Using Evidence: What Can We Learn from a Book about Parenting?

September 1, 2022

     By Duncan Green     

Guest post from Shruti Patel

Emily Oster, an economist, mother of two, and one of TIME magazine’s 100 most influential people, wants parenting to be treated like a profession. How? By getting them to make data-driven decisions about their kids.

In her latest book, The Family Firm she translates decades of research on how key decisions (e.g., on after-school care or screentime exposure) affect outcomes like test scores and obesity, into ‘bottom-line’ advice for parents. Then – and this is the tough part – she gives parents a framework for integrating that advice into their own lives.

Spot any parallels to what we in the development world often aspire to? Just like many of us, Oster is on a quest to make better use of research and evidence. What might we take away from her approach?  

Parents and Policymakers Face Similar Dilemmas  

Well, it turns out policymakers and parents of young children have similar challenges: every major decision comes with a trade-off, uncertainties abound, and the stakes tend to be high. Most of the time there’s never enough evidence because of course, every context (family) is different. To top it off, operational realities (paychecks, in-laws) and politics (arguing with a 4-year old) frequently trump good intentions. Amidst the mayhem, conditions for ill-considered, convenient, and gut instinct decisions flourish. According to Oster, that’s to be avoided.

Engaging with Evidence: Tips from a Seasoned Mum

The goal she says is to use evidence as a tool for steering mums and dads away from ‘parenting on-the-fly’ (guilty!). Advocates of evidence-informed policy strive for something similar, so I’ve drawn out 5 lessons from the book on how to package evidence and get decision-makers to use it.

Don’t Sit on the Fence. Provide a Judgement. Ever come across an inconclusive synthesis paper or meta-analysis? Oster too. But this doesn’t paralyse her efforts. Instead, she puts a spotlight on conflicting results, biased methods, and weak data. Then, taking all of that into account she makes a clear and succinct judgement. For instance, on the question of whether parents should work or stay at home (should they have the choice) to improve test scores, she acknowledges ambiguity in the research but ends with “…having said this, I think the volume of the evidence points to two conclusions…” The key words “I think” are often missing in the development world.

Perhaps that’s because generalizations are vulnerable to criticism, but without them, we’re bound to get stuck. Oster’s sweeping statements motivate readers to find out more. If we want more engagement with evidence, we need to give people a reason to ask “why?”, “how”, or “oh really?” Making judgements is a great way to do that.

Use Evidence on Correlation. Nowadays,evidence is synonymous with causality, but Oster shows there’s also valuable information in studies that look at patterns between variables. Correlations have predictive value because they reveal what could happen if a certain action is taken – useful for risk management. An example from the book is the relationships between parents working outside of the home and childhood obesity. Oster finds that although research doesn’t identify causality, many studies find a correlation between parents working and childhood obesity. Interesting but not particularly helpful. Rather, it’s the finding within these correlation studies that what children do after school is key in linking these variables together. This in turn helps identify the right question to ask. i.e., not whether a one parent should work or not, but how after school hours should be handled.

Focus on Big Questions, not Geography. Oster focuses on a handful of parenting dilemmas that are more or less universal: When’s the right time for my kid to get a phone? How important are family meals? Am I using the right strategies for optimal nutrition? These are compelling questions that grab attention and interest independent of where people live or how much they earn. As a result, even though Oster bases most of her conclusions on research done in the US, this doesn’t dilute their relevance to other places. That’s because of the relevance of the questions themselves but also because she’s careful to explain why similar results can or cannot be expected elsewhere. For example, she uses data on physical activity in Swiss and Scandinavian schools to make recommendations about how American parents should think about their kids’ exposure to physical education.

Highlight Gaps in Evidence. Despite the fact that close to 50% of all peer-reviewed economic research is on the US, Oster consistently finds good evidence hard to come by. But rather than lamenting this as we in the development world tend to, she specifies where evidence is missing, why it’s important, and what need it would fill. And. despite gaping holes in evidence, she reasons her way to making the existing research useful. By leaning heavily on (2) and (3) she shows how “having part of the picture (blurry as it maybe) is better than having no picture at all.” When there’s no good evidence, she puts a boundary around the uncertainty – sketching out all possible outcomes so parents can look out for signals that reveal which of these is emerging.

Provide a Framework for Using the Evidence. Oster’s book provides answers to weighty questions in the form of nano-summaries of the research, which on their own aren’t very helpful. But that’s okay because much of the book’s value of this book lies in Oster’s approach to embracing the messiness of evidence whilst fully appreciating its importance. She enables readers to do the same by recommending a 4 step process: i) Framing the question so you’re specific about the actual decision that needs to be made, ii) Fact finding so you’re sure you’ve looked and discussed the relevant evidence, iii) making a final decision, and last but crucially, iv) planning a follow-up to review the decision.

Oster’s book shows how such frameworks can ease the burden of decision-making because it’s often the process that matters – not the answer per se. She tells parents “there is no answer…but there is still fact-finding to do”, and this is just as applicable to policymakers. All in all, this ‘no-nonsense’ guide to parenting is also a great example of how to translate research into practice.

September 1, 2022
Duncan Green