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Emily Oster says parents should be focused on raising independent children. Her kids walk alone to school and don't have social media.

Kelly Burch   

Emily Oster says parents should be focused on raising independent children. Her kids walk alone to school and don't have social media.
  • Professor Emily Oster aims to empower parents with data and research.
  • Her most recent book is a guide for parents who are pregnant again after complications.

Emily Oster has spent her career relaying the same message to overly anxious parents: relax — most of your decisions will turn out fine in the end.

What makes her different from well-meaning neighbors or friends is that she backs that statement up with research. Her first book, "Expecting Better," helped pregnant parents decide whether to give up caffeine or cold cuts, while her subsequent books have looked at decisions in preschool and early school years. Whether the question is whether to sleep train your infant or redshirt your kindergartener (allowing them to enroll a year later), the answer is usually: "Do what's right for you."

"So much of my job is being like, 'it doesn't matter, they're all fine,'" the Brown economist told Business Insider.

And yet, her new book is different. "The Unexpected" is a guide for undergoing pregnancy after dealing with previous complications. Oster didn't experience complications herself, but she knows that 50% of pregnant people do.

"I wanted to have something to give them," Oster said.

Coping with anxiety after complications

"The Unexpected" covers complications ranging from hyperemesis gravidarum, to prolapse, to postpartum depression, and stillbirth. Oster wrote the book with Nathan Fox, a professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology and Maternal Fetal Medicine at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City. Together, the duo look at the risk of a complication happening again during a subsequent pregnancy and deliver scripts that patients can use to talk to their providers about treatment.

Still, Oster understands that all the research in the world can't balance out the emotional and lifestyle impacts that come with pregnancy complications.

The goal of the book "is to recognize the anxiety and emotion, and think about how we can use data and guidance to help people limit that anxiety as much as possible," she said.

However, there's a bit of a leap of faith involved with pregnancy after complications. Oster likes the phrase "radical acceptance," which Fox uses throughout the book.

"You have to live with that uncertainty while also living with hope," she said. "That's just very hard."

Older kids come with legitimate concerns

Oster's own children are 9 and 13. As she enters the teenage years she has many of the challenges other parents face: controlling access to phones and social media, promoting mental health, and fostering independence.

With older kids, there are fewer clear-cut answers — and fewer data to look to. That's partly because the outcomes are harder to measure but also because older kids are so individual. For example, Oster said that research is clear that, in general, social media is bad for girls' mental health, but some girls actually experience a positive impact.

The nuances make it much harder to brush off concerns.

"When I talk to people about older kids, most of the things they're worried about are actually legitimate concerns," Oster said.

In her own home, she's taken an intentional approach, which she outlined in her book "The Family Firm." Her daughter, 13, has a phone but no social media. Before getting the phone, the family talked about an appropriate number of minutes per day and what the consequence would be if her daughter went over that. Then, they wrote it all down.

"It's about understanding that this is a privilege, and it can go away," Oster told BI.

Parents should be more worried about raising independent kids

A big picture concern that parents don't spend enough time on is fostering independence, Oster said.

"I think we probably under-invest in scaffolding our kid to be an adult who can handle their own life," including challenges and consequences, she said.

She encourages physical independence by having her kids walk home from school, a distance of about three blocks. The school was somewhat skeptical, but when Oster explained why the kids would be walking, they acquiesced.

In addition, Oster doesn't drop off items her kids forget at home, like cleats for practice or a school folder. Overall, the harm from her third grader forgetting his laptop is minimal, she said, but the opportunity to learn a lesson is substantial. It's the same for a teen who oversleeps and needs to eat a granola bar for breakfast to catch the bus, she added.

"It's something that we should consider as a positive thing as opposed to neglectful, which is how it sometimes comes across," Oster said.

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