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Why Cocomelon is good, actually: Emily Oster on taking an evidence-based approach to pregnancy and parenting

Podcast & Video

This episode of Hub Dialogues features Sean Speer in conversation with Emily Oster, the best-selling author on pregnancy and parenting, about how she started to work on these issues, how certain ideas and norms of parenting take shape and their consequences, and her own thinking and writing on the intergenerational trade-offs during the pandemic.

You can listen to this episode of Hub Dialogues on Acast, Amazon, Apple, Google, Spotify, or YouTube. The episodes are generously supported by The Ira Gluskin And Maxine Granovsky Gluskin Charitable Foundation.

SEAN SPEER: Welcome to Hub Dialogues. I’m your host, Sean Speer, editor-at-large at The Hub. I’m honoured to be joined today by Emily Oster, an economics professor at Brown University, a best-selling author of three books about pregnancy and parenting, and the publisher of the massively popular Substack newsletter ParentData, where she draws on her economic background and training to illuminate the evidence behind the key issues facing parents.

I should say that I read one of her books before our first son was born and my wife Katelin has since read all three. We’re also both subscribers to Emily’s newsletter, which I can’t recommend enough. In a world in which most parenting materials typically feel like some combination of dubious and judgy, Emily has distinguished herself as an empathetic and evidence-based voice.

I’m grateful to speak with her about how she got into this beat, what the experience has been like, how certain ideas and norms of parenting have taken shape and their consequences, and her thinking and writing about the intergenerational trade-offs inherent in COVID-19 policy. Emily, thank you so much for joining us at Hub Dialogues.

EMILY OSTER: Thank you so much for having me. I’m really thrilled to be here.

SEAN SPEER: Let’s start if it’s okay with your experience crossing the bridge from academic scholarship into popular commentary. Your academic pedigree is hugely impressive, and you’ve made major research contributions to development economics and public health. But in 2010, you had your daughter and nearly a decade ago you wrote a best-selling book on parenting. Ever since you’ve been a go-to voice in the popular discourse. Can you talk a bit about the decision to cross over into this more popular work? Was it one that you made knowingly? Or was it an accident of sorts?

EMILY OSTER: I think the answer to that is both. So when I was pregnant with my daughter, who was born in 2011, I wrote Expecting Better, which is my book about pregnancy, really, as a kind of labour of love—love is probably the wrong word. Almost a labour of frustration that I was pregnant and I was having a set of experiences that I thought were not the experiences I had hoped to have. I was doing a lot of work that was taking my professional side—my data analysis and decision-making pieces—and turning those to my pregnancy. Expecting Better really came out of that. I had written a chapter and an introduction. And I sent it to an agent without really having kind of fully worked out the game tree of once you send the book, then they do things with it, and then yada yada yada.

So that was really exciting. And it was fun, and I loved doing it. But it did feel very accidental in a sense. Fast forward six years or so, to a time when I had a different job and a second kid, and I then chose to write Cribsheet, which is a book about little kid parenting, which is a follow-up and takes the same ideas of data and data analysis but looks at breastfeeding and potty training and circumcision and all that kind of early kid stuff. And that was much more conscious. I think I realized writing one book and staying an academic, then you’re just kind of a weirdo who one time wrote a book about pregnancy. Once you write two books, then you’re a person who writes books about pregnancy and parenting and that was a much more conscious choice to say, “Okay, I’m going to sort of shift a little bit in that direction.” And then certainly after that, and then into the current moment, that’s been more intentional.

SEAN SPEER: So many parents around the world have come to trust and rely on your advice and analysis. The Hub’s editor-in-chief Stuart Thomson, incidentally, asked me to thank you for making being a parent something like 20 percent less stressful. What’s that been like for you? What’s the experience been like to leverage your research skills and training for such a large audience?

EMILY OSTER: I would say it’s enormously rewarding and very humbling and sometimes scary. I feel like part of what draws me to this and keeps me here, relative to some of my academic pursuits, is the feeling that I can help people and that people’s lives are 20 percent more relaxed than then they would be otherwise. And that’s really amazing. When people tell me that, that just feels like such a privilege. I also sometimes think, oh my goodness, people are listening to me. And that makes me want to want to be careful with what I do, which I am. But there is a moment of, well, I hope you’re not listening too much. And that can be a little scary occasionally.

SEAN SPEER: Besides that, what are the other downsides? Do you ever wish you were just working away on an academic scholarship far away from the public square?

EMILY OSTER: The major downside of being out in public is that you’re out in public and people disagree with you. People disagree with me on my academic work also, that’s part of science, but they disagree in a much slower and quieter way, in the form of referee reports and so on. In being out in public, particularly we’ll talk about some of the stuff I did on COVID, particularly in that moment, but even when I’m just writing about parenting, people have a lot of opinions. And when you’re out in public, there are ways for them to express those opinions. And, well, that’s just part of the job, but it’s not the best part of it.

SEAN SPEER: In your book Cribsheet, you say that the best advice you ever got about being a parent was from your first pediatrician who essentially told you to try not to think about it. What was that insight for you? And how has it informed your parenting and your own work as a source of advice and information?

EMILY OSTER: The context for that comment was, I had gone down a kind of deep rabbit hole about bees. It was a fear that my then 18-month-old daughter would some time in some isolated location was going to be stung by a bee. And since that had never happened before, perhaps she was allergic to bees. There’s no reason to think she’s allergic to bees which is a common allergy. But I had gone down this road. I got to the bottom of this long monologue about whether we should go on vacation and basically my doctor just said, “You know, yeah, I would just try not to think about that.”

I think it was such a moment of recognition of, “You’re right, what am I doing?” I’ve gotten myself into this, I don’t know, anxiety spiral, which I think is so common in parenting, and just having someone to kind of pull you out and be like, “you know, what, worry about something else.”

I think about that a lot when I talk to parents because it’s some combination of who I’m talking to and also the moments that I’m talking to them, which are often when people have very small kids, which often it is their first kid, there’s just so many of these kind of small anxieties that can really build up and that can affect your mental health and how much you’re enjoying doing parenting. And so often people need to hear, “You know what, that’s not one of the things you should have on your worry plate, like take it off and make room for the bigger things that you really need do need to worry about.”

SEAN SPEER: I was just recommending your books and newsletter to an expecting parent and my elevator summary was that you commonly make the case that much of the popular assumptions and even social pressures about raising children, including sleeping, breastfeeding, child care, etc, are often overstated or without substantiation. How do these norms and practices take shape? What’s the process from a half-truth to a societal expectation?

EMILY OSTER: That is a fascinating question. I think the dynamics of how these things happen are so variable. So one thing that happens is sometimes we’ll get a little bit of evidence that might suggest something was good, and then people start doing it. And actually, this topic I work on in my academic work, is once we start telling people to do something, the types of people who start doing that behaviour tend to be kind of people who are also doing a bunch of other behaviours that are positive. And so we can kind of get reinforcing biases in our data. It’s a little subtle, but it really shows up a lot in health data. The same thing happens here, that we get a little bit of evidence, and then some people start doing it, and then it looks like wow, like a lot of people who are kind of doing other good things are also doing this and then it becomes a thing that people do and that influences the norms, even though it’s come from some very small, small thing in the background.

The other thing that’s often going on, especially in this current moment, is that we’ve gotten into a pretty unhealthy situation in which suffering is what it means to be a good parent. And so some of these norms, I think, have the feature that almost “I’m showing you how good a parent I am because it sucks.” I think that’s not super healthy. That is a kind of reinforcing thing that I try to push back against. Just because something is unpleasant for you doesn’t actually necessarily mean that it is good for your children.

SEAN SPEER: We’re speaking on March 1, by the time this episode is released, we’ll have already released an episode with American-born, Canadian-based demographer and sociologist Lyman Stone on delayed family formation and fertility rates. His key argument is that women in Canada, the U.S., and elsewhere are having fewer children than they say they even want. How much do you think the intensity in so much of the popular thinking about pregnancy and parenthood, which I should say, as a parent of a two-year-old and a 10-week-old is, is downright stressful, is a factor? And in that sense, is a potential outcome of your work to give people the information and in turn confidence that they need to actually have the kids that they want?

EMILY OSTER: We certainly see hints of these kinds of relationships in a bunch of different places. So I like the work that you’re citing. We also see some of this, you know, people have been talking about demographic transitions in a number of Asian countries. So we see surveys of women in Japan who say, effectively, “I’m not interested in having kids, it is too much work, because, basically, the societal expectations for what it would mean to be a parent are so great that I would be unable to do any of the things that I currently enjoy. And that’s kind of too much.”

And I think that, as a parent, it’s really quite sad, actually. Because I mean, it is very problematic to say that the only way we could set up a society is one in which being a parent is so onerous, requires so much of yourself, that you literally don’t want to do it even though you would like to have children. So, I mean, it’s always hard to know what these demographic changes are reflecting. But it is certainly the case relative to sometime in the past, that having children has become more of a competitive sport. And I think that that attitude makes it harder and less fun. So I guess maybe if I could make it a little more fun, maybe that’s good for fertility.

SEAN SPEER: I want to come to your thinking and writing on the COVID-19 experience. But before I get there, I have to ask you some questions that I’ve long wanted to if that’s okay.

In June 2022, you wrote about Cocomelon, the popular kids show. You assured parents that claims that Cocomelon is contributing to hyperactivity are without evidence. Let me ask a different question. Do you think that shows like Cocomelon have any educational upside? Or is it empty intellectual calories?

EMILY OSTER: What do you mean upside? Look. Yeah, the upside of Cocomelon is your kid likes it. And then you can do something else. I mean, when I talk about screens, I think so much of the discourse focuses on this idea that screens are either good or bad, or it’s only good to have screens if they’re teaching your kids something. Yeah, I don’t know how much television you watched as a kid. But I assure you that most of the things I watched were not teaching me anything. But that’s okay. Because sometimes people like to relax. And I think it’s completely crazy, honestly, to think that we should only let kids watch Cocomelon if they’re learning something from it. It’s much better to say, you know, does a half an hour of Cocomelon fit into your day in a way that gives you a little bit of a break, and your kids enjoy it, and so you can cook dinner quietly, and then you can all have a nice meal together? That’s why Cocomelon is good. That’s what makes it good. It’s not because it makes your kid into a Coco-genius or whatever people think.

SEAN SPEER: In terms of a child’s cognitive development, how should we think about the different inputs and factors? For instance, do we have a sense of the relative role of not just nature versus nurture, but, say, the role of parents versus full-time childcare like, say, a nanny versus friends at the park versus other factors?

EMILY OSTER: Most of the things that we look at, like what kind of childcare arrangement do you have, there is really not a lot of evidence that that’s going to contribute any particularly large meaningful way to a child’s cognitive development. It is certainly true that some things must matter because there is variation and there is systematic variation, but pointing to particular behaviours, as opposed to kind of being a person who thinks a lot about those things being inherently kind of somehow enough. I think that’s the tension in the data.

The one behaviour that really does kind of come up in the data, I think in a more causally compelling way, is reading to kids. So turns out reading to kids, we actually have a lot of evidence that that’s good for language development and later literacy. But beyond that, should you send your kid to the park or do you need to put them into baby music class or is a nanny better than daycare is better than stay at home parent? None of that really shows up in good data.

SEAN SPEER: I mentioned that we have two young boys and so I was really interested in your December 2021 post on sibling rivalry. What is it to say that the idea of equal is less? And how can we create an environment where our sons have a positive sum view among one another and their own individual identities?

EMILY OSTER: Siblings are hard. I think that we don’t know that much actually about how we can develop good sibling relationships. We know that generating conflict between kids is not good. So setting up explicit competitions, or even saying things like, “Well, why don’t you behave like your brother? He’s so great.” That kind of dynamic I think has been shown to persist and be negative.

Sometimes people will frame the question like, “How can I make my kids be friends with each other?” And the answer is that’s pretty hard to do. Because it’s hard to make people be friends with each other. And maybe your kids will ultimately like each other and maybe they won’t, but some of this kind of not generating comparisons is a key part of siblings. The other thing is, I mean, your kids are not old enough for this, but what you will find as they age, which I think is astonishing for most parents, is your children can one moment be each other’s ride or die—like there are moments where my kids will be like, if some third person does something wrong to one of them the other one is like banshee, you know, and then five minutes later, they’re telling you, “I hate her so much. She’s the worst.” And you’re like, how did that happen? I mean, the sibling relationship is such a complicated and interesting one.

SEAN SPEER: Emily, Canadian society is oftentimes viewed as divided across urban and rural lines. There are various factors behind that: the concentration of our population in a relatively small number of places, the process of self-selection, or self-sorting, that you are no doubt you’re familiar with, and so on. Are you familiar with any research or evidence on the childhood experience of growing up in a city versus a rural or peripheral community and the consequences for the development of children?

EMILY OSTER: I don’t think we have very much that would say that there was an important causal link per se of the sort of rural versus urban. It’s just a hard thing to isolate in the data. One of the things that does tend to differ, not always, but tend to differ across those settings, is the degree of independence that kids have, physical independence. And that’s something where I think increasingly—I was just reading some summary data about this this morning—something where I think increasingly people talk about the changes in the amount of independence over time being potentially problematic for kids. And thinking about how do you foster the ability for kids to, again, physically be outside on their own in situations that could be perceived as slightly risky? That’s gonna be much more common in rural areas than it is in in a city. So the idea of your kids out of range and around in the field climbing trees, that doesn’t happen as much if you live, you know, in the middle of Toronto. And so that’s one of the differences that I think is probably something that’s worth exploring for people—thinking about if independence for kids and developing independence is important. How do we scaffold that better in places where actually physical independence feels more challenging?

SEAN SPEER: You’re probably familiar with the fact that hockey is a popular sport and pastime in Canada. There are growing concerns, though, that it’s becoming cost prohibitive to the extent that it’s creating inequity between those who are able to put their kids in recreational activities like hockey and those that can’t. What does the evidence and data tell us about the benefits of participating in those types of recreational activities?

EMILY OSTER: So I thought you were gonna ask something different, which is about concussions. We can talk about this.

We look at evidence on extracurriculars, and I think a lot of parents think about extracurriculars as a kind of another achievement thing. So “how do I get my kid to be the best person in hockey so you can go play junior hockey” or whatever is the next phase? When we look at the evidence on what are the benefits of extracurricular activities for kids, they actually tend to be in terms of increasing a sense of belonging, increasing a sense of something that you’re good at. So it’s an opportunity for kids to feel like school isn’t going that great this week but there’s this other thing I’m good at, whether it’s soccer, it’s hockey, the violin, acting or it’s something else. It’s something else outside of the place that you typically are and that can be scaffolding and really, really good for kids’ mental health, for anxiety, for feeling like they are valued.

In the data, you can deliver that without being on the junior Olympic team. Actually, most of these experiments are in quite small doses. And so in that sense, I think that most of the benefits of extracurriculars can be delivered by not something that is not super intense. But the focus should be on something that your kid likes. So if your kid is bad at hockey, and they hate it, then putting them in a lot of hockey is actually not going to improve their mental health. You probably want to think about what is the sport that they like. Or the something else they like.

SEAN SPEER: I’ve heard you say, and certainly seen you write in various places, and you alluded to it earlier in the conversation, that eating as a family is something that is important to you. Does that reflect a personal preference, or is it a practice that’s rooted in the evidence and data? 

EMILY OSTER: It reflects a personal preference. If you look at data, there’s a tremendous amount of correlational data that outcomes for kids tend to be better in families that eat meals together, eat dinner together. The issue is that those differences are also reflecting tremendously many other differences across family, even more than in some of the other settings that I look at. You know, the choice, that kind of the ability, to all sit down at the same time to eat dinner at the table, like that takes a lot of planning, and that takes a lot of resources, and a lot of specific things about the family. So I think the correlation there is very strong and that causal argument is pretty limited.

But for us, I mean, I think I tell people like “You want to think about what’s going to work for you.” And for us, that is a time that we can kind of get together and that we do have an opportunity to sit down with the kids. And we both work full time and they’re at school full time so that is kind of our moment of connection. Dinner doesn’t have to be everybody’s moment of connection. But it is for us a very key part of our day, and something we organize our time around because we like it. And it is an example of something I like to be able to say, “I eat dinner with my kids every night because I like it.” Not every day, I don’t like them every day. Sometimes they’re jerks, but like most of the time I like it, as opposed to I do this because otherwise my kid’s going be unsuccessful.

SEAN SPEER: I’ll pause here and just thank you for permitting me to subject you to something of a lightning round of questions that I’ve been accumulating over the past couple of years as a parent.

Let’s shift the remaining moments of our conversation to the subject of COVID-19 and pandemic-related policies. As many listeners will know, you were a leading voice rooted in the evidence about the policy choices taken during the pandemic, including school closures. You’ve talked a lot about the experience elsewhere, including the inherent risks of being caught up in politics. I want to ask about that. But what I’m interested in, Emily, is how we think about intergenerational trade-offs in our societies. And, in particular, the potential long-run risks of social conflict as we grapple with zero-sum choices about public spending and other policy issues. What does the experience of the pandemic tell you and us about the role of intergenerational trade-offs in our political economy?

EMILY OSTER: So kind of late in the pandemic I wrote something which never got published, because it was too angry, which I had titled “We Put Kids Last.” And I think, when I look back on many aspects of the pandemic, that feels right to me. I mean, I think we made many choices throughout several years that deprioritized kids relative to others. And again, I think you’re right to frame it as a trade-off because kids were a group with very, very low mortality or health risks and where the disruptions that we had to schools, to their regular lives, to their ability to socialize and do things, they were very great. And we were trading those off against some health benefits for particularly the elderly. I think that that trade-off is a complicated one. In many Western societies, in the U.S. and Canada as well, we made that trade-off in favour of older people rather than kids.

And, you know, for my taste, I think we should have had that conversation more. I think that we ended up framing the conversation very much as if this is not costly for children. I think it would have been a healthier conversation if we had acknowledged the costs. If we had said for kids, if it was only a society of people under the age of 18, we would be much more open, we would have treated things very differently, we’re trading that off against risk to older people, and here’s how we’re thinking of the trade-off.

Instead, we ended up framing it much more as if that wasn’t a trade-off at all, and that it was completely fine for kids for this to happen. Or framing the trade-off as well as this is also very risky for children. I think that was just simply not true in the data. And I’ve made this point a number of different times and that got a fair amount of blowback. But I think that the reality is, that’s what showed up in the data and we didn’t end up talking about it this way. And so, you know, I think there was a complicated prioritization that was just not put out in public sufficiently.

SEAN SPEER: I will just say in parentheses, those trade-offs were also often obscured by calls for solidarity, which were compelling at some level, but caused policymakers and the society more broadly not to grapple with some of the trade-offs that you courageously brought to bear to the policy conversation. 

EMILY OSTER: Let me say one other thing, which is, I think that this conversation evolved in an odd direction over time. I think there was a period in which these calls for solidarity and thinking about more locked downs so we knew more, early in kind of, I guess, now, three years ago now in the period of 2020. That made a lot of sense to me, I think, or it certainly I think it had, it was much easier to understand that trade-off. When we got into a later period, particularly post-vaccines in which we were still saying, “Let’s put these restrictions on kids, because what about the people haven’t been vaccinated even though they could be?” I think that’s where we got into a little bit of a space where it really felt like now we’re kind of de-prioritizing this group in favour of a set of people who have chosen themselves not to protect themselves. And I thought that was a particularly frustrating part of the dynamic.

SEAN SPEER: Based on your research and analysis, are there interventions that we can pursue that can overcome the learning loss that was experienced during the pandemic? Or do we need to confront the reality that that won’t be something that can be fully mitigated going forward?

EMILY OSTER: Both. I think that this is both an opportunity for us to invest in learning about what works for recovery. And there are some things that we know high dose tutoring tends to be effective if it’s appropriately used. We are doing some work on pandemic recovery across states in the U.S. And so we can see some things, like some states are really good. Not entirely sure what they’re doing differently, but maybe the policy is be like South Carolina or be like Tennessee. This is not super specific policy, but I think there are some things we can learn and some ways in which we can enhance test scores catch up and learning loss catch up for kids. On the other hand, there are kids who dropped out of high school and didn’t go back, there are kids who are going to stay behind. Those are unfortunately going to be disproportionately lower-income students and students of colour. And that’s part of the long-term legacy of the pandemic. I think it’s going to be an increase in inequality among kids who were the people who were kids during this period. That’s something which I just do not think it’s likely that we will make up fully ever.

SEAN SPEER: Let me ask a penultimate question about your Atlantic essay from last Halloween on the case for a quote, “pandemic amnesty” for those who had got calls wrong during the period of extraordinary uncertainty in the pandemic. It’s generated a lot of positive and negative reaction. 

EMILY OSTER: Did you see any positive reaction? Could you just send me that? Because I don’t think I got that. 

SEAN SPEER: Well, let me give you some. I’m naturally inclined to agree with you, but to represent the other side, if there are no consequences for those in authority who made the wrong calls—and I should say, Emily, here in Ontario, for instance, the government actually locked down children’s playgrounds for awhile—isn’t there a risk that it contributes to the kind of anti-elite populism that we’ve seen in the past several years?

EMILY OSTER: Yeah, absolutely. And I think that of the many pieces of feedback that came back, I think the one that made me think the most was the feedback that “I want an apology.” And I think that that’s very real. I understand that. There are things which I would also like an apology for. And some of the point of that piece was trying to wake people up a little bit to what you’re not getting. So we could want an apology, but I think in a lot of settings, that’s not likely. And we need to think about moving forward, particularly on things like learning loss.

I don’t want to get stuck in a discussion about whose fault this was. The fact is, test scores are down, you know, 15 percentage points. At this point that ship has sunk. That already happened, and when we are getting caught up in those discussions of whose fault it is, we aren’t moving forward. So it is a little different than saying I don’t wish people would apologize or that some of these things maybe somebody could have known at the time, as opposed to saying “There was a lot of uncertainty, there were a lot of things we didn’t know. And now we need to focus on moving forward and in order to do that we need to stop trying to re-litigate the past.”

SEAN SPEER: Final question. What are some of your favourite kid’s books?

EMILY OSTER: Oh my goodness. Okay, for little kids. I love I Want My Hat Back. There’s a series of Jon Klassen books, and they’re great because they’re just a little dark, but also totally awesome. And for older kids, you know, for my daughter, she absolutely loves the Land of Stories books, which I didn’t have as a kid. So a lot of things we enjoy are things that I read as a kid, these are fantasy novels which are perfect for this kind of second-grade, maybe third-grade level and they’re just fantastic.

SEAN SPEER: Well, that answer is worth the price of admission alone because I’m taking down notes furiously here. Emily Oster, I want to thank you so much for joining us at Hub Dialogues. I’d encourage listeners to check out Emily’s Substack ParentData which reflects the kind of dispassionate, evidence-based analysis that you’ve brought to this conversation. I’m really grateful to have been able to speak with you.

EMILY OSTER: Thank you so much for having me.