Data-Driven Parenting To The Max: Spreadsheets For Each Poop

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Has data-driven parenting run amok? Are spreadsheets to measure every poop output and breast-milk intake necessary? Do we need a time stamp for each "ga" "mmm" and "da-da"? Or is this just, frankly, insane? A way to try to ease the sometimes overwhelming anxiety of parenting with cold, emotion-free numbers?

(Tampa Band Photos/Flickr)
(Tampa Band Photos/Flickr)

For writer Amy Webb, a so-called "digital strategy expert," measuring everything her child does makes loads of sense. In her controversial and truly mind-blowing piece on Slate last week, Webb revealed the process by which she documents every minuscule element of data on the kid's existence.

One sample:

During the first feeding at home, I put my laptop on the nightstand beside my bed and filled out the chart as I tried to burp my daughter:

Time: 11:15 a.m.
Breast Milk: 75 milliliters
Formula Supplement: none
Wet Diaper: 1
Yellow Scale (1 = clear, 10 = call the hospital): 3
Dirty Diaper: 1
Poop Scale (1 = Dijon mustard, 5 = pâté, 10 = tar): 5
Dessert: 0
At 2 a.m. the next morning, I attempted the same routine. Laptop on left nightstand, baby attached to right boob.

But it doesn't stop there: "At 15 months, we knew the 37 complete words she’d mastered and the 11 miscellaneous vowel sounds that meant real-world objects... By her 18-month pediatrician visit, she could point to her throat, ankle, eyebrow, teeth, shin, knee, and belly button when prompted, and we’d tracked it all in our series of spreadsheets, which we’d prepared for our appointment."

Webb claims all this poop-measuring and morsel-tracking is state-of-the-art parenting, with myriad benefits for the child.  In this approach, nothing is left unrecorded: "When she was 6 months old, we added a tab to the spreadsheet for new foods. Rice cereal, 2 teaspoons, on Oct. 3. Steamed, mashed carrots, 1 ounce, on Oct. 30; didn’t like at all. Steamed, mashed sweet potato, 1 ounce, on Nov. 10; liked even less. Steamed, mashed peas, 2 ounces, on Nov. 18; wanted more."

And during these feedings, while the child is being read to, instead of melting into a cuddly give-and-take, there's more data-tracking:

...we read aloud back-issues of The New Yorker and Popular Science as well as some of the board books we’d received as gifts. Was she more alert at 9 a.m. or before her afternoon nap? Did she prefer mostly photos and just a few words, or was she happier listening to us read through long passages? (To be sure, her excitement corresponded to ours, so stories about lunar robots and media mergers may have artificially piqued her interest.)

Webb and her husband even demand grades from the pediatrician to assess how the child is progressing. When the doctor won't offer a numeric evaluation, they request a letter grade:

“I don’t have any concerns, really ...” the pediatrician answered.

“Right, but if you look at all of her data and where she is right now compared to where other kids are at the same age, what do you think?” I pressed, handing him our giant binder of spreadsheets again. “Is there a way we can optimize her development?”

“What about just a letter grade? Is she a C+ or a B?” my husband interjected.

“Listen. I’d give your daughter a solid A- right now,” he answered, finally. “And I’d give the two of you a C. You guys need to relax. Leave the spreadsheets at home next time.”

We all document our kids' lives; so much so that quantifying the minutiae of our children's daily existence is practically its own genre. But isn't Webb's approach just a tad extreme, even by today's standards? Many of the more then 1,000 people who commented on her post responded with a resounding, "Yes!"


From reader EdieB:

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. Tracking every aspect of your child's existence is extremely creepy and wholly unhealthy. You can *attempt* to ward-off the title of helicopter parent(s), but you win the prize for hovering.

There's a telling line in Webb's post, in which she talks about tracking aspects of her pregnancy. She writes: "The logical part of me knew that all the healthy habits and precautions wouldn’t necessarily prevent autism or cystic fibrosis. But mapping all of my data to an area chart made me feel less anxious." One reader, kunino, writes that this attempt to calm her own nerves is likely behind Webb's frenetic measuring:

Ah, the point of this exercise. It makes clever Amy Webb less anxious. In years to come, she'll learn how the kid feels about it. Dealing with the kid when feeling anxious is the tried and trusted technique, and feeling anxious is only feeling anxious. Just about every caring parent does feel that, and should. and using the kind of performance statistics she generates, doubtless takes valuable clever Amy Webb time away from dealing with, um, the lucky kid. At least Ms Webb is satisfied with her own clever development.

Webb justifies her experiment this way:

All of the data we’ve been collecting requires an intense amount of attention so that we can observe and record our daughter’s many nuances, opportunities, and challenges. We don’t hover, and we’re not YouTube parents, mobile phone at the constant ready. Instead, we’re quietly but consciously tracking what engages our daughter and how she responds in various situations.

Still, I'm not sure I buy it.

This piece made me think of another kind of extreme documentation, but one that feels more reasonable, probably due to its ultimate goal of amassing knowledge on a much larger scale.

Deb Roy, of MIT's Media Lab, wanted to document how his infant son learned language, so he videotaped every moment of the child's life for three years to continuously capture each sound and track how those sounds evolved into words. Roy amassed about 90,000 hours of video, the "largest home video collection" of a baby ever made. But this is academic research, right? It's to benefit overall human understanding. So, it's different.  Here you can begin to tease out how language itself is formed or, as Roy says, "the blossoming of a speech form ... from 'gaga' to 'water.'"

So, readers, is measuring your child's every poop, morsel and sound smart parenting, or out-of-control neurosis? Let us know where you stand.

This program aired on July 18, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.

Rachel Zimmerman Twitter Health Reporter
Rachel Zimmerman previously reported on health and the intersection of health and business for Bostonomix.