In a world where information is more than abundant, can data lead parents to decisions that will help launch their children toward a successful, fulfilling life? Is it, in essence, possible to hack parenting a bit?

After reading an Atlantic article this week on that topic by a data scientist, I decided to email some researchers and other experts on aspects of family life to ask them what data could be particularly useful to those making parenting decisions — and how much data could impact parenting.

The answer, it seems, is a resounding “It depends.”

It depends on confirmation bias and the source of the information. It depends how the data was gathered and sometimes the biases of the person or team who collected it. It depends on whether the data is based on averages and whether your family fits those averages. It depends on how good you are at understanding data.

Nothing about those conclusions suggests data should be discounted. Research can be extremely telling and very instructive, experts told the Deseret News, as long as people consider factors like those mentioned above.

Some studies — especially those that are part of a larger body of research with similar findings — are indeed instructive. We can say with confidence that smoking is not a healthy habit. That stress can cause inflammation and weight gain. That adverse childhood experiences can create baggage that will be carried into adulthood.

Other studies offer substantial evidence, but may not apply to everyone equally, like research showing that being raised by two biological parents is the best situation for kids. If mom and dad argue a lot and treat each other with contempt, studies show kids may be better off if their parents divorce.

Researchers and other experts say they use data professionally and personally, but urge Americans to always pay attention to the details.

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Location, location, location

The data scientist who wrote The Atlantic article prompting my question about data-driven parenting is Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, author of the book “Don’t Trust Your Gut: Using Data to Get What You Really Want in Life.” He believes one parenting decision trumps all the others when it comes to impacting your child’s future: Where you choose to live.

For evidence, he cites a comprehensive look at income and location data from Harvard economist Raj Chetty and a team of researchers who analyzed tons of de-identified, anonymous data provided by the Internal Revenue Service on a whole generation of taxpayers. The researchers could see where children grew up and what they earned as adults. By focusing on siblings who’d moved as kids, they had a sort-of randomized experiment through which to see location’s impact.

“Take a hypothetical family of two children, Sarah and Emily Johnson. Suppose that when Sarah was 13 and Emily was 8, the family moved from Los Angeles to Denver. Suppose that Denver is a better place to raise a kid than Los Angeles. If this is the case, we would expect grown-up Emily to do better than Sarah, because she had five more years in Denver’s good-for-children air,” Stephens-Davidowitz wrote of the research.

Chetty’s team gave high marks to five metropolitan areas that seemed to give a kid an edge: Seattle; Minneapolis; Salt Lake City; Reading, Pennsylvania; and Madison, Wisconsin.

Then they studied data on neighborhoods, because that’s where people actually live, and created “The Opportunity Atlas,” a tool to look at measures like school quality, income and housing prices. Stephens-Davidowitz wrote that a home’s location creates about 25% — maybe more — of the overall impact a parent has on a child. Chetty’s team decided that neighborhood promoted a child’s success based on three factors: the share of two-parent households, the percent of residents who graduated from college and the percent that return their census forms.

Those factors point to neighborhoods filled with role models who are “smart, accomplished, engaged in their community and committed to stable family lives,” Stephens-Davidowitz wrote.

But not everyone can make the most of those findings. On Twitter, the group Diversity Data Kids noted a new report that said Black and Latinx kids don’t have much access to affordable neighborhoods in America and that those they can afford may provide less opportunity.

In other words, just seeing the data may not put what it shows within reach.

“The Atlantic was correct that neighborhood means a lot,” Jennifer Glass, director of the Council on Contemporary Families and a professor of sociology at the University of Texas at Austin, said. “But that is just another way of saying your parents’ social class matters more than how they raise you.”

That’s something she tells students when they discuss how much they would sacrifice financially to keep a parent home full time. “Even if it means living in a trailer and sending your kids to crappy schools?” Glass asks. “Money matters.”

Not everyone’s the same

Stephanie Coontz has studied American families for years and agrees that not everyone can use data to their advantage in the same way.

“This sort of question triggers alarm bells in my head,” said Coontz, a historian, professor emerita at The Evergreen State College and author of numerous books on American families. “America has so much more inequality in school quality, infrastructure, support systems for families, that in one sense the ‘smart’ thing to do is to maneuver to get yourself into the best zip codes and to get your kid a place in the better school, even if out of your own district.”

But such maneuvering perpetuates an inequality that deepens the disadvantages low-income families experience and “forces middle-income families to compete with each other for access to those things — something that sets off bidding wars on housing, leads couples to overextend their finances for quality preschool, etc. And, of course, it also perpetuates class and racial segregation,” said Coontz, director of research and public education for the Council on Contemporary Families.

She hopes parents consider the long-range advantages of exposing their children to socioeconomic and ethnic diversity and “modeling how empowering it can be to work for more fair outcomes for everyone.”

Shawn Fremstad, a senior fellow at the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, D.C., is a dad in a large city with a public school lottery, so he thinks about data sources like D.C.’s school finder.

“These kinds of tools may have some utility for a relatively elite class of parents, but I doubt they’ll ever be that useful for working-class and even most middle-class parents. Knowing the adult outcomes for children raised in a particular place 20-30 years ago is interesting, but there’s no guarantee that moving to that place will deliver the same outcomes 20-30 years from now,” he said.

He bought a house in an inner-city D.C. neighborhood 20 years ago that likely ranked poorly on such indicators. “But I knew there was a Red Line metro line coming in and I had a good enough sense of the area to think buying would be a good investment and would also allow me to move in the future for family or other reasons,” he said.

Soon after he became a father, new public charter schools opened within walking distance. He has no regrets, he said.

Fremstad believes people make decisions for a lot of reasons, including what schools are like and what kind of constraints their employment creates. For example, a high school pal moved from a rural city in southwest Minnesota to a college town near the Twin Cities. “Better schools, ability to stay with the same employer, moving somewhat closer to his own parents and other cultural aspects of his new city were what mattered,” Fremstad said.

Informed decisions

Wendy Wang, director of research for the Institute for Family Studies, is among the experts who believe that the percentage of households where there are two parents “is a big factor that increases a child’s success.” Bigger, even, than where to live, she said.

“Each year, we have about 40% of babies born out of wedlock in this country. I know this is not a ‘decision’ for everyone, but child outcomes are very different in different types of families. A lot of parenting is through role modeling, not techniques or tips,” Wang said.

But looking at data — keeping current on research — can be a valuable tool for parents, as well.

“Parenting can be evidence-based — hundreds of studies can inform us on how best to raise our children, from whether to use time-outs versus spanking to how much screen time is reasonable,” said Galena K. Rhoades, a research professor in University of Denver’s psychology department. “There are also many outlets for parents to learn about data-supported parenting practices, like, which provides tailored advice and resources based on location and children’s ages.”

Despite her cautions about data’s limitations, Glass said some research should lead to action. “Parents should send their kids to pre-k if they can.” She noted that if there aren’t enough kids in neighborhoods, young kids have little chance to develop their social skills naturally at home.

“There’s a lot of research on the benefits of pre-K, though it’s more important for less-affluent families,” she added.

Data and research on father involvement, equal sharing of domestic labor and the positive consequences for families helps shape Richard J. Petts’ behavior and decision-making as a father, the Ball State University sociology professor said.

When he thinks about data that could help parents make decisions, the first thing that comes to mind is data on schools and identifying good school districts, he said, noting that “these have become very important tools that parents use to identify which schools they should send their kids to.”

He also creates his own family-specific data, a kind of do-it-yourself information stream. The one he uses most is the family budget.

“Having a monthly budget allows us to know where our finances are all the time and plan ahead, which enables us to make better/smarter parenting decisions about child care, summer camps, extracurricular activities and family vacations. Just this week my daughter is trying out for a cheerleading team for the first time, and we were overloaded with details about expectations and expenses at a parenting meeting. Having a budget made it quite easy for us to figure out if we could make it work financially,” Petts said.

Data lets people make more informed decisions about nearly everything, he added. A report card provides the data that tells him where to help his kids most with homework, or where they need less help because they’re doing well.

Petts said “all good studies” do a pilot version first to be sure the study works as intended and to allow fine-tuning. Good teachers adjust their curriculum and how they teach if they aren’t getting the results they want. When planning vacations, the Petts family reads reviews extensively and use the information and the price — another bit of data — to find what works best for them.

“All of these are data-driven decisions,” said Petts.

Limits and exceptions

Questions about data-driven parenting are tricky “because evidence is only useful to people in their parenting decisions depending on their comfort with interpreting it,” said Sarah Halpern-Meekin, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

“There are all different kinds of evidence — statistical evidence of correlations or associations versus statistical evidence of causality; qualitative evidence from interviews or focus groups,” she said. Since most people aren’t good at thinking in term of probabilities, “we could have good evidence about the likelihood of different consequences from different actions but not be able to use that evidence well because our ability to interpret it accurately is limited.”

Research findings can also be confusing, she added, when they’re contradictory or they change. The good news is that researchers themselves don’t usually rely on a single study as they interpret scientific evidence to understand how the world works.

One area where parents really need good data is when they are faced with making medical decisions for their kids. “It’s important to remember that all evidence or information isn’t created equal,” added Halpern-Meekin. For instance, a finding can be based on flawed premises or scientific processes that are poorly constructed.

“Information literacy is so important. We want to make sure we’re not going hunting to find a piece of evidence or information that confirms what we already believed. We want to look at the weight of the evidence. Across multiple studies, what findings seem to reoccur or be fairly consistent,” she said.

Some advice

Licensed psychotherapist Lisa Bahar of Newport Beach, California, said data can support decision-making in diverse areas, from screen time on phones to sleep schedules, co-parenting, step-parenting and home schooling versus private or public school.

“All of these have data to support what is effective or not effective for families,” she said. But since data is based on what population researchers chose to study, it’s not as simple as just looking at the numbers, she warns.

Parents still have sorting and pondering to do. She recommends that parents:

  • List your values, which can be influenced by religion, personal preferences or simply what works for your family.
  • List the areas that give you a conflict or disruption in solid decision-making.
  • Review the data-driven information you have and input the pros and cons. But keep in mind that your values may conflict with the data-driven information. 
  • Make a plan. You might need a compromise plan B of what you feel would help without conflicting with your values, but is still based on data.
  • Align with your parenting partner, even if you are separated or divorced. “Communication is essential,” she said.

“The point is that data are always based on averages,” Coontz said. “And averages are not always the typical experience.” She talks of a study that said after divorce, 18% of kids were bullied more, while 14% were bullied less. For most, there was no change. But that didn’t mean individual kids didn’t see a change.

In one of her classes, she told students interviewing folks for oral histories to ask if their subjects had tasted lobster before age 15. They were able to prove, statistically, that tasting lobster by 15 was an “absolute predictor” of getting great grades and good jobs. “Of course, the data behind that was probably having parents who were wealthy enough to have lobster and child-centered enough to share it with them,” Coontz said.

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Sociologists have somewhat famously correlated rising ice cream sales to more murders. The actual factor influencing both is summer heat.

“You’ve got to use data very carefully, you have to understand that the average experience is almost never the typical experience. You have to understand that correlations are not usually causes,” said Coontz.

She said parents should remember that there are many complicated factors in raising kids. She thinks data used properly and considered carefully is a helpful tool.

“You really have to interrogate data. You have to have a real sense of yourself and your individual situation. And finally, you need to be careful to make sure that you’re not exacerbating a problem by following the data: ‘Oh my gosh, because schools make a difference, let’s go into debt to find the best one, let’s go into a bidding war with upper middle class people or cut some corners to get the child into it,” she said.

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