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Emily Oster Still Thinks Data Can Help Ease (Some) Parental Anxiety

7 minute read

Emily Oster does not offer parenting advice. She is rather insistent on this point. A Brown University economist who specializes in health data, Oster prefers to analyze numbers that help parents think through a decision. “When there isn’t any data, you can approach this in whatever way you want, including finding a parenting coach to counsel you on what to do,” she says. “But I’m not that parenting coach.”

Except occasionally she is. A leading voice in the debate on reopening schools during the pandemic, Oster has lately veered into more conventional “mommy blogger” content. She bristles at that characterization, and it’s true she doesn’t show off puzzlingly clean kids’ rooms or promote baby gear with discount links. And she hasn’t left behind the data-driven approach to parenting laid out in her best-selling books Expecting Better, Cribsheet, and The Family Firm. But she does seem to be trying to straddle both worlds.

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This spring, her newsletter, ParentData—which she launched just before the pandemic—added a “wins and woes” section that celebrates readers whose kids slept through the night and commiserates with those who lost the battle over screen time. Every week she fields questions from her 150,000 Instagram followers on topics ranging from vaccination (for which she can point to the data) to dealing with motion sickness (for which she cannot). On the latter, she suggests keeping one of those Big Gulp cups from 7-Eleven in the car for less mess. I point out that this is technically advice.

“That’s totally right,” she says, laughing. “I definitely mix data about this thing and thoughts from a fellow parent. What I try not to do is say, Here is expertise on child-car-sick-vomiting. I realize it’s a subtle, subtle distinction.”

This isn’t a pivot, she says, but it is a deliberate strategy. She wants to broaden her readership and teach a wider audience data literacy—how to tell a good study from a bad one—with relatable anecdotes on parenting, “like the veggies you sneak into your kid’s food,” she says. And she’s good at it: her answers, often filmed during her 6 a.m. run, are short and usually comforting.

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But Oster, who was one of TIME’s 100 most influential people of 2022, doesn’t deny that the past two-plus years have been trying. She spent many of those months gathering data on COVID-19 in schools, which she wrote about in national news outlets. Her analysis suggested the benefits of in-person education outweighed the risks. Some parents greeted her work as a godsend at a time of uncertainty. Others told her to stay in her lane and accused her of endangering children. She defends the work, citing her findings on how closures were perpetuating inequality.

“I felt bad about being yelled at. But I don’t regret it. If the result was more kids got access to in-person school at the cost of some people yelling at me on Twitter, that’s OK.”

She and a fellow Brown professor are now planning a class on lessons from the pandemic. She reveals this with a sigh, anticipating the Twitter reaction. “I’m quite excited about the class,” she says. “But I am sure there will be the regular kind of pushback that I get when doing anything with COVID.”

Oster has always sat somewhat uncomfortably between jobs. When she was a University of Chicago professor, she got pregnant and had the typical questions—Could she drink coffee? Which prenatal tests should she get? What were the risks? Doctors offered her restrictions without explanation. Oster, trained in studying public health and statistics, examined the studies and found that many were outdated, based on a small sample size, or otherwise flawed. Her resulting book aimed to empower pregnant people to make their own decisions.

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But Oster says those efforts to democratize data analysis won her few fans in academia. She speculates that she did not receive tenure at the University of Chicago in part because she had spent time on a book meant for nonacademics rather than writing papers that would inevitably be read only by other economists. Still, as Oster’s kids got older—they’re now 7 and 11—she kept researching childrearing queries and pursuing commercial writing. Her books were passed from parent to parent and climbed the best-seller list: a certain type of well-educated mother now quotes Oster like the gospel.

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Her prominence reached a new level in the pandemic. The U.S. government produced limited data on COVID-19’s effects in schools, so Oster led a team that began collecting publicly accessible data on schools in 42 states across the country. “I think it is possible to say, ‘A decision needs to be made now, and what are the pieces of information that are feasible to get?’” she says. “I worked hard to be transparent about the limitations of the data we collected on COVID in schools. I thought it was substantially better than any of the information that was out there while acknowledging that it was not perfect.”

After she faced criticism that her funding, in part, came from organizations that support charter schools or oppose unions, Oster responded in her newsletter: “Our sources of funding have no influence. Full stop. The funding for this project has run through Brown, which has strict rules that would not allow funders to influence research findings.” Her conclusions have since been bolstered by research conducted by the CDC, the European Union, and other academics. The emotional critiques from COVID-wary parents hit harder. “I don’t think of myself as someone who is unsympathetic to the fact that people are very afraid,” she says. “But I still think that having information is a way to move through some of that anxiety.”

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It is this belief—that data can be soothing—that continues to set Oster apart, even as she dabbles in wins and woes. It’s what attracts readers who want information and discomfits them when they aren’t sure what to do with it. Oster has found that despite her efforts to hedge, many parents still want definitive answers. In Expecting Better she concludes, “Don’t worry too much about sushi,” with the caveat that lower-quality sushi “might carry bacteria,” yet a friend recently texted me the following about her pregnancy diet: “You can eat sushi while pregnant. Emily Oster says so.”

In a bid to make nuance more acceptable, Oster harbors larger ambitions in the zone of data literacy: “I would like to see us teach everybody in high school how to read and interpret data.” She has spoken with organizations about ideas for better education on the subject. But she’s reluctant to predict what she’ll be doing in a few years. Given that her books have followed her children’s stages of life, I ask if she might one day graduate out of this space. She smiles. “There’s always menopause.”

Hair styled by Kerri Bakalakis; make up by Kristin Dunbar

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Write to Eliana Dockterman at eliana.dockterman@time.com