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July 19, 2013

Data-mad parenting


By Carol Lloyd, Executive Editor

She tracked her daughter’s feces as a baby, not only timing but texture and color. During the toddler years, she added metrics like word acquisition. Now that the child is 5, the mother proudly details her data-driven parenting in a national publication and declares that her binders filled with spreadsheets painstakingly recording her daughter’s every move, mood, and bowel movement makes her – get this – a better parent.

One pull quote for the scrap book:

It occurred to us that while our baby daughter couldn’t communicate directly beyond crying, we could have a deeply intimate, beneficial conversation with her through data. We realized that we could quantify and study her in an attempt to optimize all of her development.

Though her pediatrician gives her husband and her a “C” for parenting after they brandish their binders of spreadsheets and press him to grade their toddler on her development, she remains a true believer in data-based parenting. She concludes her essay with “proof” that she’s a good parent after a weird interaction at a ballet studio in which she compares her data-edified parenting to another mother who she deems “superficial.”

Sigh. It would be nice to think that this minor confessional – published this month in Slate as one of Amy Webb’s Data Mine columns - was a satire. (A partnership with the Onion perhaps?) Or at least one could file it away as one of those cunning, self-mortifying narratives – like Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mom – perfectly designed to inspire a mommy war quickly followed by a six-digit book deal.   

My data, my child

But it’s not just Amy Webb who has fallen in love with the idea that you can control and improve every aspect of your life – even your parenting – through reams of spreadsheets and myriad data points to help defend against life’s uncertainties and complexities. The response to her column – over 1,000 comments that mostly run the gamut from horrified to mystified (eg: This is, without a doubt, the most disturbing article I have read on the Internet. Alongside your child's college fund, please, start a psychological/psychiatric fund.) suggests that data-driven parenting still lays beyond most mainstream notions of raising a child.  Still, this isn’t just one OCD stat-geek’s response to being a mother. Just as computer programmers recreated our culture through their digital tools in ways that have reshaped our very thoughts, so too will stat geeks change our most intimate endeavors – including parenting.

Data. We live in a moment when this word has taken on meanings once unimaginable. Before the digital age, it evoked a neutral mist of informational bits, the cloud of numbers that could lull you to sleep in your high school science class, or at best, make you smirk at a bad punchline by a nerdy sitcom character.

Now data is sexy, powerful, lucrative, not only for corporations but individuals. (Data analysis – employment experts say – is among the most highly sought after skills in the current job market.) It’s also controversial –thanks to the long arms of everyone from the NSA to Google.  Education experts have embraced it, too. In the search for silver bullets to fix our public schools, data-driven instruction remains among the most popular (and promising) of the new education reforms sweeping the nation’s K-12 classrooms. 

But parenting is one of the last sanctuaries from our quantified lives. We may be willing to attach a Fitbit to our belt, but most believe in letting their children learn to run without counting their steps. While many of us might spend our workdays pouring over graphs and spreadsheets, our parenting job usually means giving of care in a most tactile or emotional way: wiping a face smudged with tears, cutting an apple, and sitting, bereft of devices, and listening to the blow by blow narrative of a really boring dream.  

Industry for 21st century parenting

Logs for sleep cycles and crying jags have long been indispensable tools for parents of kids with disabilities and illnesses.  With the rise of big data über alles, however, subjecting even healthy babies to tracking and observation similar to laboratory rodents is gathering traction.  After all, it addresses one of parenting’s biggest challenges.  Every child is unique and deserves just the right thing at just the right moment.  Gathering unbiased information about your own child should ideally protect you from irrelevant generalizations provided by parenting experts (all 1-year-olds nap at least x minutes per day) or your own self-serving bias (my child is a genius). Of course, life is not a laboratory and no parent a disinterested observer.

Still, the market has responded with an app for that anxiety. Baby Connect allows parents and caregivers to record and track a baby’s feedings, diaper changes, sleep patterns, and medicine schedules as well as moods and activities. The app even includes messaging and photo sharing.  Trixie Tracker offers similar quantitative tools for feeding, diapers and napping.  Baby Sprout adds milestones, immunization, and medical records.

When it comes to child apps for older kids, the focus tends toward more life-and-death situations (Check out this round up of apps for paranoid parents from Parenting.com). There are apps using GPS to track your children’s whereabouts, mobile iCams, and FBI tools in case your child goes missing. There are apps that alert you to the good (your child returns home from school on time) and the bad (breaking into the liquor cabinet or hitting 80 on the open road). Such tools perfectly embody many parents’ impulse to control the wild mess of fears that attend all parents' waking days.  To attempt to off-load that anxiety into a machine seems deeply, well, human.

Amy Webb’s kid tracking may be making her a better parent in one area, while doing damage in another.  It’s impossible to know what her parenting really looks like because love – not knowledge, much less data –is the essential legal tender of parenting.  We only know that painstaking tracking takes time, as does parenting, and without instantaneous tools (not unimaginable in some future Orwellian world), there’s no way you can be the ultimate parent and the ultimate scientific observer of your child.  There aren’t that many hours in the day.


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It's just the continuation of hyper-vigilant parenting. Whereas kids were once individuals, they are now seen as a continuation of their parents, something to be pored over, monitored/helicoptered, and controlled. Indeed, the quest for data is a quest for control - whether it's proof of our child's brilliance or the effort to stave off some future tragedy.

And the original post on Slate must've been controversial - I can no longer find it online!

Yeah, no thanks. I can't even imagine keeping track of dirty diapers. This is not a 'conversation' I want to have with my children.

I give this mom a thumbs up (in certain cases). We have a daughter that's been through the therapy for global developmental delays. Her academics have been all over the charts and without pressuring the school for information we wouldn't be able to help her at home. There are so many parents that don't know whats going on in their child's lives (especially with these courts handing out these joint custody decisions). The schools are overwhelmed with budgets and trying not to help the kids until they fail, I think the parent being involved is great.

@ Mom of 3 ...

Parental involvement is not the issue. The nature of parental involvement is. I love data. I've started keeping track of the books my boys have read, for instance. I haven't read the original article, but the description above regarding Ms. Webbs data gathering suggests an oppressiveness that won't be beneficial. I am also skeptical as to whether her data collection and analysis really yields the "conversation" and insights she thinks it does.

And this from the article above ...

"Every child is unique and deserves just the right thing at just the right moment."

Or maybe not. I try to meet my kids where they are as a matter of general parenting policy, but the world doesn't revolve around them and that's an important thing for them learn. The above smacks of a very different sense of parenting, one likely to create yet more of self-absorbed people that the world surely doesn't need. Surely needed growth comes from handling life's norms, which include a lot of getting not quite the right thing when you really don't even want it.

And, finally, excuse my typos above.

The comments to this entry are closed.


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