The Parent Whisperer
Instagram’s Favorite Parenting Guru Is About To Be Everywhere
Dr. Becky found an audience of anxious parents scrolling social media during the pandemic. Will her audience follow her to the new Good Inside platform?
For just over two years, psychologist Dr. Becky Kennedy has delivered her remarkably consistent nuggets of parenting advice on Instagram. Few posts are longer than 90 seconds, and she speaks directly into the camera. You might glimpse a patch of soft pink wallpaper or the corner of a child’s drawing in her apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, but there are no plants or artfully messy toys, no windows streaming daylight or glimpses of a propped-out kitchen counter. Room Rater would have nothing to work with. Her hair is neat, but she wears little makeup and almost no jewelry. Her clothes are simple. Kennedy’s face and voice are all she offers. She modulates her sound purposefully, punctuating certain words and then going soft, almost to a whisper, on others. She uses her gaze, too — without pausing, she looks away for a moment, as if gathering her thoughts, and then her eyes dart back to look directly at her audience, reengaging them. Watch enough of her videos and you realize it’s the style of a confident speaker, someone who has mastered both their message and the medium by which it is being delivered.
I ask Kennedy, who is 39 and is herself a mother of three, ages 10, 7, and 4, if she practiced different ways of speaking to the camera and then settled on this one. “No,” she says. “And now that you say that, I feel like maybe that’s something I should do.”
“I can tell you why the framing is always the same, because I film like this,” Kennedy adds, holding up her phone at selfie height. “If the video took a minute 29 seconds to watch, it took me a minute 29 seconds to make.”
Instagram has long been a place to see parenting performed by influencers and celebrities seeking to become multihyphenate brands, but it has only recently become a fertile ground for parenting advice. Slowly, over the last few years, accounts devoted to sleep training and feeding toddlers sprouted up. They were soon followed by the accounts that condemned sleep training or pitched the “Montessori” method of potty training and block stacking. Then came the pandemic — and Dr. Becky.
Before she launched her account in February 2020, Kennedy had never posted a video to social media, but she had sent them to friends. Solange Schipani, whose children were in school with Kennedy’s, frequently talked to her about parenting dilemmas. “We didn’t have the usual mom conversations,” Schipani says. “Becky was different. We didn’t trade complaints. She really listened and then she offered very specific advice.” Schipani remembers vividly after one such conversation in late 2019, “she sent me a selfie video while walking to her parking garage. It was a minute of perfect advice. It was so Becky.”
Kennedy does not offer guidance on how to swaddle an infant or tout the virtues of breastfeeding; there’s nothing on her feed about nap schedules or the necessity of tummy time. Her advice is pitched at the parents who have passed through the fiery ring of infancy and are now contending with the far thornier challenges of living with a human (albeit one with an underdeveloped frontal cortex) who can talk and reason and refuse. Kennedy offers guidance on the tantrums and meltdowns, incessant sibling squabbles, and what to do when your child becomes hysterical over the simplest request.
“Here are some magical words for your parenting toolbox, and guess what, they’re just as effective with a baby, with a young kid, with a teenager: ‘You weren’t expecting that to happen,’” Kennedy offered in a video from October 2021.
“If you want to stop yelling at your kids, you have to know this secret: We can’t stop yelling at our kids until we stop yelling at ourselves.” Kennedy explained in another video. “If you yell at your kids when they struggle or make a mistake, it’s a sure bet sign you yell at yourselves in the same conditions. So next time you’re having a hard time, take a deep breath and say to yourself, ‘I’m a good person who is having a hard time. I can get through this.’ Watch how that compassion will start flowing out more naturally to your kids.”
Back in March 2020, the self-compassion was in short supply. Parents had suddenly found themselves locked down at home, doom-scrolling through the waves of anxiety, and Kennedy’s calm, modulated voice seemed to speak directly to them. Her account, Dr. Becky At Home (she’s now Dr. Becky Good Inside) had just 200 followers when she offered up her first post on pandemic parenting, which urged parents to remember how much their children were absorbing. “Let’s wire our kids for resilience, not panic,” she counseled. It was soon shared more than 6,000 times. She now has a million followers, a newsletter, a podcast, a book (out this fall), and a membership-based platform run by parenting coaches that she and her staff have trained in what they call the Good Inside method. In two years, she has become something of a cottage industry — what she calls a “movement.”
Why, I ask her, does she think her advice resonated?
“I think that parents up until this point have been fed incomplete options for the way that they raise their children,” she says. “We want better behavior and there’s a million pushes to get that. Some will tell parents how to give timeouts and punishments and consequences and ignoring and attention and praise and sticker charts to shape behavior. And that speaks to parents in part because they get clarity from it.
“The way most of us were raised, the role of the parent is to impose discipline. Dr. Becky comes with a really radical departure from that. The role of the parent is to coach a nervous system to cope with being human in the world.”
“Then there’s another group of approaches that says, ‘Connect with your kid,’ and, ‘All the emotions are OK.’ And that speaks to parents’ emotional truth. But they don’t give parents clarity and they don’t necessarily give a way to improve behavior. Our approach allows for both things to be true: that we can more deeply connect to our kids and we can get changes in behavior. We can embody our authority as parents and be firm while being empathetic and validating.”
“It’s a profound shift in the role of the parent in raising a child,” says Sarah Watson, a mother of two, who first met Kennedy as part of a parenting group that Kennedy led. “The way most of us were raised, the role of the parent is to impose discipline. To make sure the child knows what’s dangerous, what’s safe, what’s right, and what’s wrong. Dr. Becky comes with a really radical departure from that. The role of the parent is to coach a nervous system to cope with being human in the world.”
Watson and her group of high-powered Manhattan parents, who coined the title “Dr. Becky” early in their time with Kennedy, met regularly with her for the better part of a decade, beginning when their children were babies and ending when they were in grade school. Watson freely admits she’s not an impartial source on Kennedy. “She’s a very big figure in my life,” the expat Brit says. “But as powerful as it was to have these groups with her, it’s even more powerful to be able to digest her constantly in small chunks.”
In other words, the medium rather improbably suited Kennedy’s message. For parents with a library of unread parenting advice books haunting them, Kennedy’s videos have provided something immediate. “She keeps things succinct and super clear,” says Ker-Shing Ong, an architect and mother of three in Singapore, who began following Kennedy in 2021. “She tells you the thing upfront — she doesn’t hold it till the end to make you watch the whole clip first — and then explains with examples. She acts it out with real feeling. And her advice works. I love that. And it resonates somewhere in my intuitive, motherly knowing.”
In our interview and on her feed, Kennedy spends as much time talking about the emotional states of parents as she does explaining the behaviors of children. “I think that parents find our approach really respectful of kids and adults at the same time,” she tells me. “Other approaches make you choose. When I’m giving a timeout, I feel like my boundaries are respected but I know that I’m not respecting my kids’. Other times I give in to my kid — I’m respecting what they want — but I feel depleted. But what parents tell me over and over is, ‘I feel as seen in your approach as I feel like I’m seeing my kids. I’m respecting my kids and myself.’ It really allows parents to raise their kids the way that feels right, feels good while also honoring their personal needs at the same time.”
Kennedy’s method isn’t unprecedented. She is the first to point out that it’s based on her years of study of attachment theory and internal family systems, among a host of other theories. Her talent lies in making it broadly accessible. (Her knack for translating theoretical concepts into plain English is a habit she learned early. Though she loved school, graduating summa cum laude from Duke and completing a Ph.D. at Columbia, Kennedy bristled at academic jargon. “In grad school, I used to constantly think, ‘I have no idea what this person is saying. I feel like they mean this one thing that was just three words but instead they’ve produced pages and pages.’”)
Her audience of parents in their 30s and 40s was primed for her approach — not just by the pandemic and the habit of spending hours on social media — but because they are a generation versed in the language of therapy, accustomed to peppering their texts with words like anxiety and triggers and trauma. Parenting has a way of twisting you into something you hardly recognize and didn’t intend. “I always thought of myself as a warm person,” says one mother who follows Kennedy’s advice. “But as a parent, I hear myself and I’m like a drill sergeant.”
“Parenting brings you into contact so viscerally and so often with all of your own unresolved stuff, your own emotional reactivity.”
Kennedy’s emphasis on parenting as reparenting resonates with those of us who want to be our best selves while also raising resilient adults, able to handle their complex emotions without shame. Instead we find ourselves yelling, threatening, cajoling, and bribing, cracking constant nervous jokes about what our kids are going to talk about with their therapists.
“Parenting is really hard because we haven’t been sold a realistic version of what it really is. Things are always harder when your expectations are off,” Kennedy says. “Parents often think kids are going to heal them — unconsciously we think that. And instead kids trigger us. Parenting brings you into contact so viscerally and so often with all of your own unresolved stuff, your own emotional reactivity.”
Kennedy, who grew up in Westchester with an older brother and a younger sister, had her own first experience with therapy at age 6 when she was having trouble sleeping. She then sought treatment in high school for anorexia. “Therapy was a part of my life,” she says, “and I loved hearing people talk about their lives, trying to understand what they were going through.” After college, where she met her husband, she went straight to grad school. Her first son was born before she was 30. “I never thought about not being a mother,” she says.
The newborn stage was not Kennedy’s favorite. “I find that first year, the first three months specifically, to be so hard,” she says. “The utter dependency. When the kids start separating more and becoming more independent — I know that feels like a big loss for some parents, but to me it’s some of the stages I like the best.”
Which isn’t to say Kennedy hasn’t also been humbled by the later stages of parenting. “After I had my first kid, I was doing parent coaching work. And I remember the parents reporting some version of ‘I’m trying the things we’re talking about and it’s not really helping.’ And I remember thinking — I didn’t say this, but I thought it — ‘I don’t know if you’re doing it right.’ And then I had my second kid, and I was like, ‘Oh, OK. I get it. She’s my deeply feeling kid.’ And she has taught me so much about kids and what they need and how closely their needs are located to their fears. With these deeply feeling kids, we end up stoking their fears instead of meeting their needs. Those kids are so complicated; I’m obsessed with them. I have that kid and I was that kid. And I work with so many adults who were those kids — and through no fault of their parents. Their parents were trying the best they could, but they didn’t get what they need. Those kids are a special group to me.”
Kennedy has all but given up her private practice since launching Good Inside, but she clearly still wants the connection to individual parents. A number of people I reached out to ask what they liked about Kennedy mentioned that they’d DM’d her and she’d messaged them back with advice and suggestions.
I’ll confess I was worried that interviewing Kennedy would be like talking to one of her Instagram videos — with the voice modulation and facial animation — and that I’d find it irritating. But when I visited Kennedy in her sleek temporary office space in Midtown, she was relaxed and self-deprecating, her speech patterns decidedly normal. (The petite Kennedy does look exactly the same as she does in her videos, though.) Her love of what she does is obvious and endearing. “Thinking about families and thinking about kids and wondering, ‘Why is this kid doing this thing? Why is a parent continuing to do something they don’t even want to do?’ I just love thinking about it,” she says. “I really do believe that everyone has this sturdy leader inside them. I’m not telling parents how to think. I am next to them in accessing what’s always been there. It feels like the biggest honor to be with them.”
Kennedy is acutely aware that parents are lonely; she knows some will find relief on her Instagram account, but her hope is that the subscription-based Good Inside platform, which costs $23 a month and launched this spring, will offer them something deeper. (It will certainly offer them more direct access to her. She greets every new member personally, at least for now.) Her hope is that Good Inside fills a void felt by parents who haven’t found satisfying answers in other corners of the digital landscape. “It’s 2022 — why are we still googling parenting questions and reading advice from strangers?” she asks.
When you join the platform, your first prompt is to choose a primary concern. On the menu are options such as “tantrums,” “nighttime struggles,” “my child is so anxious,” and “I’m just feeling overwhelmed.” (I looked in vain for the “all of the above” option.) Once in, members will have access to a searchable library tackling topics such as “listening,” “rudeness and defiance,” and “repair and apologies.” There are longer videos recorded by Kennedy, printable lists of what to say in the middle of a parenting dilemma (example: “5 scripts to use after you set a boundary”); message boards; and live workshops that members can join.
“I definitely don’t want to sell anyone on the idea that there’s some ideal of perfect parenting or perfect behavior. That idea is 100% false.”
There’s a soothing practicality to it. For parents who have struggled to help a child who is anxious or unhappy — or to regulate their own feelings around a frustrated or angry kid — the step-by-step instructions for these thornier emotional moments are a balm. (And if you’re tempted to question how many parents might be tempted to spend $276 a year for advice on how to speak to their dysregulated child, well, consider any number of alarming statistics on the current crisis in children’s mental health.)
To manage it all, Good Inside the business has grown quickly — there’s now an HR person and an in-house designer and a head of product. It’s a bustling little startup, but unlike many startups, this one has generated enough income from sponsorships and workshop fees to employ a dozen people and sustain itself without outside funding.
When I asked Kennedy whether she had always wanted to be an entrepreneur and what her goals were for her company, she looked at me quizzically. “I don’t remember waking up and thinking, ‘I want to be an entrepreneur.’ I feel like what’s happened is this has lit up something in me and I just keep following that feeling. Our mission is to help as many parents as possible to feel equipped to be the parent they want to be and to change the way the next generation is raised.” Kennedy catches herself sounding earnest. “Sometimes I think that sounds so grandiose, you know, changing the world. But if I really think about it, how do you change the world? You change it by changing the way people are parenting. And we change the way people are parented by helping adults heal the things within them.”
Kennedy has been lumped in with a wider school of parenting gurus whose approach has captured the zeitgeist. Call it respectful, gentle, or positive parenting, the emphasis is on recognizing and validating your child’s emotions and instincts. Out is the carrot-and-stick approach that focused on “good” or “bad” behaviors (or “acceptable” and “unacceptable,” as my parents would have put it) and the timeouts that came with it. We know by now the helicopter approach leaves parents exhausted and kids unequipped for the real world.
The emphasis on helping your child learn to tolerate their big emotions and interrogate the reasons why they might be frustrated, angry, or apparently unhinged by a request to put their shoes on or do their homework — all the while maintaining a preternatural calm yourself — makes sense in theory, but has left a subset of Kennedy’s audience feeling like they have discovered yet another way to fail.
“I definitely don’t want to sell anyone on the idea that there’s some ideal of perfect parenting or perfect behavior,” Kennedy says. “That idea is 100% false. To me, the messiness of parenting feels a lot easier — not easy but easier — when we have clarity on our role. When we’re able to say to ourselves, ‘This is totally unenjoyable. This is totally exhausting. I’d rather this not be happening with my child. And I know what to do.’ We feel capable, truly as people, not when things are, quote, perfect. Because that’s determined by someone else’s behavior. To me, a win is when a parent tells me, ‘My kid was still having a meltdown at the toy store, but I felt like the pilot of my plane. I kind of knew what to do and I executed. I used to worry about people seeing that tantrum. But this time I actually felt really good on the drive back to my house because I had clarity.’”
To be sure, Kennedy’s approach is not for everyone. “I used to like a lot of what she said, but I do not think her methods are always realistic,” one Brooklyn mother told me. “And the fact that she makes money promoting the practices without acknowledging their limitations is, I think, pretty harmful. I’m the mother of a neurodivergent kid, possibly neurodivergent myself, and trying to parent ‘gently’ and regulate my kid without the resources to regulate myself (i.e. child care) was impossible and I felt a lot of shame for a long time.”
Kennedy has never promised that her advice can be applied universally and has counseled podcast listeners to seek help for a kid who may face challenges outside the umbrella of “big feelings.” But Kennedy’s method — not to mention her platform — may only make sense for people with the emotional and financial resources to try something that might be nearly impossible if you are exhausted, unsupported, hungry, or sick. The privilege required to pursue gentle parenting only underscores the fact that a psychologist with a large social following can’t make up for the absence of affordable, quality child care, education, and health care.
As someone who found herself lucky enough to have unfettered access to Dr. Becky — at least for an afternoon — I found it hard not to bring up some of my own complicated shit. At one point, I confessed to Kennedy that while I work extremely hard at parenting and am trying to find ways for my children to break the cycles of anxiety I was born into, I am uncomfortable whenever someone calls me a “good mother.” Why does she think this is?
“‘Good mom, good kid’ — the reason these are irksome to people is there’s a sense that my goodness is defined by what’s visible to you,” Kennedy says. “And that feels judgmental. It feels limiting. It feels full of pressure, even if you get good instead of bad. Because you just know it could flip at any moment. And then you’re confronted with all the things about yourself that you know that other people haven’t seen. Our internal goodness is inherent. It’s separate from our behavior. It’s inside of us. That feels so powerful to me to look at kids when they’re struggling as good kids having a hard time. Not as bad kids doing bad things.”
I tell Kennedy that this feels like something I am trying to do with my own children. I tend to catastrophize, to jump to the worst-case scenario when we are struggling with a difficult phase or unpleasant pattern, but I tell myself to have faith, to believe that we will work ourselves to a better place.
“I’m guessing you’re a planner,” she responds. “I’m a planner, too. My husband said to me over the pandemic, ‘I never thought of planners as pessimists. But the opposite of planning is not catastrophe; it’s being able to say to yourself, I’ll figure it out no matter what happens. The opposite of catastrophizing isn’t predicting the good. It’s saying to yourself, I’ll find my feet. I’ll be able to cope with what comes my way.’”
As I scribble this down — even though I’m recording — Kennedy grins. “I thought I told you I’m not an individual therapist anymore.”
I joke about writing her a check for our session. It would be worth every penny.
Photos by Ashley Wilson