Data-Driven Parenting: A Mom Who Tracks Everything

Jul 30, 2013

Many parents look to parenting books and blogs for tips on raising their children. Amy Webb prefers to collect and analyze her own data to direct her parenting style.

“I measure everything my kid does,” reads her recent column in Slate. “And I track it on spreadsheets. Really — every single thing. Even every poop. And it makes me a better parent.”

Webb is head of the digital strategy agency Webbmedia Group and is author of a book called “Data, A Love Story: How I Gamed Online Dating to Meet My Match.”

“As long as we were doing that, we figured why don’t we track sleep? Why don’t we track attentiveness?”

“I’m somebody who lives and breathes data. I’ve written a book about it — how I used data to find my husband. And, for me, data is a way to comfortably control situations that may not be otherwise controllable,” Webb told Here & Now.

Webb says she was older the first time she got pregnant, and worried about having a healthy pregnancy.

“I had had several miscarriages and I guess I had thought that I couldn’t control the miscarriage rate, but I could control what I was eating and how I was taking care of myself,” Webb said. “So my husband and I — because he was a big part of this too — we were very, very intent on making sure we had a successful pregnancy. And for us, that meant tracking every data point that we could to ensure that we reached the full term.”

Shortly after the birth of her daughter, Webb’s doctor encouraged her and her husband to keep notes on the baby’s feedings.

“We were measuring the liquid that we were putting into her, and then making sure that enough was coming out on the other end. That for us was sort of the gateway drug,” she said.

She and her husband were soon tracking other things as well.

“As long as we were doing that, we figured why don’t we track sleep? Why don’t we track attentiveness? Why don’t we try to figure out what’s stimulating her — you know, how she’s being stimulated — so that we can optimize her early development?”

“There’s a difference between data collection and helicopter parenting.”

The couple analyzed things like whether their daughter was more comfortable with white noise or silence when going back to sleep, and whether she cared for reading board books or just liked the tones of their voices.

After a while, their pediatrician did urge them to stop filling out the spreadsheets, but Webb decided not to listen.

“The reason is because we started to see real, tangible results,” Webb said. “At four months our daughter was sleeping through the night and at six months she was speaking. And she’s three years old now, and as a result I think of what we’ve done — and to be fair, some of it’s genetic — but she just turned three and she can read.”

Webb says she’ll continue to track her daughter’s data as long as it makes sense to do so — probably as long as she’s living at home.

“There’s a difference between data collection and helicopter parenting,” she said. “What we’re really doing is paying really close attention to her, but we’re giving her the freedom to do what she wants within a framework. And that’s kind of how I was raised, just in a less techie way.”

Guest

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:

Everyone has their ideas about parenting, and some parents find other parents' ideas about parenting a bit strange. But the woman we're going to hear from now has taken things to a whole new level. Amy Webb tracks just about everything her three-year-old daughter does, analyzes the data on spreadsheets. She is the CEO of Webbmedia Group and the "Data Mine" columnist at Slate. And she joins us now. Amy, welcome.

AMY WEBB: Hi.

HOBSON: Well, so you started collecting data on your daughter when she was in vitro. Why did you start doing that?

WEBB: Well, I'm somebody who lives and breathes data, and I've written a book about it, how I used data to find my husband. And for me data is a way to sort of comfortably control situations that may not be otherwise controllable. So I was older the first time that I got pregnant, and I was concerned about having a healthy pregnancy. I had had several miscarriages, and I guess I had thought that I couldn't control the miscarriage rate but I could control what I was eating and how I was taking care of myself. So my husband and I, because he was a big part of this too, we were very, very intent on making sure that we had a successful pregnancy. And for us that meant tracking every data point that we could to ensure that we were able to reach the full term.

HOBSON: And give us a sense of what that means. What were you tracking?

WEBB: We were tracking basic things like making sure that I, you know, had the right amount of vitamins and that I was drinking enough water, but we were also tracking things like sleep and exercise. I was convinced I was going to get gestational diabetes, even though I guess I didn't have any markers for it. But we were tracking everything. We also did as much genetic testing as we were able to, just really trying to make sure that we were doing everything we could to make sure we had a successful pregnancy.

HOBSON: There are a lot of people who have had a lot of miscarriages in their life, and they don't take these kinds of measures. Why do you think you decided to go this far?

WEBB: Well, you know, I've been pregnant nine times and I have one child. And in my case, I'm 38 years old. I had my daughter when I was 35. About 20 percent of the miscarriages go - not undiagnosed, but there's no real, you know, there's no way to explain what caused them. So in our case, you know, we may not have been able to find an explanation, and we weren't trying to answer why weren't the previous pregnancies sticking at that point; we were just trying to figure out how to get through the one that had crossed the magical 12-week mark.

HOBSON: But is there something about you in particular, do you think, that made you go the data route here?

WEBB: Yeah. I'm a pretty anxious person, and ever since I was a little kid, for whatever reason, math has helped me get through times when I'm feeling anxious and feeling unsure. And, you know, in a lot of cases, when I haven't been able to control what's going on around me, I like having information.

For me, the one thing that will sort of keep me focused and calm and not feeling anxious is having as much information as possible so that I can make my own reasonable inferences and decisions. And even if it's a case where maybe there is no decision to be made, I do feel that there's - for me, a certain comfort in having data that I can parse and formulas that I can put numbers through. It just makes me feel better.

HOBSON: And you have continued this even after your daughter was born. Give us an example of some of the things you've been charting and when you began tracking progress.

WEBB: So here's what happened. I - we got all the way to the end of the pregnancy. Everything looked great. I gave birth to a very healthy baby, and she lost weight while we were in the hospital. Now, I was a planned C-section, and it's normal for C-section babies to lose a little bit of weight, but she crossed the 10 percent mark, which meant that she had to start putting weight back on, otherwise there would be additional complications.

As a result of that, our pediatrician asked us to measure and to control, you know, what she was intaking. I had planned on breastfeeding, and at that point, we were going to supplement with formula just to make sure that everything was fine, which meant that we were measuring the liquid that we were putting in to her and then making sure that, you know, enough was coming out on the other end. That, for us, was sort of the gateway drug.

So our pediatrician asked us to do that for a couple of weeks to make sure she had sort of gotten up to the right level. But as long as we were doing that, we figured, well, you know, why don't we track sleep? Why don't we track attentiveness, you know? Why don't we try to figure out what's stimulating her, you know, how she's being stimulated so that we can optimize her early development?

And so what started out as simple measurements of how much milk and formula, you know, she was getting and how long she fed, weeks later became, you know, at 3:00 in the morning, when we're doing this feeding, you know, is she more comfortable with, you know, some kind of white noise going back to sleep? Is she more comfortable with complete silence? That became, you know, when we read to her, does she care for reading board books or is it just the tone of our voice?

We had read all kind of studies showing that kids who are exposed to lots of language just cognitively develop faster and better. So it turns out that, you know, when we were reading things that were interesting to us, she was extremely attentive and happy, which meant we were reading a lot of issues of The New Yorker out loud, and we were reading issues of Popular Science and when we were excited, she was excited.

HOBSON: We're speaking with Amy Webb. She and her husband track just about everything their child does. We will have more with her after a quick break. HERE AND NOW.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HOBSON: It's HERE AND NOW. We are continuing our conversation with Amy Webb, owner of Webbmedia, and the "Data Mine" columnist at Slate. Her article "I Measure Everything My Kid Does and Track It on Spreadsheets, It Makes Me A Better Parent" inspired the - inspired an uproar online.

Amy and her husband started tracking data while Amy was pregnant. They had had trouble in the past with miscarriages. But when their daughter was born, the tracking continued. And Amy, your pediatrician, at one point, urged you to stop filling out spreadsheets on your child's feeding and bathroom habits, input and output, as you say. Why didn't you listen to the doctor?

WEBB: That's a really polite way of putting it.

(LAUGHTER)

WEBB: So, a couple of months in, we went in for one of her checkups, and we were asking our pediatrician - who, by the way, we love and think is wonderful. But we asked him for a letter grade. You know, at this point, give our kid a grade. Is she a C, you know, is she a B-plus? What can we do to make sure that she's developing better?

And he wouldn't give us a grade. In fact, he wouldn't even give us the growth chart that every other parent gets, where you - there's like a dot that they put on this very specific chart to sort of track the physical growth of your child. We weren't allowed to see that.

HOBSON: He just said relax.

WEBB: He did. He, at one point, said, you know, your daughter gets an A-minus. The two of you get a D. You need to take it easy.

(LAUGHTER)

WEBB: And we ignored him. And the reason is because we started to see real, tangible results. At four months, our daughter was sleeping through the night, and at six months, she was speaking. And she's three years old now, and as a result, I think, of what we've done - and to be fair, some of it's genetic. But she just turned three, and she can read. And, you know, she can actually read. She can identify all the letters of the alphabet. She can write her name by herself. And she's bilingual. We're raising her to be able to speak both English and Spanish, and she can do that now.

And I would argue that the reason that we're seeing these successes is because this was about us paying attention. So the way that we were tracking all of this information, you know, we knew that at 4 o'clock in the afternoon, that's her peak time for being interested in stuff. And in watching sort of what she was doing and the patterns of what she was interested in, you know, just because it was Wednesday, didn't mean that she was necessarily interested in science. But at this moment in time, it may be that's she interested in math.

And so knowing that, we would optimize the time, you know, that we had with her to make sure that we were infusing her with as much of whatever she was interested in at that moment. And that's actually not something that we just invented. The Montessori education system tries to do the same thing.

HOBSON: OK. Amy, I have a lot of questions here. First of all, how did you have time to do all this?

WEBB: Well, what we did with data was borne, to some extent, out of necessity. What we've continued to do with it, we've made time for, because it was very, very difficult for us to have a child. And now that we have one, you know, we don't want to screw it up. And not only do we not want to screw it up, we want to make sure that we have the best, most amazing child that we can possibly have.

HOBSON: But are you worried that you're over-parenting, that she's not going to be able to sort of run free in a way that kids do because you're monitoring everything that she does?

WEBB: So here's the key, here. There's a difference between data collection and helicopter parenting. You know, what we're really doing is paying very close attention to her, but we're giving her the freedom to sort of do what she wants within a framework. And that's kind of how I was raised, just in a less techie way. I was in a different lesson every day of the week. Education was very, very important. But there was no demands on me to get an A-plus, and there was no demands on me to win every concerto competition that I was in. And we take the same approach.

So, you know, it's fine for our child to fail, and we are not on top of her at all times. We want her to explore and be independent. I guess in our case, we're just trying to optimize the time that she has.

HOBSON: But is it really fine for her to fail? I mean, wouldn't you change something if you found out that she was failing at anything? It could even be something small.

WEBB: Yeah. It's fine for her to fail. You know, I work in technology, and there's this sort of mantra to fail fast. And in our case, and in general, you know, I don't want her to fail fast. I want her to iterate fast. I want her to succeed fast. So, you know, if she fails at something, it's totally fine. She didn't walk - she skipped crawling. So she never crawled, and you could say that she failed at crawling, or you could say that, on her first birthday, she took a few steps, and she's walking just fine.

It's inevitable that at some point, you know, she will get a C on a test or something, somewhere down the road or, you know, she won't hit a mark. I guess the key difference is that, for us, it's more important for us to figure out what are the best benchmarks for her, and then to do what we can to provide a situation where she can achieve success within those benchmarks - which, again, is just a totally different approach to childhood development and to education than what we see in the United States.

HOBSON: Do you feel like you've gone too far at any point? Is there any point you've looked back and said, that was a bit much, I shouldn't have done that?

WEBB: I'd say no, but I get asked that question a lot. You know, I have a very data-driven approach to just about everything that I do, and that's a provocative thing for people who don't see beauty and benefit in numbers. So I can understand from somebody else's point of view that this looks insane, right? And you had asked a question about time. You know, time management is about having great systems and frameworks and creating situations where you can stick to them. So this is about us making observations, noting observations, you know, within the system that we have, and then making decisions based on that.

HOBSON: How long are you going to keep doing this? Your daughter's three now.

WEBB: Yeah. We're going to, you know, do it forever.

HOBSON: Forever?

WEBB: I have a feeling my dad - well, yeah. Because, you know, this is about continually trying to figure out how we can create opportunities for her. If, for example, I don't think it's a good idea for us to just force her to take piano lessons because, you know, maybe - music development - music lessons benefits early childhood development. And so cognitively, exposing her to music lessons of some kind is a good thing, but she may not like piano or she may not show a proficiency. That's fine. You know, we'll find something else.

But the only way we're going to know how to do that is if we continue to track. And so we're going to continue to track when she's three and when she's 10, and for as long as it makes sense, which, you know, I would think is probably while she's living in our house.

HOBSON: Now, your article in Slate has close to a thousand comments, overwhelmingly negative, saying that your attention to detail is, quote, "terrifying, disturbing, obsessive," and that your daughter is destined to rebel. What do you say to all those people who have been commenting on Slate?

WEBB: I would say that I agree that she's destined to rebel. I rebelled. I did. And you could argue that what I'm doing right now is an act of rebellion. You know, I - I was just at this conference, and I was talking with a lot of people who work in education. And we have systems in place that everybody sort of funnels themselves through, and they hope that at the end of it, they've done the best they can.

And I rebel against the status quo. That's what I do every day. And, of course, that's going to rub people the wrong way. I guess the difference here is that I see some tangible proof. And so my rebellion against the system and the status quo is I'm going to track this stuff. My kid's probably not going to know until she's older that that's what I'm doing. And when she finds out, I'm hoping that she'll find beauty in my spreadsheets. And at some point, you know, I hope that she rebels, too, because rebelling against the status quo means that she's exercising creativity, and she's looking for a better way to do things. And that is the very nature of what successful people, you know, what they do and how they make things better.

HOBSON: Amy Webb is the CEO of the Webbmedia Group. Her article "I Measure Everything My Kid Does, and Track It on Spreadsheets. It Makes Me a Better Parent" appeared in Slate. We've got a link at hereandnow.org. Amy, thanks so much for speaking with us.

WEBB: Thank you.

HOBSON: Well, what do you think about that?

ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:

OK.

HOBSON: Are Amy Webb and her husband overparenting, or do you think that her data collecting methods have merit? Go to hereandnow.org, leave a comment. You can also head to our Facebook page: facebook.com/hereandnowradio.

YOUNG: Well, Jeremy, they already have.

HOBSON: Yeah.

YOUNG: Let's read some of the comments. Lauri Kraus Minor says: Parents who are so stuck in the weeds and are always sweating over the little things run the risk of not seeing the big picture and missing out on so much of the fun that having kids can bring. Marie DeYoung agrees. She writes: I predict this child will flee from the nest at the first possible opportunity.

But Amy has supporters. Art Toegemann says: This is standard for people interested in biofeedback on themselves and their children. It's interesting, fascinating. I would just say that, you know, good thing she is a statistician, because I could never do this. I couldn't do it. You know, mathematically, I wouldn't be able to do it.

HOBSON: Yeah. Well, and I asked her, how do you have time to do this? But I think she sees it as a very important part of parenting, and she sees it as the way to success for her daughter. So, anyway, let us know what you think at hereandnow.org. From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Jeremy Hobson.

YOUNG: I'm Robin Young. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.