“Elf on the Shelf” and Economic Theory

Emily Oster

7 min Read Emily Oster

Emily Oster

“Elf on the Shelf” and Economic Theory

Why the debate over the toy makes me think of Bengt Holmström

Emily Oster

7 min Read

We are approaching Christmas — cookies, Santa, presents, whining, and, of course, the Elf-on-the-Shelf debate. In case you are not familiar, Elf on the Shelf is a tradition dating all the way back to 2005, when a self-published book introduced the world to the idea that Santa would send out his elves to check up on kids and report back on their behavior. The book spawned an industry of elf toys. The idea is that the parents move the elf around every day to different parts of the house so kids know they are being checked up on.

Some people think Elf on the Shelf is a great, funny Christmas tradition. It’s a daily scavenger hunt for children to find it, or a way to see if you can scare Dad by hiding a creepy elf in his secret cookie stash. If this is the use case, then please continue on!

However: another case for the Elf is to motivate better behavior. And this is where some people have objections and some parents wonder if the Elf really works. Today, let’s run through the concerns and the data. Why might you want to take the Elf off the shelf this year?

The surveillance state

There is a small academic literature that argues that the use of the Elf will get kids comfortable with being monitored by a surveillance state. In the words of one paper: “EotS can also be viewed as a more sinister societal surveillance tool, normalizing the panopticon and making parents complicit with the concept of omnipresent spying.” This concern particularly arises when the Elf is used in schools, as it sometimes is. Big Elf Brother is watching, and it’s just a short hop to 1984. 

I am not aware of any direct data suggesting that use of the Elf makes children more comfortable with surveillance.  

Elf shame

Fundamentally, part of the power of the Elf is shame. The Elf sees when you are nice and when you’re naughty. The idea that bad behavior is something that should shame you — should get you on the “bad” list with Santa — is not one that most child psychologists endorse. “Gentle parenting” and experts like Dr. Becky and Big Little Feelings emphasize that kids want to do well and that we’ve got to help them get there. We do that by giving them tools for how to deal with stressful situations and not by making them feel like bad people.

I think it is worth saying that virtually none of the evidence-based discipline programs use shame. Programs like 1-2-3 Magic, which incorporate time-outs, also discuss not using shame. A time-out is a consequence, but after the time-out, you move on. You do not continue to discuss the behavior; it’s just over. Elf shame doesn’t end, which is a problem.

There is no direct data on Elf shame, but I will note that there is good randomized evidence to support the discipline approaches, like 1-2-3 Magic, that do not incorporate shame.

Extrinsic versus intrinsic motivation

Elf on the Shelf is effectively a reward-based system, designed to alter behavior using extrinsic rather than intrinsic motivation.

Extrinsic motivation is motivation driven by some eternal reward. When I run a race motivated by the trophy for winning, that’s extrinsic motivation. Similarly, if a child behaves well because of the promise of a present (or to avoid the threat of a lump of coal), that’s extrinsic motivation. In contrast, if I run the race because I’m motivated to enjoy the activity and push myself physically, that’s intrinsic motivation. If a child behaves well because they believe that’s the best way to engage with the world, that reflects intrinsic motivation.

There is an enormous literature on extrinsic versus intrinsic motivation, but there is a sense that intrinsic motivation is “better.” We’d rather our children want to behave well because they feel that is the right thing to do than that they do so because they will be rewarded for doing so (or punished for not doing so). Intrinsic motivation has the benefit of carrying over when external rewards are removed.

The Elf-specific concern is that it may teach a child that the only reason to, say, not hit their sister is so they get a good present (or avoid a bad one).

The data here is a bit more mixed. Literature on school performance suggests that intrinsic motivation is more strongly associated with better school performance than extrinsic motivation is. At the same time, extrinsic motivation is widely used in schools and other settings, and there are situations in which it seems like a way to motivate a specific behavior or develop a new habit. Many people use rewards to potty train their children, for example, and once the habit is formed, kids do not need stickers every time they pee.

The question of whether in-classroom reward systems are appropriate is a complicated one that I will leave for another time. From an Elf perspective, I will just note that it isn’t based on the “better” type of motivation.

Multitasking failure

All of the arguments above are reasons why the Elf might be in some way harmful. A reasonable person — by which I mean a desperate pre-holiday parent — might be tempted to do it anyway if it works.

But: Elf on the Shelf isn’t likely to work, not in the broad sense of improving your child’s overall behavior. The answer to why not lies in economic theory — in particular, in the very beautiful paper “Multitask Principal-Agent Analyses” (Holmström and Milgrom, 1991). Wait! Don’t leave! Let me explain!

In this paper, the authors are interested in the best way to construct employment contracts and, more specifically, whether such contracts should reward performance directly. The simplest kind of job economists think about is one person making widgets (our generic name for a product; don’t ask). If your job is simply to make widgets, then the best way to pay them is to pay per successful widget. It aligns the incentives: the boss wants a widget, they pay for each widget, the worker is incentivized to make the widgets. This simple setup is effectively a pay-for-performance reward scheme.

This paper asks how to think about paying workers when what you want them to do is more complicated. The authors’ example is teachers. Teachers do not do just one thing — they don’t make widgets — and you cannot measure the true output you’d like to get (say, successful and happy students). What you can do is pay them for individual components of their performance, like their students’ test scores. The problem, though, is that if you pay teachers based on how their students do in math, they may spend all their time teaching (or drilling) math. They will invest less in other parts of their job, and you may actually get less of what you really want.

The paper argues that in this type of setting, it may make sense to simply pay a fixed wage, not linked to performance, since this is better than poorly designed incentives that distort effort. More generally, this work and follow-on work has made clear that the design of incentives in many settings is very important and, almost always, when you incentivize one thing, you get less of another. There is lots and lots of evidence that supports these ideas in the real world.

At the end, “Multitask Principal-Agent Analyses” has direct implications for Elf on the Shelf. The core idea is that giving incentives for one thing — say, good behavior in the month leading up to Christmas or, even more narrowly, good behavior in the room with the Elf — is a bad idea if you can’t also measure behavior at all of the other times or in all of the other rooms. Your child may be spending an inordinate amount of energy on good behavior in these isolated moments, leaving less emotional energy for behavior at other times.

This is to say: even if you completely put aside the question of intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation, issues of shame, concerns about negative parenting, and the worry about the surveillance state, the basic economic theory of multitasking says that Elf on the Shelf probably isn’t going to work.

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11 min read

Why I Look at Data Differently

A question I get frequently: Why does my analysis often disagree with groups like the American Academy of Pediatrics or Read more

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Jul 10 2023

6 min read

Three Big Changes in Pregnancy Data

I wrote Expecting Better during pregnancy and in the first year of my daughter’s life, in a period between 2011 Read more

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A child holds up an abacus with green and red beads arranged to look like a data chart.

Aug 10 2023

9 min read

Data Literacy for Parenting

The ParentData mission statement (it’s on my door!) is “To create the most data-literate generation of parents.” The other day, Read more

Emily Oster

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For children or adults with severe food allergies, they can be incredibly scary and restrictive. We may imagine that it’s easy to deal with a peanut allergy by, say, not eating peanut butter sandwiches. But for someone with a severe version of this allergy, they may never be able to go to a restaurant, for fear of a severe reaction to something in the air. Right now, there’s only one approved treatment for severe allergies like this and it’s limited to peanuts.

This is why the new medication Xolair is very exciting. It promises a second possible treatment avenue and one that works for other allergens. A new trail analyzed data from 177 children with severe food allergies. Two-thirds of the treatment group were able to tolerate the specified endpoint, versus just 7% of the placebo group. This is a very large treatment effect, and the authors found similarly large impacts on other allergens. 

There are some caveats: This treatment won’t work for everyone. (One-third of participants did not respond to it.) Additionally, this treatment is an injection given every two to four weeks, indefinitely. This may make it less palatable to children. 

Overall, even with caveats, this is life-changing news for many families!

#xolair #foodallergies #allergies #peanutallergy #emilyoster #parentdata

For children or adults with severe food allergies, they can be incredibly scary and restrictive. We may imagine that it’s easy to deal with a peanut allergy by, say, not eating peanut butter sandwiches. But for someone with a severe version of this allergy, they may never be able to go to a restaurant, for fear of a severe reaction to something in the air. Right now, there’s only one approved treatment for severe allergies like this and it’s limited to peanuts.

This is why the new medication Xolair is very exciting. It promises a second possible treatment avenue and one that works for other allergens. A new trail analyzed data from 177 children with severe food allergies. Two-thirds of the treatment group were able to tolerate the specified endpoint, versus just 7% of the placebo group. This is a very large treatment effect, and the authors found similarly large impacts on other allergens.

There are some caveats: This treatment won’t work for everyone. (One-third of participants did not respond to it.) Additionally, this treatment is an injection given every two to four weeks, indefinitely. This may make it less palatable to children.

Overall, even with caveats, this is life-changing news for many families!

#xolair #foodallergies #allergies #peanutallergy #emilyoster #parentdata
...

If you have a fever during pregnancy, you should take Tylenol, both because it will make you feel better and because of concerns about fever in pregnancy (although these are also overstated).

The evidence that suggests risks to Tylenol focuses largely on more extensive exposure — say, taking it for more than 28 days during pregnancy. There is no credible evidence, even correlational, to suggest that taking it occasionally for a fever or headache would be an issue.

People take Tylenol for a reason. For many people, the choice may be between debilitating weekly migraines and regular Tylenol usage. The impacts studies suggest are very small. In making this decision, we should weigh the real, known benefit against the suggestion of this possible risk. Perhaps not everyone will come out at the same place on this, but it is crucial we give people the tools to make the choice for themselves.

#emilyoster #parentdata #tylenol #pregnancy #pregnancytips

If you have a fever during pregnancy, you should take Tylenol, both because it will make you feel better and because of concerns about fever in pregnancy (although these are also overstated).

The evidence that suggests risks to Tylenol focuses largely on more extensive exposure — say, taking it for more than 28 days during pregnancy. There is no credible evidence, even correlational, to suggest that taking it occasionally for a fever or headache would be an issue.

People take Tylenol for a reason. For many people, the choice may be between debilitating weekly migraines and regular Tylenol usage. The impacts studies suggest are very small. In making this decision, we should weigh the real, known benefit against the suggestion of this possible risk. Perhaps not everyone will come out at the same place on this, but it is crucial we give people the tools to make the choice for themselves.

#emilyoster #parentdata #tylenol #pregnancy #pregnancytips
...

Parenting trends are like Cabbage Patch Kids: they’re usually only popular because a bunch of people are using them! Most of the time, these trends are not based on new scientific research, and even if they are, that new research doesn’t reflect all of what we’ve studied before.

In the future, before hopping onto the latest trend, check the data first. Unlike Cabbage Patch Kids, parenting trends can add a lot of unnecessary stress and challenges to your plate. What’s a recent trend that you’ve been wondering about?

#parentdata #emilyoster #parentingtips #parentingadvice #parentinghacks

Parenting trends are like Cabbage Patch Kids: they’re usually only popular because a bunch of people are using them! Most of the time, these trends are not based on new scientific research, and even if they are, that new research doesn’t reflect all of what we’ve studied before.

In the future, before hopping onto the latest trend, check the data first. Unlike Cabbage Patch Kids, parenting trends can add a lot of unnecessary stress and challenges to your plate. What’s a recent trend that you’ve been wondering about?

#parentdata #emilyoster #parentingtips #parentingadvice #parentinghacks
...

As of this week, 1 million copies of my books have been sold. This feels humbling and, frankly, unbelievable. I’m so thankful to those of you who’ve read and passed along your recommendations of the books.

When I wrote Expecting Better, I had no plan for all of this — I wrote that book because I felt compelled to write it, because it was the book I wanted to read. As I’ve come out with more books, and now ParentData, I am closer to seeing what I hope we can all create. That is: a world where everyone has access to reliable data, based on causal evidence, to make informed, confident decisions that work for their families.

I’m so grateful you’re all here as a part of this, and I want to thank you! If you’ve been waiting for the right moment to sign up for full access to ParentData, this is it. ⭐️ Comment “Link” for a DM with a discount code for 20% off of a new monthly or annual subscription to ParentData! 

Thank you again for being the best community of readers and internet-friends on the planet. I am so lucky to have you all here.

#parentdata #emilyoster #expectingbetter #cribsheet #familyfirm #parentingcommunity

As of this week, 1 million copies of my books have been sold. This feels humbling and, frankly, unbelievable. I’m so thankful to those of you who’ve read and passed along your recommendations of the books.

When I wrote Expecting Better, I had no plan for all of this — I wrote that book because I felt compelled to write it, because it was the book I wanted to read. As I’ve come out with more books, and now ParentData, I am closer to seeing what I hope we can all create. That is: a world where everyone has access to reliable data, based on causal evidence, to make informed, confident decisions that work for their families.

I’m so grateful you’re all here as a part of this, and I want to thank you! If you’ve been waiting for the right moment to sign up for full access to ParentData, this is it. ⭐️ Comment “Link” for a DM with a discount code for 20% off of a new monthly or annual subscription to ParentData!

Thank you again for being the best community of readers and internet-friends on the planet. I am so lucky to have you all here.

#parentdata #emilyoster #expectingbetter #cribsheet #familyfirm #parentingcommunity
...

Just eat your Cheerios and move on.

Just eat your Cheerios and move on. ...

The AAP’s guidelines recommend sleeping in the same room as your baby “ideally for the first six months.” However, the risk of SIDS is dramatically lower after four months, and the evidence in favor of the protective effect of room sharing is quite weak (both overall and even more so after four months). There is also growing evidence that infants who sleep in their own room by four months sleep better at four months, better at nine months, and even better at 30 months.

With this in mind, it’s worth asking why this recommendation continues at all — or at least why the AAP doesn’t push it back to four months. They say decreased arousals from sleep are linked to SIDS, which could mean that babies sleeping in their own room is risky. But this link is extremely indirect, and they do not show direct evidence to support it.

According to the data we have, parents should sleep in the same room as a baby for as long as it works for them! Sharing a room with a child may have negative impacts on both child and adult sleep. We should give families more help in navigating these trade-offs and making the decisions that work best for them.

#emilyoster #parentdata #roomsharing #sids #parentingguide

The AAP’s guidelines recommend sleeping in the same room as your baby “ideally for the first six months.” However, the risk of SIDS is dramatically lower after four months, and the evidence in favor of the protective effect of room sharing is quite weak (both overall and even more so after four months). There is also growing evidence that infants who sleep in their own room by four months sleep better at four months, better at nine months, and even better at 30 months.

With this in mind, it’s worth asking why this recommendation continues at all — or at least why the AAP doesn’t push it back to four months. They say decreased arousals from sleep are linked to SIDS, which could mean that babies sleeping in their own room is risky. But this link is extremely indirect, and they do not show direct evidence to support it.

According to the data we have, parents should sleep in the same room as a baby for as long as it works for them! Sharing a room with a child may have negative impacts on both child and adult sleep. We should give families more help in navigating these trade-offs and making the decisions that work best for them.

#emilyoster #parentdata #roomsharing #sids #parentingguide
...

It was an absolute pleasure to be featured on the @tamronhallshow! We talked about all things data-driven parenting and, in this clip, what I call the plague of secret parenting. To balance having a career and having a family, we can’t hide the fact that we’re parents. If mothers and fathers at the top can speak more openly about child-care obligations, it will help us all set a new precedent.

Watch the full segment at the link in my bio 🔗

#tamronhall #tamronhallshow #emilyoster #parentingsupport #workingparents

It was an absolute pleasure to be featured on the @tamronhallshow! We talked about all things data-driven parenting and, in this clip, what I call the plague of secret parenting. To balance having a career and having a family, we can’t hide the fact that we’re parents. If mothers and fathers at the top can speak more openly about child-care obligations, it will help us all set a new precedent.

Watch the full segment at the link in my bio 🔗

#tamronhall #tamronhallshow #emilyoster #parentingsupport #workingparents
...

Invisible labor. It’s the work — in our households especially — that has to happen but that no one sees. It’s making the doctor’s appointment, ensuring birthday cards are purchased, remembering the milk.

My guest on this episode, @everodsky, has come up with a solution here, or at least a way for us to recognize the problem and make our own solutions. I’ve wanted to speak with Eve for ages, since I read her book Fair Play. We had a great conversation about the division of household labor, one I think you’ll get a lot out of!

Listen and subscribe to ParentData with Emily Oster in your favorite podcast app 🎧

#emilyoster #parentdata #parentdatapodcast #parentingpodcast #householdtips #fairplay #invisiblelabor

Invisible labor. It’s the work — in our households especially — that has to happen but that no one sees. It’s making the doctor’s appointment, ensuring birthday cards are purchased, remembering the milk.

My guest on this episode, @everodsky, has come up with a solution here, or at least a way for us to recognize the problem and make our own solutions. I’ve wanted to speak with Eve for ages, since I read her book Fair Play. We had a great conversation about the division of household labor, one I think you’ll get a lot out of!

Listen and subscribe to ParentData with Emily Oster in your favorite podcast app 🎧

#emilyoster #parentdata #parentdatapodcast #parentingpodcast #householdtips #fairplay #invisiblelabor
...

Prenatal vitamins 💊 If there is any product that seems designed to prey on our fears, it’s this one. You’re newly pregnant and you want to do it right. Everyone agrees you need prenatal vitamins, so you get them. But do you want to be that person who just… buys the generic prenatal vitamins?

Good news: fancier vitamins are not better.  Folic acid is the most important prenatal ingredient. Iron (with vitamin C) and DHA are also nice to have. Other included ingredients have only weak or no evidence to support their use. (If you do not consume animal products, add B12, plus a few others depending on your diet.)

Vitamins are just vitamins. Any prenatal vitamin that contains these is enough. 

Comment “Link” for a DM to an article with everything you need to know about prenatal vitamins.

#emilyoster #parentdata #prenatalvitamins #pregnancydiet #pregnancytips

Prenatal vitamins 💊 If there is any product that seems designed to prey on our fears, it’s this one. You’re newly pregnant and you want to do it right. Everyone agrees you need prenatal vitamins, so you get them. But do you want to be that person who just… buys the generic prenatal vitamins?

Good news: fancier vitamins are not better. Folic acid is the most important prenatal ingredient. Iron (with vitamin C) and DHA are also nice to have. Other included ingredients have only weak or no evidence to support their use. (If you do not consume animal products, add B12, plus a few others depending on your diet.)

Vitamins are just vitamins. Any prenatal vitamin that contains these is enough.

Comment “Link” for a DM to an article with everything you need to know about prenatal vitamins.

#emilyoster #parentdata #prenatalvitamins #pregnancydiet #pregnancytips
...

When it comes to introducing your newborn to the world, timing matters. It’s a good idea to minimize germ exposure in the first 6-8 weeks; after that, it’s inevitable and, very likely, a good idea! This doesn’t mean you need to be trapped inside. The most significant exposure risks are from seeing other people at home — family, etc. These interactions are not infinitely risky, but they do pose more risk than a walk or a trip to the grocery store, since they involve closer interaction. Think simple and make sure everyone is washing their hands before holding the baby. 💛

#parentdata #emilyoster #newborncare #parentingadvice #parentingtips

When it comes to introducing your newborn to the world, timing matters. It’s a good idea to minimize germ exposure in the first 6-8 weeks; after that, it’s inevitable and, very likely, a good idea! This doesn’t mean you need to be trapped inside. The most significant exposure risks are from seeing other people at home — family, etc. These interactions are not infinitely risky, but they do pose more risk than a walk or a trip to the grocery store, since they involve closer interaction. Think simple and make sure everyone is washing their hands before holding the baby. 💛

#parentdata #emilyoster #newborncare #parentingadvice #parentingtips
...

The first edition of Hot Flash is out now! Comment “Link” for a DM to learn more about the late-reproductive stage.

There are times when we expect hormonal shifts. Our reproductive lives are bookended by puberty and menopause. We discuss those changes often because they are definitive and dramatic — a first period is something many of us remember clearly. But between ages 13 and 53, our hormones are changing in more subtle ways. During the late-reproductive stage (in your 40s), you can expect a lot of changes in your menstrual cycle, including the length and symptoms you experience throughout. It’s an important time in our lives that is often overlooked!

🔥 Hot Flash from ParentData is a weekly newsletter on navigating your health and hormones in the post-reproductive years. Written by Dr. Gillian Goddard, Hot Flash provides all of the information you need to have a productive, evidence-based conversation about hormonal health with your doctor.

#emilyoster #parentdata #hotflash #perimenopause #womenshealth

The first edition of Hot Flash is out now! Comment “Link” for a DM to learn more about the late-reproductive stage.

There are times when we expect hormonal shifts. Our reproductive lives are bookended by puberty and menopause. We discuss those changes often because they are definitive and dramatic — a first period is something many of us remember clearly. But between ages 13 and 53, our hormones are changing in more subtle ways. During the late-reproductive stage (in your 40s), you can expect a lot of changes in your menstrual cycle, including the length and symptoms you experience throughout. It’s an important time in our lives that is often overlooked!

🔥 Hot Flash from ParentData is a weekly newsletter on navigating your health and hormones in the post-reproductive years. Written by Dr. Gillian Goddard, Hot Flash provides all of the information you need to have a productive, evidence-based conversation about hormonal health with your doctor.

#emilyoster #parentdata #hotflash #perimenopause #womenshealth
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There are plenty of reels telling you how to parent. Plenty of panic headlines saying that “studies show” what’s best for your kid. Even good data, from a trusted source, can send us into a spiral of comparison. But I want you to remember that no one knows your kid better than you. It’s important to absorb the research, but only you will know the approach that works best for you and your child. 💙

Now tell me in the comments: what’s a parenting move you’ve made recently that feels right to you?

#parentingcommunity #parentingsupport #parentingquotes #emilyoster #parentdata

There are plenty of reels telling you how to parent. Plenty of panic headlines saying that “studies show” what’s best for your kid. Even good data, from a trusted source, can send us into a spiral of comparison. But I want you to remember that no one knows your kid better than you. It’s important to absorb the research, but only you will know the approach that works best for you and your child. 💙

Now tell me in the comments: what’s a parenting move you’ve made recently that feels right to you?

#parentingcommunity #parentingsupport #parentingquotes #emilyoster #parentdata
...

Let’s talk about sex (after) baby! Today on the podcast, I was lucky enough to speak with @enagoski about her new book on sexual connection in long-term relationships. Especially after having kids, this is something many people struggle with. Emily tells us to stop worrying about what’s “normal” and focus on pleasure in its many forms.

Listen and subscribe to ParentData with Emily Oster in your favorite podcast app 🎧

#parentdata #parentdatapodcast #emilyoster #emilynagoski #comeasyouare #cometogether #longtermrelationship #intimacy #relationships

Let’s talk about sex (after) baby! Today on the podcast, I was lucky enough to speak with @enagoski about her new book on sexual connection in long-term relationships. Especially after having kids, this is something many people struggle with. Emily tells us to stop worrying about what’s “normal” and focus on pleasure in its many forms.

Listen and subscribe to ParentData with Emily Oster in your favorite podcast app 🎧

#parentdata #parentdatapodcast #emilyoster #emilynagoski #comeasyouare #cometogether #longtermrelationship #intimacy #relationships
...

Ever wondered if you can safely use leftover baby formula? 🍼 The CDC says to throw out unused formula immediately because of the risk of bacterial growth. However, research suggests that bacterial concentrations do not appreciably increase after 3, 12, or even 24 hours at refrigerator temperatures. Good news! This means there’s not a strong data-based reason to throw out formula right away if you store it in the fridge.

Comment “Link” for a DM to an article on another common formula question: should you throw away old formula powder?

#emilyoster #parentdata #babyformula #babyfeeding #parentingstruggles

Ever wondered if you can safely use leftover baby formula? 🍼 The CDC says to throw out unused formula immediately because of the risk of bacterial growth. However, research suggests that bacterial concentrations do not appreciably increase after 3, 12, or even 24 hours at refrigerator temperatures. Good news! This means there’s not a strong data-based reason to throw out formula right away if you store it in the fridge.

Comment “Link” for a DM to an article on another common formula question: should you throw away old formula powder?

#emilyoster #parentdata #babyformula #babyfeeding #parentingstruggles
...

What’s the most important piece of advice for new parents? Here’s one answer, but I want to hear from you! Share your suggestions in the comments ⬇️

#emilyoster #parentdata #parentingtips #parentingadvice #newparents #parentingcommunity

What’s the most important piece of advice for new parents? Here’s one answer, but I want to hear from you! Share your suggestions in the comments ⬇️

#emilyoster #parentdata #parentingtips #parentingadvice #newparents #parentingcommunity
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What's in the bag of a Vagina Economist? 👀 Someone please tell me this looks familiar to you.

What`s in the bag of a Vagina Economist? 👀 Someone please tell me this looks familiar to you. ...