Why Are Parents On TikTok So Angry?

Illustration: Hannah Buckman

This article originally appeared in Brooding, a subscriber-exclusive newsletter about modern family life. Sign up here.

It’s hard to believe that there was a time, not very long ago at all, when parenting advice came exclusively from books. I’ve been thinking lately about how delivery systems shape the arguments and messages of the content itself — an obvious enough phenomenon on its own — and I’ve been struck in particular by how parenting advice has evolved alongside the platforms on which we consume it. One major change that deserves our attention is how this advice has become increasingly polarized on TikTok.

A decade ago, when my kids were little and Instagram was still in its live-laugh-love period, the big parenting debates in my milieu revolved around the pros and cons of attachment parenting. The main points were “natural” childbirth, breastfeeding on demand, and co-sleeping, but extreme practitioners were into “elimination communication” (basically, potty training your kids really young) and so-called nonviolent communication. (I’ll never forget a mom I met at the park who said “Not to do!” to her kids instead of “no.” Beyond that being weird behavior, it was grammatically problematic.)

These debates came on the heels of a spate of books that were popular in the mid-aughts, like The Whole-Brain Child and Nonviolent Communication. The parenting wars of that era were the birthplace, so to speak, of much of today’s parenting satire: the sanctimonious wooden-toys people, the whole thing of calling other moms “Mama.” (To anyone feeling nostalgic for that period in recent history, I recommend the largely overlooked 2009 work of peak-twee filmmaking, Away We Go — which was written by Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida and has a fantastic cast — wherein a couple expecting their first child take a road trip and encounter a selection of the notable parenting stereotypes of the time, including Maggie Gyllenhaal as an over-the-top attachment parent with a trust fund and Allison Janney as a wine mom.)

I remember thinking in 2010 that becoming a parent meant entering a Thunderdome of wildly overheated opinions. People were telling me I was supposed to breastfeed! They thought I should feed my children only organic food!! How naïve I was. Back then, we read parenting books and judged one another’s grainy pictures on Instagram, and that was that.

Today, much of what we debated in 2010 has simply been commodified. Ideological positions have been neutralized into consumer choices, some of which are almost fun. What’s the best baby sling? Here are 50 cute options. Think babies shouldn’t drink out of plastic bottles? No problem; here are myriad silicone and glass options for the concerned parent. No opinion doesn’t have its own small galaxy of attendant things to buy.

Meanwhile, an entire secondary parenting-advice market exists on TikTok and Instagram, where influencers and experts compete for eyeballs and all of their advice is grist for satire and commentary. In the process of being interpreted by everyday people (often with admirable dramatic or comedic flair), the advice itself can morph into exaggerated or even contradictory versions of the original, further galvanizing parents to react.

I thought about the parenting-advice-to-outraged-TikToks pipeline a lot over the past six months while I worked on the profile of Dr. Becky Kennedy and her Good Inside parenting that is in this week’s issue of New York Magazine. Most of Kennedy’s advice has, until recently, focused on young kids, so I wasn’t exactly within her target demographic. But as I started watching her Reels while researching for the profile, other parenting-advice content was being pushed to my feed, too. I’m beginning to see what it feels like to be a new parent on TikTok and IG, and I can confidently say that you guys have it way, way worse than I did in 2010.

On the expert side, there are clinicians like Dr. Becky, pastors and other religious folk, and self-styled parenting coaches. There is a staggering number of parenting experts on TikTok, and many of them drum up engagement by preying on parents’ insecurities: “The one thing to NEVER say to your kid!”; “A parenting mistake EVERYONE makes!” Part of how Good Inside markets itself is as a more “legitimate” alternative to the charlatans that crowd the space. But likely thanks to Dr. Becky’s huge audience, she’s a very common target for satire.

The first thing you notice on the satire side is the rage that animates its creators. In my feed, the satirical content is often directed at practitioners of “gentle parenting.” Dr. Becky takes pains to distance herself from the gentle-parenting label, but since she encourages parents to validate their children’s emotions, she’s often considered part of that movement. There’s a very popular TikTok, of which I’ve seen numerous versions by different creators, wherein a parent is seen crouching down to get on their toddler’s level. “I know you’re frustrated right now,” the parent says. “You have big feelings and emotions, and you don’t know what to do with them. But if you don’t shut the fuck up and put your shoes on, the Mommy’s gonna have big feelings and I might not know what to do with them and I might start screaming, too.”

These spoofs are funny, but many of them seem to be arguing with an invisible adversary. Is anyone really telling caretakers that they have to gentle-parent? Not exactly, but their feeds are full of it. Gentle parenting feels like as much of a TikTok construct as a real-world phenomenon. It’s provocative because, like tradwife content, it suggests a degree of supplication to the role of caregiver that most people are totally uninterested in, not to mention too busy to even consider. I think a lot of parents hate the idea of gentle parenting because it’s humiliating to witness (just like tradwife cosplay), which is exactly what makes it interesting to hate-watch on TikTok. The specter of this kind of ideological extremism, whether it’s being a doormat for your husband or your toddler, makes social media’s secondary market of parenting advice churn.

I suspect that Dr. Becky and her uncomfortable bedfellows in the gentle-parenting-adjacent space are easy targets for parents’ free-floating frustration about living in a society that doesn’t care about them or their kids. Can anyone blame parents for being anxious and defensive given the total contempt for their legitimate fears (gun violence, exploitation of children on social media, no affordable child care, no mandated paid leave — just for starters) by their governments? Anyway, she has an intensity of tone and an earnest delivery that some people find extremely grating, and she comes from privilege. Bingo. There is no mystery as to why parents on social media are so eager to send up her content.

The content delivery models exacerbate parents’ feeling that they’re being continuously assaulted by unrealistic “aspirational parenting” advice while also providing them with satisfying validation. The novelist Lydia Kiesling, who once wrote in praise of the timeless 1980s parenting book How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk, told me that she has occasionally found Dr. Becky’s advice helpful, but not always. Kiesling related to Good Inside as she would a book — something to pick and put down as needed. Several people I spoke to agreed that Good Inside advice is useful for navigating rough patches but not necessarily as a daily guide to child-rearing. Fair enough! The problem with getting parenting advice from your phone is that it’s designed to be hard to ignore, even when it isn’t relevant to your concerns. Unlike, say, getting your advice from a book.

Then again, maybe any public debate about anything parenting-related is destined to become a food fight, no matter what medium broadcasts it. Back in 1970, then-Vice-President Spiro Agnew blamed Dr. Benjamin Spock, the most influential parenting expert of the mid–20th century, for causing the anti–Vietnam War movement. Agnew accused Spock of encouraging a culture of permissive parenting, which resulted in a generation of young layabouts who resisted the draft.

I love this anecdote because it tells us two things: (1) that the moral burden of parenting has always been terribly heavy — that’s one thing that probably isn’t getting any worse — and (2) that it’s tempting to draw a causal arrow between parenting styles and social conditions, but that doesn’t make us parents (or the advice we follow or ignore) deserving of all that blame.

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Why Are Parents On TikTok So Angry?