How Dr. Becky Became the Millennial Parenting Whisperer

17 minute read

If you are a parent of a child under the age of, say, 10, it’s unlikely that you made it through the pandemic without coming across Dr. Becky. The clinical psychologist has become the parenting expert of the moment, an attractive 38-year-old Manhattan mom of three who is a fount of easily digestible advice about what to do when your kid won’t go to bed or throws a tantrum when it’s time to leave the playground or is in Zoom kindergarten for six hours a day, or when your in-laws visit and can’t stop criticizing your parenting. She counsels mostly on Instagram, via videos that she records with her iPhone against a wall in her apartment, and she does it all while reassuring parents that they are, in fact, doing a good job. Because if there is anything that parents who have been cooped up with their children for more than a year need to hear, it’s that even if they yell, even if they collapse with frustration at the end of yet another seemingly endless day, they’ve got this.

These mostly millennial parents flock to Dr. Becky not just because they want to be better parents but because they want to understand how the way they were raised impacts the way they’re raising their own kids—which, for many of them, means rejecting the highly anxious, carrot-and-stick reward-and-punishment style of suburban American middle-class boomer parenting that they grew up with. These are parents who were born in the ’80s and early ’90s, a time when the milk they poured in their cereal came from cartons plastered with the faces of missing children, when so-called helicopter parenting—the idea that you could literally not be too involved in your children’s lives—came into vogue, leading to a generation of children whose parents thought it was totally fine to contest a college term-paper grade.

In a 2012 paper in the Journal of Adolescence reflecting on the trend of helicopter parenting, authors Laura Padilla-Walker and Larry Nelson described “a form of parenting that includes intrusive and unnecessary micromanagement of a child’s independent activities, and strong affection in the absence of child distress or need for comforting,” which research in the ’90s and early 2000s repeatedly found leads to anxiety-related problems, social withdrawal and peer difficulties in young children. “Given that involvement, protection, affection, etc., tend to be aspects of ‘good’ parenting,” wrote Padilla-Walker and Nelson, “it leads to the question of when and whether a parent can give too much of a ‘good’ thing.” Indeed, a 2019 Blue Cross Blue Shield study of millennials’ mental health found that millennials are experiencing depression and other behavioral-health issues at a much higher rate than Gen Xers did when they were the same age—and some experts connect that trend with the helicopter parenting that was common when millennials were growing up. Is it really any surprise that this generation now wants to break that fear-anxiety cycle in their own families?

Dr. Becky
Aubrey Sabala, who follows Dr. Becky’s parenting advice, cuddles her daughter in Atlanta on May 25.Peyton Fulford for TIME

But the helicopter parenting of millennial childhoods was merely replaced with a new source of anxiety: raising a kid in the era of competitive social media, when it seems as if every other parent on Instagram has a perfectly arranged playroom of wooden Montessori toys. Their guide through all of this has surfaced as the wise yet relatable Dr. Becky, a kind of Dr. Spock in a T-shirt, with highlights.

Until February 2020, Becky Kennedy, Ph.D., didn’t even have an Instagram account. Now she has more than 600,000 followers on the platform, 95% of whom are women and 78% of whom are ages 25 to 44. She has sold more than 35,000 workshops—on topics ranging from potty training to how to deal with “deeply feeling kids”—at $54 each or up to $275 for a “bundle,” meaning that, conservatively, she has brought in more than $1.8 million in a year from her workshops alone. Her podcast, Good Inside With Dr. Becky, immediately went to No. 1 on the Apple Podcasts Kids & Family chart when it launched in April; she publishes a weekly newsletter; and, very soon, you will be able to preorder her forthcoming book. You can also, if you’re a mental-health professional, apply to be certified in the Dr. Becky method. What you cannot do, if you are a millennial parent, it seems, is get too much of Dr. Becky.

“How much was I encouraged to be my own person? Not an extension, not a convenience, not ‘good,’ but my own person?” Kennedy, herself a millennial, asks about her own childhood when we talk via Zoom. She’s in her apartment, up against the very same wall where she records her videos. She is petite, with blond hair in a ponytail, and is wearing a T-shirt and, seemingly, no makeup. “A lot of millennial parents, when we reflect on that, we’re like, Not really! Only when it worked out for everyone, which probably means when it was convenient.” Now, she says, “we’re learning to raise our kids and separate from our parents.” Cloaked in a cozy blanket of tantrum tips, Kennedy’s real Instagram advice is not about kids. It’s about the person buried inside each parent. Soothe the adult, she reasons, and the child follows.

"I think in my parents' generation, they raised us a lot through fear—their fear and then our fear."

Junette Sheen, a mom of a 4-year-old, who lives in Pasadena, Calif., has been following Dr. Becky for the past few months and felt similarly about the contrast between her parenting and the way she was raised. “I think in my parents’ generation, they raised us a lot through fear—their fear and then our fear,” Sheen says. “I think it was effective in some ways, but I see some things in me that I’m like, Oh, O.K., had that been handled differently, maybe I wouldn’t have anxiety about this or fear about that.” Kennedy’s methods don’t contrast helicopter parenting with a hands-off approach; instead, she contrasts the micromanaging and expectations-based approach of helicopter parenting with setting emotional boundaries, fostering resilience and empathy, and the idea that “both things can be true”—your kid can be upset that she has to leave the park, and you can acknowledge and respect that and still leave the park.

Now millennial parents are also grappling with issues that their parents didn’t face, like climate change and a global pandemic, that can also lead to feelings of helplessness and despair. Having someone like Kennedy tell you, straight up, not just that you’re doing a good job, but also here’s exactly what to say to your kid who refuses to put on his shoes every morning, offers just a small bit of control over a world that can seem very out of our control.

Indeed, for Solmaz Firoz, a 37-year-old New Jersey mom of two, part of Kennedy’s appeal lies in her approach—and being on Instagram. “She talks in bite-size snippets,” says Firoz. “It’s easy to digest. The ‘Here’s what you can say’ or ‘Here’s what this would look like; here’s how I approach it in my house’ really helps. She speaks to our generation.” If one of the truisms of connection is to meet people where they are, then Kennedy has it down.

There’s a story that Kennedy likes to tell—that she has told in workshops, on her Instagram and while she was talking to me—about being on a plane with turbulence. “I think about these three announcements and which one we’d all want to hear,” she says. “The first announcement is like, ‘STOP YELLING! YOU’RE RUINING MY FOCUS! YOU’RE THE WORST PASSENGERS EVER!’ Another version that would feel awful is somebody being like, ‘I don’t know what you’re freaking out about. This is a perfectly fine flight. You have nothing to worry about.’ The pilot I would want would be someone who says, ‘I know what I’m doing, I’ve done this before, there is turbulence, it’s scary, and I know where we’re going and where we’re gonna land.'”

This, of course, is an allegory. One of the most important things parents can do, Kennedy says, is behave like the third pilot—keep calm, and keep their boundaries. “There’s such a sturdy boundary in there of saying, like, That’s your feeling and I can recognize it in you, but it’s not contagious to me. When kids feel like their feelings are contagious to their parents, it’s just double dysregulation.”

The first word you learn as a Dr. Becky devotee is dysregulation, a term first used by UC Berkeley professors Mary Main and Erik Hesse in 1990 to describe “frightening” or “aggressive” maternal behaviors. Now it’s more often used to describe children’s behaviors that are emotionally disproportional—if, say, you tell your child to put on her shoes and she responds by screaming, throwing herself on the floor and crying until she’s red in the face. (Dysregulation isn’t the only psych term with a checkered past definition that Kennedy uses in a lighter, more evolved way. The concept of “reparenting,” which Kennedy uses in terms of parents reassessing their own childhoods and unlearning problematic behaviors, once referenced a controversial form of therapy that blamed mental illness on bad parenting.)

"Our kids are watching us and learning about how to respond to stress and uncertainty. Let’s wire our kids for resilience, not panic. How? Scroll for some tips."

One of the foundations of her approach is that parents are constantly triggered by their children—because their children bring up issues from their own childhood that are unresolved. For Kennedy, that means constantly examining the perfectionist impulses in her family of origin. “I was an intense kid,” she says. “I was very perfectionistic. I feel like my parents were like, ‘You put more pressure on yourself than any adult ever overtly did,’ but I think probably I internalized this role of being really good and perfect.” She grew up in Westchester County, New York, the middle of three children of a commodities trader and a social worker turned stay-at-home parent.

In examining her own childhood, she says, she’s wondered “if I never felt like it was O.K., growing up, in my early wiring, to not have my paper done yet for English class? To sit on the couch and say, ‘Actually, I don’t want to do whatever activity the family was doing?'” Her family, she says, liked to joke that if you’re not 10 minutes early, you’re late. She majored in psychology at Duke and immediately went to grad school at Columbia for her Ph.D. in clinical psychology, then entered private practice and started parenting-guidance groups.

The Instagram account came about almost by accident. For two years, Kennedy had been developing a “sleep button” with a friend, Solange Schipani, who has a background in product design. The idea was that parents could record themselves saying soothing messages, and a child who had trouble falling asleep could just press the button and hear their parents’ voices. It was something Kennedy had MacGyvered for her own daughter, now 6, when she was having sleep issues.

“I was not even on Instagram,” Kennedy says. “I didn’t even know what a Story was.” But her younger sister encouraged her to start an account to promote the product. “She was like, You love talking about this; you used to love writing when you were getting your Ph.D.” Kennedy started waking up at 4:45 every morning to write content for Instagram. Then, when it came time to actually start production on the button, “we realized that the button itself wasn’t the true product people wanted,” Schipani says. They scrapped it. “Really, Becky herself and access to her and her ideas was the real product that was so powerful and got people engaged and excited. The comfort button was just a vehicle to convey some of those thoughts and strategies.”

Dr. Becky
Kennedy checks her 16-month-old Instagram account, which has brought in over $1.6 million in profit.Tonje Thilesen for TIME

On March 11, 2020, exactly two weeks after she had launched her Instagram account, the day that the NBA announced that the rest of the 2020 season would be canceled and Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson revealed they had COVID-19, Kennedy put up a post that read, “Most young kids will remember how their family home felt during the coronavirus panic more than anything specific about the virus. Our kids are watching us and learning about how to respond to stress and uncertainty. Let’s wire our kids for resilience, not panic. How? Scroll for some tips.” The post went viral, spreading far beyond her then 200 followers. By the summer, her following had grown into the thousands, then the tens of thousands. Kennedy’s timing—right when already anxious parents were hunkering down with their children as schools closed in the midst of a global pandemic—turned out to have been perfect. If there had been an interest in parenting advice before, the pandemic increased it a hundredfold.

As her online fame has grown, Kennedy has at times struggled with maintaining the connection with the patients in her private practice. Some of her longtime clients have told her that they can’t follow her on social media. “They’re like, Ugh, there you go popping up in my friend’s feed or some random person I follow, and it feels intrusive,” she says. “So, understandably, this has not been [all] positive, and if I was in their position, that’s how it would feel for me too.” (Kennedy says that her practice was at full capacity before she started her Instagram account, so she is not accepting new clients, and that she hasn’t actually lost any clients since starting it.)

The field she was entering—an approach that could loosely be described as respectful parenting—was crowded. There was the grande dame of this approach, Janet Lansbury, whose podcast Unruffled and books like No Bad Kids, published in 2014, have been touchstones for parents interested in moving away from a so-called behavioral approach to parenting. (Classical behavioral theory tries to eliminate “bad” behaviors through punishment and encourage “good” behaviors through rewards. Commonly used behavioral approaches are sticker charts and time-outs.) There were academics like Daniel Siegel, and there were long-standing classics like Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish’s 1996 How to Talk so Kids Will Listen & Listen so Kids Will Talk. In the past few years, a veritable cottage industry of respectful-parenting experts has emerged on social media, with Instagram accounts like Big Little Feelings (1.7 million followers), Curious Parenting (437,000 followers) and the Workspace for Children (169,000 followers), all espousing similar philosophies and strategies.

"I'm flying blind in a lot of ways, and I'm raising my daughter differently from how I was raised."

But even though Kennedy may have fewer followers than an account like Big Little Feelings, there’s something about her delivery that connects more with parents in this moment. Kennedy’s not surprised by this; she sees only adults in her private practice, not children. (The experts behind the other accounts listed all have backgrounds specifically in child or developmental psychology or education.) Her ability to get into the psyche of parents and understand their specific anxieties—and to speak to them as a parent herself—comes across as uniquely relatable and reassuring. She often role-plays and gives parents word-by-word guidelines to follow.

Aubrey Sabala, a 44-year-old single mom in Atlanta with a 2-year-old daughter, says Kennedy feels to her like the aforementioned confident airplane pilot. “I’m doing this by myself with very little help,” she says. “I’m flying blind in a lot of ways, and I’m raising my daughter differently from how I was raised. Dr. Becky is very digestible.”

“I’ve unfollowed pretty much everyone except for her, just because her scripts speak to me,” says Samantha Raddatz Clark, a 34-year-old mom of two in Washington, D.C., who works for the government. “The things that she talks about are the things that I struggle with. And her scripts are just really simple and easy to follow, and she gives concrete examples. You don’t have to be this super creative thinker who comes up with all these games—I feel like some of the other accounts are adding to your workload.”

Just as parenting advice did not start with Kennedy, it certainly will not end with her. “Child-rearing advice as a genre of text really first developed in early 19th century Britain,” says Dara Regaignon, a historian at New York University and the author of Writing Maternity: Medicine, Anxiety, Rhetoric, and Genre. “Along with some other factors, this gives rise to a new kind of association or particular kind of ‘good’ mothering and worry, or anxiety—partly because of the way these advice books, in order to sell, are targeting ignorant, inexperienced and often young maternal readers who don’t have recourse to anyone else to know what to do.”

It’s easy to see a direct through line from the guidebooks of the early 19th century to today’s experts. “This idea started then and has certainly persisted—we’re living in its wake—that you’re sort of not doing your job as a mother if you’re not worrying,” Regaignon says. (Which is borne out by the gender of Kennedy’s followers.)

As Amanda Montei recently argued in Vox, this idea has only been exacerbated by the current crop of mom blogs, influencers and experts. Many—like Kennedy—have capitalized on their content. Montei writes that Kennedy and accounts like hers “have monetized the illusion of ‘winning’ at parenting while acknowledging the work is ‘tough.'”

And yet, as Kennedy herself might say, perhaps both things can be true: yes, she is monetizing how to be a better parent, but she also distributes much of her content for free, and she seems to deeply believe in the mission she has set out for herself, which is no less than teaching this generation to be more balanced people and parents, and thereby raise kids who are not quite as messed up as every generation that came before them. She envisions taking everything she’s learned in her years of private practice and her own experience raising three kids, and applying it to helping parents. “What if we could wire kids in ways that help them adapt now and continue to help them thrive later on?” she says. “That’s the gift I hope to give my kids.”

Raddatz Clark, the D.C. government worker, is starting to see how that works. “I yelled at my kid,” Raddatz Clark says. “He’s 4. He was really upset and crying. I went and apologized to him. I used her script: I told him I was struggling and moms make mistakes too. He seemed to kind of get it and was like, O.K., Mom still loves me. I’m not a bad kid.”

—With reporting by Simmone Shah

Shafrir is an author, most recently of Thanks for Waiting: The Joy (& Weirdness) of Being a Late Bloomer, out June 29

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