Cribsheet: A Data-Driven Guide to Better, More Relaxed Parenting, from Birth to Preschool

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Author: Emily Oster
Publisher: Penguin Press
Published: 4/9/2019
With EXPECTING BETTER, award-winning economist Emily Oster spotted a need in the pregnancy market for advice that gave women the information they needed to make the best decision for their own pregnancies. By digging into the data, Oster found that much of the conventional pregnancy wisdom was wrong. In CRIBSHEET, she now tackles an even great challenge: decision making in the early years of parenting.

Book Summary - Cribsheet by Emily Oster

Key Insights

From an outside perspective, you might think it unlikely that an economist would have valuable insight to add to a conversation about early-childhood parenting. However, that’s exactly where you are wrong.

Not only does economist Emily Oster’s second book, Cribsheet, offer a detailed analysis of the interplay between economic trends and behaviors among young children, but the text also provides a practical, hands-on guide for effective parenting in an era of information overload. Oster separates the valuable advice from the ‘clutter’ and parents (or soon-to-be parents) have much to look forward to with this data-driven how-to (and how-to-not) guide.

Key Points

Why You Need a Crib Sheet

You may have never heard of a ‘crib sheet’ before. Let us enlighten you. A crib sheet is also known as a ‘cheat sheet’ or a piece of paper with helpful hints and notes that a student is allowed to take into their exam for extra assistance.

In the context of parenting, the crib sheet is the set of notes you should always keep handy as you move through the trials and triumphs of becoming a new parent.

So, what sort of information do the most useful crib sheets include?

The answer varies, but here are a few suggestions:

  • A list of your baby’s doctors and their contact information
  • A list of baby-related supplies you may need from the store and their prices
  • Possible nanny options or daycare options and the pros and cons of each
  • Tracking your baby’s growth and progress towards various milestones

While this note-keeping practice might seem academic in nature, it serves a vital purpose in parenting as well: allowing us, as caretakers for tiny humans, to make competent, informed decisions based on cost and benefit analyses, as we will examine in more detail later on.

How Economics Makes Us Better Parents

Imagine a scenario where you are forced to make a difficult parenting decision: send your child to daycare or hire a full-time nanny. In choosing between these options, you are likely to consider several factors including cost, quality of the experience, and perhaps even the physical distance to the location. By weighing the pros and cons of each option, you are already making economic considerations without even realizing it. Some--like the cost of the service--are monetary while others--such as the quality of the experience--are non-monetary inputs.

The bottom line? We all place a different level of importance on each factor in a decision. For this reason, there is no right or wrong answer from an economic standpoint. Instead, there is variability among the choices we make and we need to accept that what works for our family might be distinctly different from what works for another. Every situation holds variables that are unique.

In the end, our economic decisions are value-based ones. They are dependent on personal priorities. If it is more important to you to have your child raised in your home environment, you might want to hire the nanny. If it is more important to you that your child develop strong social skills with other kids, you may prefer to send them to daycare.

Let’s look at a framework that can help guide us through these challenging choices.

Opportunity Cost:

The opportunity cost in a decision refers to what you are giving up.

A simple example: You are trying to decide between reading your child a book and watching a tv show with them. Let’s say you pick the book. Then, your opportunity cost would be not getting to watch the tv show. Conversely, if you pick the tv show, the opportunity cost is not getting to read the book.

Granted, there could be deeper, underlying opportunity costs that we aren’t addressing, such watching the tv show, the child is also missing out on the opportunity to improve their analytical reading and retention skills.

Marginal Value:

The marginal value in a decision refers to the value that is gained in relation to the cost.

Referring to the example above, the marginal value of choosing to read your child could be the time spent doing the activity. Let’s say that reading a book with your child is an hour-long event while watching tv with him or she would only be thirty minutes.

Therefore, if you chose to read the book rather than watching the tv show, the marginal value of this choice would be those thirty extra minutes of one-on-one time that you now have with your child.

This decision-making framework can also be applied in monetary terms. If we return to the choice between sending your child to daycare or hiring a nanny for him or her, we can introduce some numbers and see what makes the most fiscal sense.

Let’s say that hiring a nanny full-time for a six month period costs $16,080. This is a fairly reasonable estimate because the average live-in nanny makes $670 per week. On the other hand, the average cost of full-time daycare is $972 per month, which totals $5,832 over a period of six months.

In this scenario, the marginal value of sending your child to daycare rather than paying for a nanny is the difference between the two costs ($10,248). In the end, by selecting daycare, you are saving more than ten thousand dollars on childcare costs.

However, we can’t forget about the opportunity cost. If you are sending your child to a daycare versus leaving them home with a nanny, think about what you might be giving up. Depending on your personal values as a parent, it might be worth the monetary sacrifice. Or, conversely, it might not be.

The Variables That Confound Us

There’s a problem with the majority of research that is conducted surrounding parenting practices in the United States. The issue is that in many cases, the data that is collected often already correlates with the outcomes it is being used to predict.

Take breastfeeding and IQ for example. Perhaps a study is being done to determine if babies who are breastfed then develop higher IQ scores because of receiving nutrition this way. The problem is, breastfeeding and high IQ are already naturally correlated. That doesn’t mean that one necessarily causes the other, though. Causation does not mean correlation.

It is highly possible that there could be an outside reason (confounding variable) that these two characteristics tend to go hand-in-hand. For instance, in general, women who breastfeed are likely to have higher IQs than those who do not. So, if you are studying a child who is being breastfed and he or she has a high IQ, you would not know if the high IQ was because of being breastfed OR because the mother had a high IQ herself.

Researchers attempt to account for confounding variables in various ways. One way could be by only studying women who have a college degree, for instance, thus eliminating the education level as a confounding variable. This is tricky, though, because there are often variables that you wouldn’t necessarily link together. For instance, what if education level wasn’t the only confounding variable correlated with high IQ? There could also be a correlation between eye color and IQ or between IQ and the age of the baby when tested or even between the IQ score and what area of the country the baby is from. It can be challenging to account for every possible confounding variable, which makes it difficult to get accurate results in these sorts of studies. Hence the need for random sampling...

Randomized Controlled Samples

So, we know that data can be flawed, but we still want to make parenting choices on a numerically-informed basis, so what do we do?

We need to keep in mind that not all research is of equal value. And some techniques are more effective than others in certain cases.

For instance, with the breastfeeding example above, the best way to examine the benefits of this form of nutrition in babies would be via a randomized controlled trial. This would entail randomly dividing mothers into two groups: the treatment group and the control group. The control group would not breastfeed during the study and the treatment group would.

The idea is that because the groups are divided up randomly, each group will have similar traits on average. For instance, maybe both groups will have a mix of highly educated and less educated mothers which will minimize the presence of bias. The larger the groups, the more effective they are in providing truly correlated results.

The Power of Observation

Another effective form of parenting research? Observational studies. Just as you may infer from the name, observational studies include watching and waiting. In doing this, a researcher would collect data from breastfeeding mothers and non-breastfeeding mothers in groups and compile it all together to see what trends and commonalities emerge.

This differs from the randomized sample because you are not randomly splitting mothers into control and treatment groups. You are simply observing how a group (or multiple groups) of mothers who breastfeed (or don’t) act.

Once again, the larger the sample size, the more effective the result.

Be Skeptical of Case-Control Studies

Finally, while we often see references in pop culture and literature to case studies or examples of situations that illustrate a particular phenomenon, we need to be wary of how these are used. Basically, a researcher who wants to show that mothers who breastfeed are likely to have children with green eyes will go and find a child with green eyes who was breastfed (even if it’s a challenge) in order to prove their point. Case studies are individual situations rather than generalizations, and for that reason, they cannot be applied on a large scale.

The Main Take-away

You have likely heard the adage that there are ‘a million ways to skin a cat.’ Parenting, while distinctly different from deconstructing felines, should be approached with a similar philosophy in mind. Emily Oster wants parents to take a more relaxed approach in raising their children. While data-driven research can certainly be useful in decision-making processes, parents need to be careful about what kinds of studies and information they are making their choices based upon.

Additionally, many parenting choices can be made based on a personal decision-making framework alone. If you consider what it is that you value most, be it time, money, or quality of care for your child, you can keep these opportunity costs in mind when making decisions while also considering the marginal value in each situation. At the end of the day, there’s no one way to do parenting right. If there was, we would have figured it out a long time ago!

About the Author

Emily Oster was born in New Haven, Connecticut in 1980. After receiving her Ph.D. from Harvard University in 2006, Oster began her academic career at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business. Later, Oster’s professional pursuits took her to Brown University where she is currently an economics professor. Oster studies a wide array of concepts spanning from research design and methodology to development and health economics. Prior to publishing Cribsheet, Oster wrote and released Expecting Better in 2014. As of March 2019, Oster’s premier text had sold more than 100,000 copies worldwide.


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