How Dr Becky Kennedy became Instagram’s favourite ‘parent whisperer’ | Parents and parenting

Talking to Dr Becky Kennedy today requires flexibility – the kind of flexibility that many of us parents have had to hone pretty well during the pandemic. My five-year-old daughter is off from school with her first bout of Covid, which means I have to take Kennedy’s Zoom call from the bedroom. Kennedy’s own seven-year-old daughter is also at home with a fever and sore throat; luckily her husband has stepped in to help oversee childcare, so she’s got an hour to speak.

The slapdash situation feels apt: Kennedy, a clinical psychologist from New York who specialises in parenting, experienced a rapid rise to prominence during the pandemic when young parents suddenly found themselves at home with their children and in desperate need for a hand to guide them through it. Kennedy had never even posted on Instagram when Covid-19 first emerged, but on 28 March 2020, two days after lockdown measures came into force in the UK, she wrote a message to her 200 followers that changed her life. It 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. Dr Becky (as she is known online) and her company Good Inside now has 1m followers, a hit podcast, a series of paid-for workshops covering everything from potty training to anxious kids, and a legion of devoted followers located everywhere from Jordan to Guatemala via Australia and the UK. This year she has a book out and big plans for a membership platform that she hopes can become, as she puts it, a “Peloton for parents” – a community hub packed with educational tools. Kennedy talks about what she does as becoming a “movement”, an empathic, relationship-centric approach to parenting that is attracting a whole new generation of mums and dads to the cause. It’s not for nothing that Time magazine called her the “Millennial parent whisperer”.

“Yeah, I’ve got that tattooed on my arm,” she says laughing from her Manhattan office. “No, no, I definitely do not!” In fact, Kennedy is not big on any kind of labels. Her focus on parenting arose from when she worked on long-term therapy with adults and realised some people were being needlessly diagnosed with disorders for patterns they had wired into their bodies during childhood as they learned to adapt to their family system. Kennedy wondered if we could intervene earlier, so that children could build resilience and learn to adapt not just to their own family system but in the future as adults, too – “Rather than having to unwire and rewire themselves back again in adulthood,” she says. Five months after she’d had her first of three children (a boy, now 10; she also has a boy, aged four), Kennedy opened her private practice aimed at doing just that.

During our hour-long chat it is clear why Kennedy is so popular: she’s friendly, funny and speaks with clarity, summing up complex theoretical ideas in relatable terms. She believes in focusing on the parent rather than the child – transforming them into “sturdy leaders” who experience their own growth and healing along the way. The parent is invited to examine how they respond to their child’s tantrums and deep feelings – do they deny them (“Oh, don’t be silly!”), distract them (“Oh, look, a bus!”) or feel guilty? Or do they validate them and discuss them openly and respectfully (“I can see you’re feeling really sad – let’s talk about why.”) Kids aren’t afraid of feelings, she says, but of feeling alone in those feelings.

She likes parents to put themselves in the position of their children and imagine how they might feel. She talks about a time she played a short game with her own daughter where the child got to set the rules. Her daughter asked her to change into clothes she didn’t like shortly before Kennedy had to leave the house for work and she realised it made her bristle with resentment – if she felt like that, then why wouldn’t a child?

As a child growing up in Westchester County, New York, Kennedy was a perfectionist who thrived on being the good girl, the people pleaser, the high achiever. This pressure to be good is what she believes contributed to a “brief but intense” experience with anorexia as a teenager. She found therapy rewarding and the experience had the added benefit of suggesting a career path: “Understanding people’s stories, unlocking things… Therapy can change the course of people’s lives. I know because it did with mine.”

At first, Kennedy studied and applied the behavioural method of parenting favoured by previous generations – changing behaviour using naughty steps and reward charts felt logical and it seemed to get quick results. But she remembers sitting in her office with a set of parents, telling them how to implement a time-out, and thinking: “This feels wrong, I wouldn’t do this with my own kids.”

She became suspicious of the whole approach. “The way I think about behaviour now is that it’s the tip of the iceberg,” she says. “It’s important because you need to see the tip to understand what’s underneath. But if I cut off the tip I don’t think anybody would say you’re suddenly safer on your ship – in fact, the waters would now be more dangerous.”

A later session, with parents of a 14-year-old boy who was rebelling after years of being sticker-charted into behaving well, confirmed her change of heart. “He basically said: ‘I don’t fucking care about your stickers and you can’t physically move me and put me in a time-out any more. You don’t understand me, you don’t try to understand me, you’ve been more interested in shaping my behaviour than helping me grow up as a human being and now we have nothing.’ I could actually cry thinking about it, but that case showed me that it’s also truly never too late to change.”

Kennedy’s Instagram has a wealth of snappy information on it. A typical post might say: “Three Things To Say When Your Child Is Hesitant” or “Common Parenting Myth: If I Take Care Of Myself Rather Than Spend Time With My Children, I’m Selfish.” There are multiple to-camera clips to watch, digestible in a minute or so. In terms of translating deep ideas into social media nuggets for time-starved parents to consume in spare moments, Kennedy seems to have aced the market. But is it possible to come away with meaningful change from such short snippets? Parental advice for previous generations involved consuming huge tomes, such as Dr Benjamin Spock’s 1946 book The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care (527 pages) or 1983’s The Baby Book (783 pages). But then that relied on people actually reading them. I found the accessibility of Kennedy’s advice a great starting place to consider her ideas – and she frequently directs you to her podcasts and workshops if you wish to investigate further.

Dr Becky also offers advice that is targeted at the unique problems millennial parents face, reframing some of the stereotypes we’ve become used to hearing in the media: that they’re snowflakes, suffer from a sense of entitlement and are glued to their devices. “Younger parents experience a lot of guilt,” she says, which is not only a problem for building sturdy leaders, but also misplaced: a 2016 study by the University of California, Irvine, found that both mums and dads spend significantly more time with their children than their 1960s counterparts: mums moved up from 54 average daily minutes on child care activities in 1965 to 104 minutes in 2012; dads moved up to 59 minutes from a whopping 16 minutes in the 60s.

Kennedy also points to the pressures of social media, which invites comparisons to unrealistic scenes of perfect parenting and offers continuous opportunities for external validation from likes and comments. “It’s so easy to define yourself by the information others give you, rather than from what’s going on inside you,” she says. “And if you apply that to parenting then your child becomes the latest barometer of whether or not you’re a good person. So if they have a meltdown in the playground, you must be a horrible parent because they’re not giving you an Instagram perfect video. Whereas I want parents to think, yes my child is tantrumming, but I feel confident about my intervention.”

This notion of internal and external validation applies to children, too, and Kennedy warns against something some of us softer parents might find counterintuitive: over-praising. “We think, great, that will build them up. But if that’s true, the opposite is true too when they hear something less nice.” Instead of saying, “You were amazing at soccer today,” she suggests asking questions (“Who crossed the ball to you when you scored?”) or focusing on how the experience made the child feel (“I could see how happy scoring made you.”) Partly, this comes from her own upbringing: Kennedy has a close relationship with her parents, but wonders if maybe they could have framed their praise in different ways. “I needed more permission to struggle. To not be so good,” she says.

Analysing our own upbringings and identifying things that worked or didn’t work is an important part of Kennedy’s approach. I tell her about a vivid memory I have from childhood, of overhearing a conversation about Ronald Reagan “pressing the button” and descending into uncontrollable tears when my parents explained what nuclear war was. My devastation was met with a mixture of bemusement and panicked attempts to reassure me, neither of which, I now realise, were validating the extreme feelings I was having. I ask Kennedy how I might go about telling my own children about the difficult things of our era, such as climate change.

“What you’re talking about is how we talk to our kids about hard truths,” she says. There are no set rules. “It’s not like at two you say this and at five you say this. It’s more… Where is my kid now in terms of talking about uncomfortable truths?” She points to the example of a family who might steer their children away from a rough sleeper to avoid talking about homelessness. Or how another parent might argue with their partner, but then say to their child afterwards, “You heard us argue and that probably felt scary, here’s what was going on.” The second child is likely to be more emotionally prepared to talk about bigger things such as climate change because they have built up skills to deal with hard truths.

“So there’s not a sex talk, a racism talk, a climate talk… You start them off, tell them you will check in and they can talk about these important topics. This also sets the stage for how you get your teenager to talk to you rather than hide things. Because that doesn’t just happen in adolescence.”

A few days later I speak to Carolyn Ismach, 36, a speech and language pathologist from New Jersey with two children: a girl aged five and a son who is three. She had been following a variety of “positive parenting” sites, but found their lack of concrete examples frustrating. Kennedy’s material seemed different: while emphasising a positive approach, it also contained specific steps that Ismach could take out into the real world. “Within a week, I’d pretty much abandoned the other accounts and relied solely on Dr Becky,” she says.

Ismach has called on Kennedy’s sleep workshop and her podcasts for advice (“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve listened to the callers and thought, ‘Wow, I could have called in with that exact question, I’m not alone here.’”). And she credits Kennedy’s “Back to School” workshop with helping her daughter adapt to a new school environment after months away. “She walked into her first day back with zero hesitation and, even better, I felt fully confident in myself as a parent.”

These stories aren’t uncommon. Yet Kennedy has faced criticism, too, namely that what she’s selling is the unattainable notion that it’s possible to “win” at parenting. To some degree, she says, she can understand where that comes from. “It’s one more way to feel not enough, right? I didn’t listen to the whole podcast, or do the latest workshop. But I think two things can be true: I am doing enough and there is more I could learn.” Still, she thinks her aims have been misrepresented: “I don’t say you can ‘win’ at parenting, in terms of controlling your kids’ behaviour or having picture-perfect moments. If a win exists, then it’s parents having more clarity and internal confidence even in the hard moments.”

Regardless of criticisms, it’s hard to disagree that a sea change is happening regarding how parents build relationships with their children. The Observer’s agony aunt Philippa Perry is the author of 2019’s The Book You Wish Your Parents Had Read (And Your Children Will Be Glad That You Did), which shares similar ideas to Kennedy’s about establishing a respectful bond between adults and children, and emerged from a similar place.

“I wrote my book after decades of seeing patients whose parents were perfectly nice, yet believed it was in their child’s best interests to deny rather than validate their child’s unhappy feelings,” she says. “Parents who did not realise you cannot scold a child out of being sensitive and thought they were doing the best thing when they attempted this.”

She adds: “If you can’t create a safe, harmonious home environment where differences of opinion and cultures can be worked through safely, then you might need to self-examine a bit.”

If such ideas are set to mark a permanent shift in how we parent, then Kennedy is seizing it. Later this year sees the release of her book Good Inside: A Guide to Becoming the Parent You Want to Be. And for her membership scheme she has devised a platform to provide a library of information to a community of like-minded mums and (hopefully) dads, too – her Instagram followers are currently 94% female. She has also just finished training her first cohort of therapists in the Dr Becky method and they will populate the community, too, offering advice and support.

But if her fame continues to grow will it put pressure on her own parenting style?

She laughs: “I get asked a lot, so are your kids perfect? No! That would be the opposite of my approach. And also, for anyone who needs to hear this – I yell at my kids sometimes, I find myself saying, ‘OK just do this and you can have an M&M,’ I get distracted by my phone when I’m supposed to be playing with them. If knowing that helps knock me off some kind of pedestal then that’s a win for everyone. Because at the end of the day we’re all human and parenting is hard – and that’s true for me, too!”

Visit for Dr Becky’s podcast, workshops, and to sign up for her Good Insider newsletter