it that, like, there was another way. But, of course, as you point out, actually, it is both the case that I don't think the correlations in the data are very strong, but the causality and the data is very poor.

If people say, 'Why do you do this? Is it because it's really important for raising successful or happy kids?' I would say, basically, 'No, we do this because it's important to us.' And, as I've thought about that, I've sort of reflected on like, 'Well, why is it important?'

I think for me, it's important partly because we both have jobs and now the kids are at school. In the absence of this kind of thing that we have put on the calendar that we have said is important, I would worry that we wouldn't sort of have those moments to connect. Right? It's not that those moments to connect need to be at meals: It's just it's convenient because we're all eating. Everybody have to eat, anyway.

Russ Roberts: Yeah. I had never thought about it really. It was my wife's rule that I was happy to acquiesce in. It wasn't a priority for me as I looked ahead to having children. And, once we established it, I was happy to keep it; and I basically liked it. Not basically liked it. I think it's incredibly important, actually. I'm a big fan of it. And, in particular, without phones. I struggled with that sometimes: when you get the notification with either the sound or the vibration, you tend to take a peek at it. That was against the rules in our family. I didn't always keep the rule, but I tried when my kids were around.

But, I think it's just an application of the quality-time idea.

I had an interesting interaction on Twitter a little bit with Ryan Holiday. He said, 'There's no such thing as quality time. All time is good.' There's some truth to that. But, at the same time, I do think the idea of a privileged haven in time of to just interact. There's no agenda. Although, I've joked on the program, I did teach my kids a lot of economics at that dinner table and quiz them on statistics and all kinds of things that they may regret. And it could have been a terrible mistake to have family time at dinner. But, it does give you that time of--it creates more than just a minute or two. It's more of an oasis. That's somewhat large.

Emily Oster: Yeah, I agree with that. But, I think that it's also one of these things where people have to sort of think about how this can--it's an investment. It's not always feasible and it's--actually producing a meal for people that people will eat, it has its own challenges. And so I sort of urge people to kind of--I like that frame of it's a quality time, it's a sort of central quality time, but there may be ways that families want to do that, that are different than having it be at the meal. And I think it's the sort of protected time that, for me, is the most valuable piece.

But, I would say, you know, we are, like--we're probably closer to, like, it's very important that one person be there. And, ideally--like, during the pandemic, obviously, it was always both of us. As we have sort of emerged a little and we're kind of traveling more, I think we get to--ideally, it's all four of us, but it is always dinner just for the kids and it is almost always one of us, or sometimes the long-term nanny who is there connecting with them.

Russ Roberts: Yeah. As they get older, you will find, Emily, in your next book that it's a little more challenging, both the quality--

Emily Oster: No, my kids are never going to not want to be with me, Russ, so thanks--

Russ Roberts: Oh, I forgot to tell you. What was I--you're right. I'm sorry. What was I thinking? No, they will want to be with you, but not quite as long as you want to be with them, sometimes.

Emily Oster: Yeah.

Russ Roberts: So, there's two things that can happen--not in my family either, of course--but there's the, 'How was school?' 'Fine.' And, then the quality time is over. Even though they're not on their phone, they're not always interacting. It's a bit of a challenge sometimes, I think for some people.

And, then there is the, 'I've got to go, I've got work to do. I have homework, whatever.' And, they jump up from the table seven minutes after the food was put down. And, you know, you push back against it. But, you can't push back against it as much as you'd like, because you don't want them to be miserable at the table, either. So, it's a challenge.

Emily Oster: I remember when I was in high school, my mother had--we sort of got to some place where it was like I was supposed to be home for, like, two nights a week. So we had some set of rules. It was, like, some small number of nights I did need to show up for dinner. But there was a tremendous amount of bribing with, like, food. It was sort of because I went to a boarding school, even though I didn't live there, and so most of the time I was eating at a dining hall, which wasn't that great. So it was like, basically like, 'If you come home for these two nights, I will cook anything you want on those two nights.'

Russ Roberts: Yeah. That counts, though. It's important actually.

Emily Oster: Yes, it counts. I mean, she's a really good cook.

Russ Roberts: And, those meals are immortal. They're part of your self, that are--you'll always treat them those--I'm sure you remember what those meals were.

Emily Oster: I do, remember many of those meals.

Russ Roberts: Okay. And, I do want to say, by the way: I don't like to stereotype teenagers. My kids were overwhelmingly wonderful in their teenager years most of the time, and I'm just very appreciative of that.

Emily Oster: But, I mean it is age appropriate. It's age appropriate to want to separate, there. Yeah.

Russ Roberts: Yeah, absolutely. Except for your children, who won't want to--

Emily Oster: Fine. Right.


Russ Roberts: I want to talk about the principle of a priority. As listeners know, I have a new book coming out. I think when this episode airs, you could pre-order on Amazon. It's called Wild Problems. And, I'm critical in there, and Emily, as it turns out, has actually read a manuscript of the book--which is very cool, which I appreciate.

Emily Oster: It's really good. Everybody should pre-order it.

Russ Roberts: You're very kind, Emily. One of the things I criticize in there is the idea that we should be maximizing all the time. And, in certain senses, this is a straw man of the economist's view. Obviously, economists think about the long run and not just the moment-to-moment, but I do think we have a human challenge when we naively employ the tools of economics--which, you do not do this in your book, but I want to bring it out.

On any one night, it might be a burden to have dinner with the family. There's this party you needed to go to, or this concert you wanted to see, or thing at work that was pretty important. And yet, as you called it an investment, it's not always clear what you're going to get in the long run, but that decision--is it to prioritize and value that family meal? And, this drove thousands of other moments of parenting--is a decision that the pleasure and pain of the moment doesn't really represent what the goal of the firm is, even though it sometimes feels that way.

And I think that's an incredible challenge of parenting. It's why tantrums are effective and why we shouldn't usually give into them, and we don't want to encourage whining in the future for sure. But, it's more just a realization that, not just you have to take a long view, but it's not just about how happy you are day-to-day. There's something else being created. In this case, a feeling that you're part of something--your family.

And, I think, for me, when we talked a minute ago about why the family meal is important, we both said, 'Well, you interact and you connect.' But, you're creating something there called 'your family,' that you expect to have a long-term sense of identity from, connections, all kinds of complex things that go way beyond what we might call 'utility' in the narrowest sense. Reflect on that and how the big-picture concept that you mention and stress actually in the book is important for making sure you don't make that mistake.

Emily Oster: I mean, it's very interesting. I think part of what so many of these things reflect is kind of almost doing some hard things in the moment because you are trying to build people. Build people--build your kids into people who are going to be happy and productive members of society. And, that you're trying to build a sort of family unit that is going to stay and is going to be resilient and is going to provide opportunities for the kids to strive for you to be happy for those relationships to be there.

But, in the moment of doing those things, even if you know that the thing that you're doing is contributing to that in the long term, there are many, many times particularly where you're just like, 'What am I doing?'

So, like, for me, a huge piece of this is sort of encouraging independence. So, we spend a lot of time with our kids like trying to get them to do stuff--like, to be responsible for thing X. It's like: You're responsible for making your own breakfast.

And, putting a six-year old in--giving them responsibility for making their own breakfast--is excruciating. Even though I know--like, I know it is the right thing. And, I know in the broad scheme of it, like I don't want to be making the breakfast of a 16-year old and sending them off to college expecting that someone will be putting a plate of bacon in front of them every morning. I know I don't want that. But, the sort of like, 'Oh, I can't reach the bowl. I need a step stool. Where's the milk?' Like, the sort of getting there in many of the moments is hard.

And, you want to be like, 'All right, I'll just do it for you.' Or you want to just say, 'You know what? You're not willing to sit at this meal, or you're whining about what we're serving, or you're objecting. You don't want to do this particular piece of homework, or you don't want to do whatever,' and you just kind of want to give in.

I think that there is a little bit of a value to having said upfront, 'Okay, no, this is important. This is important to us and important to our family, and so therefore we are going to follow through even when it is hard in the moment.'

And I will say this is a place for me where having a partner that is on the same page, like where you have agreed on something, is so valuable. Because things like this--like, our kids are supposed to get their own breakfast--I'm like terrible at following through, because I get so frustrated. And my husband is frequently like--he will be like, 'Remember?'

Russ Roberts: 'Don't touch that fork.'

Emily Oster: Right, exactly. It will be like, 'Is this part of the food policy?' Like, 'Fine. Okay.'

So, I think there is some value there; but yeah, in the moment, it's so much easier often to just kind of give in.

Russ Roberts: Yeah. One of my favorite moments in the 800-plus episodes of EconTalk was Ed Leamer of UCLA [University of California, Los Angeles] giving the example of a student that he had mentored over the summer and then the student--after the experience ended, and Ed had given her lots of free rein to learn things instead of telling her things, which is two different modes of instruction--she wrote him an email and she said, 'I was on Santa Monica Pier yesterday,' or today or whenever, 'and I saw a father teaching his son how to fish, and he let his son hold the fishing rod.' And, she said, 'All my teachers before, they held the fishing rod and I'd figure it out. You're the first teacher that let me hold the fishing rod.'

This is the most beautiful--it gives me goosebumps every time I tell the story. It makes me cry. Because, first of all, it's the greatest thing a teacher could ever get email. But, I think as a parent, it's a tremendously valuable lesson, because you're a better fisherman--or fisherwoman--than your kid, and you're a better cook, and you're a better kitchen sous chef. And, 'Get out of away. I'll take care of this.'

And, it's so hard not to grab the fishing line and say, 'Let me show you.' And, then you rationalize it to yourself, because you say, 'Well, they're saying me do it. That's kind of the same thing. I'm modeling fishing for them. And they'll watch me and they'll learn how to do it. Because when they get older, they'll see how it's done.' And, it's just--it's really hard.

Emily Oster: Yeah, it's really hard. I agree.


Russ Roberts: So, you just said--as if it's the most normal thing in the world--you know, you want your kids to be productive and happy, and contributors to society. Is that your big-picture goal for your children? Because you don't talk about it in the book. You sort of take that as a given that, that would be two things. I think you used that phrase at some point, but certainly many people would say that's their goal. I think a lot of people just want their kids to be happy. They don't care about the productive part. How do you feel about that?

Emily Oster: Yeah. I mean, I would like my kids to be happy. I would like them--it's sort of an interesting question of, like, 'What do you mean by productive?' I would like them to do good to produce--so, I don't mean productive like rich; but, like, I would like them to contribute to society in some positive way. I would like them to be nice.

And, I think when I think about my goals, like some of my goals for this phase of life, it is kind of to raise them to be adults and to be sort of respectful and thoughtful about other people. So, I think when I say 'productive,' I don't mean, like, rich[?].

Russ Roberts: Really good at making widgets?

Emily Oster: Exactly. Well, no, I mean really good at making widgets.

Russ Roberts: That's my mission statement. Turn my kid into the best widget maker.

Emily Oster: Turn my kid into the best widget maker. So, good at widgets.

Russ Roberts: Go ahead.

Emily Oster: I was just going to say, I mean, I think one of the things that's sort of interesting as your kids become themselves is it's actually really hard to let them find the things that they are interested in being good at, because it is very easy to see the things that you prioritize and the things you're good at. It's easy to prioritize the things that you're good at.

And, I think what's really hard is when your kid is good at something that you're not good at, or not good at the things that you're good at--to kind of figure out that balance of how much do I want to push them in various ways, or not push them or let them go. And I think everybody kind of comes down on that a little differently.

Russ Roberts: Yeah. I think it's a fascinating thing that we want our kids to be a lot like us, even though we don't want to be like our parents. There's a little paradox there for folks that you might want to chew on for a bit.

Emily Oster: Think about that.

Russ Roberts: Yeah. I've never thought about it that way, but I think that kind of sums it up. We have an episode coming out with Paul Bloom that you haven't heard yet. It's not out, but it's recorded where he quotes Dan Gilbert. And, I'm going to invite Dan to the program by the way. So, Paul and I both disagree with Dan, at least the way we understood it. But, Dan had this image of: Suppose you could sit in a swimming pool, with a drink in your hand, and it's a beautiful day--weather's perfect, nice breeze wafting over the pool. And, that's 95% of your day, really pleasant. And, then the 5%, it's kind of a downer, because you're sitting there feeling guilty that all you do is sit in the pool all day.

And, the way I understood Paul's summary of Dan is that, really, is there anything wrong with sitting in the pool? If you're happy? And, Dan's proof, according to Paul--I think this is based on a private email, so that's why I'm being somewhat uncertain about it--well, wouldn't want your kid to have that level of happiness? And, certainly, compared to the reverse: 95% of torment for 5% of meaning or productivity, or whatever you decide is the thing that should be other than the pool.

And, I don't agree with Dan Gilbert, as I understand it. And, I'll just say it this way: I don't agree with the idea that if we're happy 95% of the time, and the other 5% of the time we just feel guilty about it because we're not doing anything else productive--I don't want to live that life. I don't want my kids to have that life. They may choose to, but what are your thoughts on that?

Emily Oster: Yeah. That isn't the life that I would want. I think I would not want that for my kids. I would not want that for my kids either. But it's sort of an interesting thing to think about why not.

Russ Roberts: Why not? Yeah.

Emily Oster: Like, what is it about the--and I think part of it is that the highs associated with success after struggling or with sort of thinking like, 'I worked hard at this and I achieved it, or I worked hard at this and I feel good about what came out of it,' or whatever--I think those highs for me are very high and worth the struggle pieces. And, the happiness of sitting in the pool feels flat in some ways. But I have never tried to sit in a pool for that. Sort of to invest in that way.

And so I think part of what is interesting for me is that I have always--you're probably like this, too--sort of thought about professional success and success in these various ways as kind of like, 'Okay, you work, and you work, and you work to get this thing and to get the next thing and to achieve in various ways.' And, I'm very happy, not 95% of the time, but in a sort of broad sense, I'm very satisfied with what has been brought by that approach to life. But, I think there is question of, like, 'Is that only way that one could be happy?'

Russ Roberts: Well, I think I've spent five and a half hours talking to you Emily. I don't know you very well, but I think you're a lot like me. I think you actually like working. I think you kind of just hinted at that. We're a little bit strange.

For me, at least intellectually--I mean, I may be fooling myself--but for me, it's first of all drive to contribute, which was put in me by my parents. I could tell you a story about why it's the right thing to believe, but I don't think that's where it comes from.

But, I also think you're right about the idea that it's about overcoming, which is part of what Paul Bloom's book is about, The Sweet Spot, is about the idea that some suffering is important for creating what we might call real happiness or deeper happiness, satisfaction, contentment.

The only point I would just disagree with you on a little bit is that it doesn't all have to be, quote, "productive" in the work sense in any way. Mastering a language, musical instrument, things that are, quote, "useless." They're not useless actually, but things that don't have monetary payoff, usually. I think those are okay, too. I don't think you want to do that all day, either. Usually, you have to eat. That's part of the problem is sitting in the pool for 95% of your time usually means the pool is not very nice, and the thing you're sitting on is not very comfortable, and the water is either really cold or whatever. And the drink is cheap and the snacks are bad.

Emily Oster: Yes.

Russ Roberts: That's a little complicated.


Russ Roberts: Let's turn to the question of data and analysis, which you spend a lot of time in the book being incredibly honest about how lousy most of the empirical work is on some of the questions that every parent cares about deeply. 'What should my kid eat? What kind of schools should they go to, or extracurricular is good for them or bad for them? How much sleep should they get? When should they go to bed? Should it be a fixed time?'

All these questions, there's a lot of analysis. There's a lot of peer-reviewed research on it. But I'd say on average, you come down saying--and of course, I'm prejudiced to believe this--but I think you come down saying most of it is of limited value, but not zero. Is that a fair summary?

Emily Oster: I think that's a fair summary. I think that there are places in those examples that you gave where the data is better and places where it's worse. And so, with something like sleep, I think we are pretty convinced that sleep is important. If you take away even a relatively small amount from the sort of typical amount the kids nee,d that it negatively affect affects various aspects of their mood, and so on.

Russ Roberts: I'm pretty sure parents in 1437[?1937?] before R.A. Fisher came along and the more sophisticated forms of data [crosstalk 00:45:14]--

Emily Oster: Well, now, we have an--now, we know that from an RCT [randomized controlled trial]. So, yeah, so some of the pieces; and I think it's fair to be, like, 'Okay, well, the places where you have really good data, it was totally obvious before.' Okay, fair enough.

But, I think there are many places where we are less sure where then the data is not very good. And so, I mean, for me, the sort of nutrition/food stuff is kind of that top of that list. I think in general, we know almost nothing convincing about what is the healthy diet, the right thing to eat. I mean, we know a little bit about how you can encourage kids to eat a particular way if you want to, and that research is kind of interesting, but people behind that, they want to know, 'Okay, should I invest in all this stuff about vegetables? Is that worth it?' And, then you have to be like, 'Well, we don't really have any--know[?no?], we don't have any idea.'

And I think that--you know, there are ways in which that's very frustrating, particularly in a space where I almost think we've started to get--and maybe this is partly the fault of people like me--to get into a world where we think of data as, like, the way to get the answer. Like, 'Okay. I'm going to be like a data parent.' Somebody used that word to me the other day. Like, 'You're, like, the head of the data parents.' Ookay. And, that somehow, doing that, being a data parent is about thinking that data is going to give you the answer to everything.

And, in some ways, some of the message of this book is, like, in these choices, data is almost never going to give you the answer. It's a part of it. There's evidence you can collect that will help you inform some of these decisions. But, it's not going to be the answer. And, there's too much heterogeneity across kids. There's too much heterogeneity across choices. The data is too limited for it to ever really be the answer.

I think that's frustrating because you want to get it right. And, it's very hard for people to realize that they're going to make these choices and they're not going to know if the choice is correct. They're just going to have to do it.

Russ Roberts: And, they're not going to know, ex post, either. I mean, that's the most challenging, I think, part about this as a parent: You make a decision; you think it's the right decision; and you see the outcome and you have no idea if it was the right decision because there's so much else that happened along the way.

Emily Oster: I think that's right. I mean, I think there are some more mundane decisions where I think we do have an opportunity to evaluate later, 'Was it right?' But I don't think people always do it. But, I think sometimes you say, 'Okay, we are going to choose to do this sort of high-intensity extracurricular.' There should be an opportunity to follow up at the end of that and say, 'Okay, should we do this again? Was it the right decision to do that?'

But, in anything that's, like, sort of big decisions, like, 'Did I adopt the right kind of priorities? Was it right to invest all this time in having these family dinners and going to sleep early? Should I have moved to a different city and put my kids in a different kind of school?' You'll never know the answer to that--not ex-ante, not ex post.


Russ Roberts: One thing about the book that I think is very useful is that--not as much for me personally, because my kids are now older, but for people with younger kids that will soon be older kids and with lots of decisions to be made--is that--you know, I like to say parenting doesn't come with a manual. They send you out from the hospital--it's really irresponsible. You've got a car seat--by law, usually--but that's kind of it. And, you really don't know what you're doing.

When you think as a parent about the big picture, I would encourage would-be or current parents to talk to other parents. Because there's so many things you don't think of, you don't know about. I think one of the values of your book to people with kids who are struggling with these issues, is you give a lot of different examples of [?] different choices that you can make on these trade-offs.

I think for a lot of parents, it never crosses their mind. I mean, they don't think about what's important often. I didn't. I struggled to do that. It's just hard for anybody to remember those things. I have a friend--he's amazing--his children are younger than me. He's always asking me, 'How did you deal with this when you were a parent?' And, I always think--first of all, it makes me feel really good, because it makes me feel important. I love that. We all do. But, I think he actually--it's possible he could learn something. He may not agree with it, may not take what I say is personally useful. He may not implement it. But, I think it's such a big space of what you can do as a parent. And, I don't think any one parent has only the vaguest idea of what's going on. And it's good to talk to other parents.

Emily Oster: Yeah. I think it's good--I almost think when you're thinking about, like, 'What do you want your day to look like? What do you want your time to look like?' to just be like: 'What are the different ways people do this?' We have some image from our own childhood, from our partner's childhood; and you can get into, like, 'Well, that's the only way.' Actually, no: there's often many good ways to do these things and many different approaches, but you never find out what they are unless you ask.

Russ Roberts: And, people figure out all kinds of things. Just trivial things like what gives them pleasure as a parent, or what creates good things to the family. There's a lot of innovation that goes from trial and error that happens on the ground. And, your book has lots of examples of it, so I think that's extremely useful, but I also encourage people to talk to other parents generally. I think we all have a lot to learn.


Russ Roberts: I want to come back to this question of heterogeneity in the data. A couple places--and I think this is a general problem in econometrics and data analysis, and I'm curious if you agree with me--in a lot of examples, you find the effect is small, say, between, say, two different choices, and it's tempting as you do occasionally conclude: So, this means probably it's not a big deal, which one you decidem and you might decide it based on other things, not just whatever the outcome is that at issue there. And, one of the themes of your book, which I love, is that a lot of things we care about aren't measurable at all. Things like test scores are measurable, so those tend to be what we look at when we look at effects of schooling. There are things like values or things like happiness--there are all kinds of other things beyond test scores.

But, this issue of heterogeneity seems to me to be very important. I'm thinking about, for example, a medical intervention. We've had a lot of guests on the program who find that a lot of medical interventions either don't work or have negative impacts compared to what they're expected to do.

And I think that's true on average, but I wonder for some extreme cases--just to take an example: we were talking recently on Johann Hari about depression. He's very skeptical about the value of pharmaceutical intervention--as am I. Is it maybe the case that many antidepressants have no impact, but that for some people they're life-changing and it's not just random that they fool themselves: because it was ex post, they figured it must have been the drugs, but actually they were lifesaving? Or other things like that?

And I think, especially for child raising, one of the challenges is not just stuff isn't measurable. You have much more information about your children than the data analysis can possibly look at. Subtleties about jealousy, or needs, or urges, or insecurities. I think we often do things as parents that would never be in the data because you don't have a data point on insecurities. I just wonder whether the overall findings of small effect may mask important effects for a very small subset of children under duress or challenge.

Emily Oster: Yeah. So, I think in general, treatment effect of heterogeneity, which is sort of what you're describing, is like a challenge. We sort of talked about the data, is already very weak even if you're looking often at average effects to try to separate out different groups. I think it's even more of a challenge.

You know, in some ways, part of what has to go into this decision-making is what you know about your kid. And, many, many of these things--like, what's the right school--like, there's no answer to that question. And as people talk about--one of the things I talk a lot to parents about is private schools versus public schools. Right? And so people come and say, 'Well, on average, are the outcomes for kids in private schools better? Yes. Is the sort of causal effect positive? It's probably positive. It's probably small. Like, who knows? The data is not very, very good there.' You kind of work all through that.

But, then if you talk to people whose kids who sort of need more scaffolding--kids who have ADHD [attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder] or on the spectrum [autistic spectrum disorder] in some way, often people come to me and be like, 'It's much more important for my kid.' Like, 'Public school is infinitely better for my particular kid,' because the public schools have a responsibility in the United States to--

Russ Roberts: More infrastructure--

Emily Oster: More infrastructure, more ability to deal with heterogeneity in that way.

And, that's something where if you had some kind of slavish adherence to the data and be like, 'Okay, there's this small positive effect on test scores from being in a private school from this study in Milwaukee about school vouchers, and so, like, definitely private schools are better,' you would, of course, totally miss that, actually, there's a large number of people, or some number of people, for whom the treatment effect is the opposite direction and potentially extremely large.

And so, I think that and many other examples highlight these places where you think, you know, actually, our average of small effects may be made up of large effects in both directions, you know, that are kind of averaging to zero for small numbers of people. And, for most people, it's nothing. And, I think that is hard data.


Russ Roberts: How has writing this book changed your views as a parent? You've written three books now on raising children and being a parent--being pregnant, raising an infant, and then now an elementary school-aged kid. I wonder if day-to-day being an author about parenting makes you think about it more, first of all. And, secondly, did writing the book change anything you actually do in your family as a result of writing it?

Emily Oster: Yeah, it did. I mean, it's interesting because both of the other books I--

Russ Roberts: That you're comfortable talking about. It's none of my business--

Emily Oster: Right. Yeah, no, no no: Right. That's alright. What was interesting for me is both of the other books were very much sort of written almost post the experience. So, I wrote a lot of Expecting Better while I was pregnant, but I kind of finished it after once I was done being pregnant, at least the first time.

And, then when I wrote Cribsheet, it was sort of like I was writing it kind of as my younger kid aged out of the sort of age range.

And, people asked, like, 'Was your parenting influenced by what you did?' And, sort of like, 'Not really, because I was looking back, [crosstalk 00:57:05]'--

Russ Roberts: It was too late--

Emily Oster: It was too late. It would have been. But, this book was very much written in the midst of when we're doing this, when we're sort of parenting, this agent. I think it has influenced some of my choices, partly in the direction of just a little more like practice what you preach. Which is, like--I think that we were already doing some of this sort of deliberateness. I think we are probably more deliberate now than we were before about sort of thinking about how the structure of our lives should be.

And when we have--as our kids have now gotten older and our job situation has various more complicated pieces--sort of making sure that we're writing out the schedule if somebody is going to be on sabbatical somewhere more distant and sort of figuring out how things can work. So, I think that there's been some influence there.


Russ Roberts: Now, we've been talking about how the value of being deliberate, but some might say--I even think you might even concede yourself--that not everyone wants to be as deliberate as Emily Oster. 'She's really into Google Docs, postmortems on the decisions, and so on. She likes it.' You like it, right?

Emily Oster: I do.

Russ Roberts: But, there's a certain type of person who finds that exhilarating and comforting. Other people, it gives them the willies and it scares them. Have you experienced that with the book?

Emily Oster: Definitely. So, some people find the book overwhelming, and they're sort of like, 'I would never do these things.' It's fine. I think some people have more of a sort of philosophical, like, 'I like to be, like, sort of freer, and this seems like a little too crazy.' And I think that's fair. I definitely sort of take this to a place where not everyone would want to take it.

I do think that actually, for many people, pieces of this might be useful. So, if you said--you weren't going to run every decision through some kind of complicated thing and be deliberate in all of these ways--I actually think for a lot of people there's some value to the occasional Google Doc or to sort of stepping back and saying, like, 'Hey, when I think about whether we're going to engage in travel soccer this fall, and are we going to do four practices a week and spend every weekend--do we want to do that?'

Let's just take a pause, not just decide to do that, because somebody whined about it, but take a pause on some of these bigger decisions. I think many people would benefit from a little bit of that. And, there's a way to sort of pull in some of these pieces without going full hog, like every kind of--do every piece of it.

I mean, somebody told me--I would say one of the most gratifying responses I got was somebody who was like, you know, 'I sat down with the book and I read and I thought about it; and we did one thing, which was that we decided at the beginning of each week, we would establish upfront who was going to pick the kid up from daycare so we didn't fight about it every day.'

Russ Roberts: Yeah. Fantastic.

Emily Oster: It was just like one tiny thing. And they were like, 'Actually, it really improved things, because we were fighting about this every day. And, now, we talk about it on Sunday and we don't fight about it.'

And so I think that's an example of you could just add a little bit of deliberateness on some particular pain point and maybe it would help.

Russ Roberts: Yeah. And, you don't have to go full Emily. You could just--

Emily Oster: Full Emily.

Russ Roberts: Yeah.

Emily Oster: A little.

Russ Roberts: Yeah, just a bit.


Russ Roberts: Last question. Do you think you'll write a book about teenagers, middle schoolers? Do you plan on it? Is it something you think about?

Emily Oster: I think about it. I haven't planned on it. I mean, I think part of it is my kids are not in that phase yet, so maybe I should do that one in advance. I'm not sure.

With this book, I felt like I had a sort of message that I wanted to convey. I think a book about teenagers would probably, again, be back to being sort of more data-forward, but I'm not sure how much data is there and how much there is to sort of learn about those things. So, let's see.

Russ Roberts: My guest today has been Emily Oster. Her book is The Family Firm. Emily, thanks for being part of EconTalk.

Emily Oster: Thanks for having me.