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When Psychopaths Speak


I think we may need to shut down the Ivy League until we understand why they hire so many psychopaths to become faculty members. That brings us to our old friend Emily Oster, the Brown economist last seen using DATA!!!!! to tell Rhode Island to send all their students back to in-person teaching without consulting the teachers while also sending her students to elite Providence East Side private schools. But hey, DATA!!!!!!, amirite?

Well, Oster has more lessons for us, driven of course by DATA!!!!! What does the DATA!!!!! tell us to do? Run our family like a business! Uh, what?

If that sounds like a whole lot of work, well, that’s the point. Oster’s pitch is that parenting is a job, specifically CEO of the “Family Firm.” Good bosses can’t operate on whims and the latest playground chatter. Although there are some upfront time costs to this strategy, Oster promises it leads to a better overall business model. Her book offers a targeted mini-MBA program designed to help moms and dads establish best practices for day-to-day operations and glean lessons from “case studies” that present potential scenarios, like how to respond to a kid who’s begging to go to sleep-away camp.

The first step: Craft your family’s “Big Picture,” which is essentially a vision for how your family interacts with each other and the world. What’s your schedule? What are your priorities? What are your rules? That’s the backdrop for applying Oster’s “Four F’s” whenever a decision pops up:

Frame the question: This means not just knowing that there’s a problem to solve, but defining what exactly needs to be answered to solve that problem. (So not, “Where should I send my kid to school?” but “Should I send my kid to school X or school Y?”)

Fact-find: Gather intel from a variety of sources, whether that’s scientific research or other parents you know. Consider the likely impact of your choices, maybe by making up sample schedules or budgets.

Final decision: Don’t hem and haw. Schedule a meeting and be done with it.

Follow-up: After a decision has been implemented and you’re seeing results, meet again to revisit the choice.

I can think of a 5th “F” for Oster here, if you know what I mean.

What’s amazing how much this bullshit actually sells to wealthy white parents who really want to believe that DATA!!!! can tell them how to raise their children.

Because this is an Oster book, there’s data scattered everywhere — on the development of reading skills by age, on the concussion risks of playing soccer, on the benefits of dipping Brussels sprouts in sweetened cream cheese. It’s all presented in the breezy, skeptical style that’s made Oster’s work a must-read for parents who don’t have the time to investigate Finnish studies about integrating extracurriculars into the school day.

But because the vast majority of this must have been written pre-pandemic, it reads kind of like an out-of-date time capsule. The book’s first case study deals with whether to redshirt your kid, a.k.a. start school a year late. Amid Oster’s discussion of pros and cons and, of course, data, there’s nothing about the ripple effects of this bizarro year and the number of families that opted out of kindergarten.

The sections devoted to differing philosophies on subjects such as homework, screen time and tutoring all come off as quaint. And it was news to me that some parents sign their kids up for music lessons to make them better at math. (We had our daughter start ukulele this year because classes were held outdoors with each kid confined inside hula-hoops spaced six feet apart. Which, come to think of it, may have boosted her geometry skills.)

To find examples, Oster often self-deprecatingly mines her own family’s experiences. There’s the time that she and her husband, Jesse, used Google Calendar to set up a meeting with their 8-year-old daughter, Penelope, to discuss the school year schedule. (“We presented an agenda and draft schedule in advance,” she notes.) And after 4-year-old Finn had a meltdown involving a bagel and not enough time to eat it, they established “a new family principle”: “You must be downstairs by 7:05, or else someone will come get you. We cannot force you to eat, but we’ll make you come downstairs and at least briefly sit at the table. Breakfast has a hard stop at 7:25.”

Of course she has a child named Finn. And I am sure these children are going to grow up and love knowing they were used by their psychopathic mother as a social experiment so she could publish contrarian books aimed at people like herself. I did enjoy this response on Twitter:

Outsourcing her kids to Bangladesh where they can learn discipline by working in a sweatshop is DATA!!!! supported parenting.

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