The XX Factor

Hey Tech Dads, Please Don’t “Hack” Your Kids

“Hey honey, did you know that lifting the baby up in the air at a 20 degree angle gives you a 70 percent chance of making them smile?” “Uh-huh.”

Thinkstock/Noel Hendrickson

One perk of working in an industry that is predominantly male is that men will always have an excuse for not realizing their allegedly new ideas have already been used by women for decades. Such was the case with Soylent, the venture capital-financed powdered meal replacement that really isn’t much more than dude-ified Slim Fast. Apparently there wasn’t a woman around, or woman deemed worthy of providing counsel, to tell the minds behind Soylent that their weight-conscious aunt has been imbibing a similar powdered meal replacement since the 1980s.

Now with the rise of paternity leave at tech companies, tens of thousands of male disrupters are heading home to take care of their babies. This is wonderful, a welcome sign of progress that will hopefully serve as inspiration for the many companies that don’t offer paid leave for dads and the many dads who don’t take it. But it would behoove all these natural-born tinkerers to remember that while their presence may be novel, taking care of babies is not. Women have been doing infant care since time immemorial, and their lady brains have come up with countless strategies, or, if you prefer, “hacks,” for managing infants. We don’t need daddy disrupters to save us—we need them to help. And should daddy have a question, it just so happens that there are plenty of knowing, experienced women around to ask.

The pitfalls of daddy disruption are made clear in the writing of Tyler Lund, a senior manager and software developer at Audible. Lund has been blogging his way through paternity leave for Medium, and recently wrote a popular post entitled, “How I used A / B testing to hack my kids” which was also published on Lifehacker. In it, he describes how he took a common tool of his trade—the practice of trying two possible solutions for the same issue at once, and comparing the outcome—and used it to try to get his 10-week-old twins to sleep longer.

His process involved keeping meticulous records of his boys’ sleep schedules and introducing a new routine to one son while the other son remained the “control.” (Though even this hacker dad concedes that rapidly changing infants make for lousy controls.) First he tested the amount of breastmilk (or formula; he doesn’t specify) given to his sons before bedtime. Then he tried a scientifically unproven product called Gripe Water on one boy at a time, and saw a “small increase on average, between 20 and 30 minutes, but again this may have been natural increases due to age.” Eventually, he moved on to adding another feeding before bed, and keeping his sons awake longer during the day.

He concludes the post by acknowledging that he is unable to draw any broad conclusions from his attempt at baby-hacking, due mostly to the constraints of a small sample size and highly inconvenient “natural progression.” But his belief in the power of using what he believes are such radical, tech-inspired measures on his babies has not wavered. He just needs to do it better. “Though several of the methods didn’t show large improvements, put together they may,” he concludes. “With this approach to parenting, the boys can continuously grow as well. And with luck, so will our sanity, well-being, and lives as parents.”

Yeah, so “this approach”? It’s nothing new. Mothers and other caretakers have always tried tweaking sleeping and feeding routines to try to get their infants to sleep longer. And as their kids grow up, they continue to tinker away at how to feed, discipline, soothe, and inspire their children. What Lund did isn’t a novel take on parenting—it is parenting. Just with more charts and a refusal to accept the fact that, when it comes to children, no solution is permanent.

It’s possible that Lund’s ignorance is a result of his failure to stop and ask the mothers in his life what they thought of his experiment before writing about it. Surely, one of them would have kindly let him know that, while well-intended, it isn’t particularly innovative. Or, maybe he’s just not used to paying attention to women, as evidenced by another paternity-leave themed blog post of his, in which he explains that he never realized just how much more domestic work his wife was doing until he had children. “I hadn’t really thought about how nearly every night for the last few years, we’d both get home and while I plopped on the couch and read Twitter or put on the TV to decompress from work, she was cooking dinner and doing dishes for up to two hours sometimes,” he writes in “Not a vacation: lessons from paternity leave.” Every night? Last few years? Up to two hours? Bro.

The real tragedy here isn’t Lund’s inability to recognize that women have figured out a thing or two during our long history of infant care. Instead, it’s his apparent inability to recognize that the true joy of children lies in their unhackability—and not just because the word “hack” is a terrible one to use in conjunction with “my kids.” Our offspring are shape-shifting creatures whose evolution will inevitably be marked by moments of contradiction and surprise. The intimacy we feel with them is not in spite of all this mystery, but largely because of it. Parents have, and will, always tinker with the small details of their children’s lives, but the beauty and grace of their existence lies in all the details we could never solve.