The Frenetic, Fraught Appeal of Instagram’s Parenting Whisperer

Photo: Catherine Falls Commercial/Getty Images

Like most people seeking guidance on how to navigate literally anything in the time of COVID-19, I’ve been routinely checking in with a medical professional online. Well, on Instagram. Not Dr. Fauci. Dr. Becky, a.k.a. Rebecca Kennedy, a New York City–based licensed clinical psychologist with a Ph.D. from Columbia University, three young kids, and about 800,000 similarly rapt followers on Instagram.

I stumbled across Kennedy one day during that silent spring of 2020 while noodling around my Instagram “Explore” page. (I assume the algorithm had been spying on my all-caps texts to my mom-friends as the pandemic turned parenting upside down and inside out; things that were already challenging felt nearly unhinged.) And there she was with a wide, toothy smile, talking head-on to the camera in 15-second Story increments from what looks like a tastefully wallpapered alcove in her home, suggesting exactly what to do and say when your child is melting down — or when the person melting down is actually you.

I listened as she unfolded the “Airplane Pilot” allegory, a story Kennedy often tells that’s somewhat foundational to her whole parenting ethos. The TL;DR version: Imagine you’re on a plane, and there’s really bad turbulence. As a passenger, you might be freaking out a bit. But what if the pilot made an announcement like, “No yelling! I can’t land the plane when you’re like this!” That would feel awful. What if the pilot said, “Oh, please, stop freaking out, will ya? You’re overreacting!” Also not great.

What you want is a pilot who says something like, “Okay, we’ve got some turbulence here. I know it’s scary. But I got this! I’ve handled this before. I know we are going to land as planned.”

Welcome to “sturdy leadership” and “co-regulation” — both of which validate a child’s feelings, allow you to check in with your own emotions, and keep boundaries clear so a child knows their freaking out isn’t going to infect the person at the controls.

I’ll be the first to admit I haven’t always been that pilot. Sometimes I’m more like the crazy flight attendant flinging cocktail napkins and dribbling hot coffee on sleeping passengers. Sometimes I have to straight-up pretend I have the slightest clue about the “landing plan” for every situation or for the future in general, but it’s amazing how much better it feels to everyone when I manage to do that.

For instance, perhaps your child is freaking out because you cut her grilled cheese wrong. (This is an example Dr. Becky gave in one recent video.) While it’s tempting to snap, “Eat it — it tastes the same,” Dr. Becky counters that for some kids, something as simple as saying “You didn’t want that to happen” and “This feels tricky for you” will make the child feel seen and validated and will help them calm down much faster.

Having been on the receiving end of a meltdown or two (or 200), grilled cheese and otherwise, her advice felt a bit odd but also made sense. (Because yes, of course, it wasn’t about the grilled cheese. It was never about the grilled cheese! Or whatever seemingly trivial thing has set your child ablaze.) Plus the way she spoke — with her easy smile and empathic eyebrows — made her feel like a parent who was in the trenches with me, like she had actually tried these tips on her own kids. Her role-playing of the whole scenario from start to finish felt real and worth giving a go.

Over the course of the pandemic, Kennedy has become what some have called the “Millennial Parenting Whisperer,” releasing a podcast called Good Inside, (currently the No. 1 podcast in “Kids & Family” on iTunes), a newsletter of the same name, and downloadable parenting seminars. A Dr. Becky book is in the works, too.

In a recent interview with the New York Times, Kennedy describes her approach, in part, with an example:

Nobody feels good giving a sticker chart. Nobody feels good sending kids to a timeout. How often do we do things to our kids and forget the parallel with ourselves? If my husband was like, ‘‘You have a listening problem; you’re not going to get your iPad for a week,’’ I’d be like, ‘‘No, you have a problem.’’

While her parenting style doesn’t have one single name (yet), it’s part of a wave of positive, respectful, nonjudgmental parenting advice that is crowding out prior generations’ use of disciplinary tactics, sticker charts, and a binary of “good” and “bad” behaviors — and instead urges a trio of empathy, connection, and emotional validation. The emphasis on co-regulation (i.e., parents checking in with their own emotions to help “regulate” their child’s) has really emerged within the positive-parenting movement of the past ten to 15 years, says Emily W. King, a licensed psychologist in Raleigh, North Carolina, who offers Parenting on Your Own Path courses online. “Asking parents to check in with their own emotions is a good thing,” says King. “We can only regulate our child’s emotions if we are first regulated ourselves.”

But for time-starved, attention-short parents — two-thirds of whom say parenting today is harder than it was 20 years ago, according to Pew research — one of the most useful things is Dr. Becky is not a parenting book. “Or a weekend seminar or anything else that takes a ton of time at once,” says Catherine Hopkinson, a copywriter in Brooklyn and mother of one. “I’m so often scrolling Instagram anyway,” she says, “so I get regular doses of her advice, and that repetition helps it to stick in my head.” (That Pew report also found that 56 percent of parents confess to spending “too much” time on their smartphone.)

Some recent Dr. Becky suggestions: If your child is being aggressive, instead of making what is essentially a request (“Stop hitting!”), try to embody your authority (“I won’t let you hit.” Hold your child’s wrist, she says, and be the boundary for your child that they cannot be for themselves). For a child who is insulting you or using harsh language: “Something must feel really bad for you to be talking to me like this. Let me take a few deep breaths, and let’s chat. I want to know what’s going on.” A philosophy she wants parents to know above all else so you focus on empathy and sitting with kids through their toughest moments: “Feelings don’t scare kids; it’s feeling alone in their feelings that’s scary.”

Granted, the stuff she’s saying is not all that new, nor is she the only one saying it, especially during the pandemic, when there’s been a proliferation of content about how to help parents cope with the unprecedented challenges. There are tons of positive-parenting experts all over social media, but something about her tone, her delivery, and her timing lit up a portion of the internet.

It bears noting that the portion it ignited seems to be, for the most part, a white, relatively privileged group. And in much of the discussion around positive parenting, there’s often little mention of how systemic racism and inadequate social and economic policies — particularly those that lack support for families, neurodiversity, and mental-illness issues — may impact so many of these techniques and require some modifications. This is a criticism often leveled at much online advice by parenting experts like Natasha Nelson (a.k.a. Supernova Momma), who is Black and has a child with autism spectrum disorder.

King points out that Kennedy’s advice may not work for all kids: “It’s not that simple for neurodivergent kids,” she explains. “They don’t just calm down when they hear and feel us calm down because they may have additional differences in attention, communication, anxiety, and social skills that interfere with their ability to connect with a caregiver in that moment. When a parenting expert gets really popular, we have to remember that their popularity doesn’t mean that they ‘must be the perfect fit’ for our child. We all know our own kids and need to pick and choose what we read to apply to our own child and family.”

And parents are so burned out lately, King says, they can be easily triggered by positive-parenting advice. “Like it’s telling them to try harder or that they aren’t being positive enough — at the same time that they aren’t feeling very positive,” she adds.

More — or at least louder and more visible — YMMV disclaimers would help say King and others I spoke with. (YMMV stands for “Your mileage may vary,” a phrase used frequently on Parenting Internet that means other people may have a different experience than yours, so don’t freak out if it doesn’t work.) That way, if Kennedy’s methods don’t work for you, it won’t be a source of shame or disappointment. “In fact, all parenting advice that’s broadly applied is a problem,” says Shannon Brescher Shea, a writer from outside Washington, D.C., who has written about parenting. “The problem is not the tactics themselves but the promise made about their effectiveness and results. I think a lot of experts need to make clear the limitations of their philosophies and set realistic expectations.”

Still, for a lot of people, what makes Kennedy and her messages so appealing is she’s just … appealing. “She has such a warm, friendly (and yet non-cheesy!) vibe that I just want to hang out and eat cookies with her,” says Hopkinson. For me, it’s how her hair looks wet in many of her videos, as if she just got out of the shower and is doing what we all do — multitasking.

Jenn Falik, a Connecticut-based style and beauty expert for the Today show and mother of two, would also love to be tight with Dr. Becky. “I am obsessed with her,” gushes Falik. “I literally want to get some of her advice tattooed on my wrist. I send almost every story to my husband because I know he’ll actually watch them as opposed to long articles, which he’ll never get through. And she’s not judgy or preachy.”

Just last week, when Falik’s daughter was upset over not getting something her sister had, Falik turned to a Dr. Becky post about shifting from “protection mode” (i.e., I don’t want her to feel bad — I want to “fix” this!) to “preparation mode” (validate how she’s feeling and sit with her so she learns to tolerate it). It may not seem like the easiest thing or the fastest fix, Falik says, but it prepares children to cope with hard feelings, not to avoid them. “This is incredibly hard for me,” says Falik, “but I realize how important it is for them in the long run.”

This idea of doing and feeling the hard stuff now in order to build up grit and resilience has become a key parenting watchword in the past decade or so. For Sarah Wright, a mother of two in Roswell, Georgia, that emphasis on discomfort tolerance has marked a huge shift. “My parents were masters of the distraction technique when we got overwhelmed or frustrated, sad, or angry,” Wright says. “I’ve learned to really let my kids accept their feelings and lean into discomfort.”

To Wright, another thing that makes Kennedy’s parenting advice so useful is the “two things can be true” concept that those dialed into the Dialectical Behavior Therapy world will recognize. “I use this almost daily,” says Wright. “For instance, I tell my kids that they don’t have to like the decisions I make but that I am doing it for their safety and health. It’s such a different way of approaching things than our parents’ generation, who were focused on ‘No, because I said so.’ Because of Dr. Becky, I’ve gotten much better at allowing my children to feel angry, even with me, while still not allowing them to display their anger in inappropriate ways.”

“You’re a good kid having a hard time,” I tell my daughter mid-argument over and over, a phrase I’ve heard Kennedy suggest to keep the focus on that innate goodness while moving her bad behavior to a separate area. Two things! Both true!

Also true: In the wondrous and wild world of parenting, it’s easy to feel stranded at 30,000 feet with no map, only a few drops of water, and a glitchy control panel. But you’re the pilot; you’re the troop leader. For some parents, Dr. Becky — or the extremely online parenting expert of their choice — has a well-drawn map so you can try to land safely.

The Frenetic, Fraught Appeal of IG’s Parenting Whisperer