Se we launched a series of little experiments. We’d read studies showing a direct, positive correlation between future academic achievement and the number of words to which a new child is exposed, so we measured her attentiveness according to time of day and what we were reading. During feedings, 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.)
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.
Next, we moved on to vocabulary. Dec. 10, “ga” and “mmm” sounds consistently. “Da-da” on Dec. 22. “Ah” means “mom” as of Dec. 30.
At 15 months, we knew the 37 complete words she’d mastered and the 11 miscellaneous vowel sounds that meant real-world objects. We were keenly aware that she loved call-and-response activities and that Taro Gomi’s book Everyone Poops made her laugh hysterically, so we created a few simple games to help her learn about her body parts and digestion.
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.
“Everything looks good,” the pediatrician said. We had a healthy, alert kid.
“If you were to assign us a number, say one to 10, to tell us how she’s doing, what would you give us?” my husband asked him.
“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.”
To you, our data tracking might seem obsessive, ostentatious, or just plain weird. Let me offer some perspective.
Our data tracking—and we’re still doing it, years later—is how we pay deep, sincere attention to our child. And I have tangible proof that it’s working.
Last week in my daughter’s ballet class, four mothers were sitting outside of a fairly transparent one-way mirror, iPhones outstretched with the record button on the entire time. I took a seat on the sofa and positioned myself so that I could occasionally glance up to see what the class was doing without distracting her.
One of the particularly chatty mothers told everyone that her daughter had “really taken to dancing,” and that since her husband is 6-foot-5 her daughter was definitely going to be tall and thin. “She’s going to be a professional ballerina,” she said, matter-of-factly. The other parents nodded in polite agreement. Then she turned to me.
“Your daughter is short with curly hair, right?”
There were four kids in class. Mine, hers, and two Asian girls.
“Yes,” I said flatly.
“Well she doesn’t look very happy,” she said. “I think there’s something wrong.”
About 10 minutes later, the door opened up and my daughter ran towards me with her usual wide grin. “The teacher gave us star stickers today!” she said. “I learned to jump like this,” she said, kicking her tiny feet perilously close to my right knee. “Did you see my special pose? I was an upside-down cowgirl.”
I looked over at the mother, whose future professional ballerina had been crying before class and was now whining about how much her ballet shoes pinched, and it was too hot in the room, and she didn’t like the music. “Do we have to come back here?” she said over and over.
There are many differences between that chatty mother and me, but what sets us apart most in in how we pay attention to our children. The feedback she offers is one-directional. It’s reactive and superficial, and it doesn’t take into account what her child is most likely really thinking.
As a parent, I have years of data and pattern recognition. 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.
I’d argue that our extremely intimate connection through the data we track helps us be better parents to our daughter. Watching her data in all forms, learning about what will empower her to achieve her very best and understanding what might be a trigger for frustration, and then giving her the tools to fully explore her interests is the basis for top educational philosophies, such as the Montessori method. It’s that meaningful attention that psychologists say children crave, and it’s what we know propels kids to new heights.
Our method just comes with spreadsheets.