Back in April, on what felt like day infinity of lockdown and Zoom school but was really just the opening act, I yelled at my two kids with such volume that I actually lost my voice. The usual respites—dinner with friends, a night at the theater, or even a yoga class—were off-limits. So I texted a friend who is a mother of three and was in similarly dire straits. What do I do?, I wrote. Her answer was decisive: “You need Dr. Becky.”
Maybe there are parents out there who don’t feel insecure and terrified that they’re screwing up their kids. But there are enough who do that each generation has its parenting guru, whether it is Dr. Spock, Magda Gerber, or, now, Becky Kennedy. A Manhattan-based psychologist, mother of three, and Instagram star, Kennedy has in the past year become a cornerstone of the parenting-in-a-pandemic experience, thanks to her brass-tacks advice for managing our kids, and ourselves, in maddening times.
Like most parenting guidance, there’s not much in Kennedy’s messaging that’s truly new. “I help people unlock things that are already inside of them,” she says of her approach, which she tells me is primarily derived from her experience working with adults. Kennedy’s key ideas—honoring feelings, cultivating connection, leading with empathy, and asserting boundaries—are well-trodden territory in this space.
But what has made her a sensation for these days is the way she has packaged these essentially commonsense ideas into social-media-ready scripts and scenarios, and marketed them as uplifting, digestible distractions for doom-scrolling moms. Moms, need I remind you, who are racked with dread, wondering how messed up their kids will be as a result of all this disruption, social unrest, rancor, division, distrust, and death.
Until last year, Kennedy, who has a Ph.D. in clinical psychology from Columbia, was quietly running a practice on the Upper West Side that focused on relationships and family systems. “Psychoanalytic training gave me a deep, deep appreciation of how our past lives in our present,” she tells me, Zooming in from a corner of a child’s bedroom, where a stoplight-shaped clock looms in the background. (Strangely, for someone focused on the past, she refused to share her age or where she is from. Later, she revealed she is 37 and was raised in Westchester.) She’s dressed in mom garb—no makeup, an artfully draped T-shirt. Slim, pretty, and self-possessed, Kennedy could be mistaken for that really nice woman you met at school drop-off, or someone you’d maybe expect to find in the greenroom of the Today show.
Kennedy has in the past year become a cornerstone of the parenting-in-a-pandemic experience.
Kennedy says she didn’t plan to become the Dr. Spock of the Goop set. In February of last year, she and a friend were simply thinking about launching a sleep product that they had “MacGyvered” to ease the separation anxiety that some kids experience around sleep. In order to help with the marketing of it, Kennedy got onto Instagram.
“My sister, who’s a millennial, said that if you’re ever going to release a product as a quote-unquote expert, you need to have an Instagram,” recalls Kennedy. “That led me to start writing.”
She spent eight weeks gathering and packaging her learning and thoughts on the psychology of parenting for an Instagram-centric platform. Even after she and her friend decided against launching the sleep product, she forged ahead with the Instagram account. “I’ve always had an entrepreneurial urge,” she says. “I feel like I’m one of the few psychologists who could have really been in the business world.”
On March 11, as New York City careened toward lockdown, Kennedy posted a quote card that said, in part, “Let’s wire our kids for resilience, not panic. How? Scroll for some tips.”
Even though she had only 200 followers, mostly friends and family, Kennedy recalls that it was shared more than 5,000 times. Her audience grew quickly, especially when she began uploading short, unvarnished videos on IGTV. Often self-recorded on the fly in her apartment (and occasionally against a wall in the bathroom), they clock in under five minutes and tackle issues every parent encounters: tantrum management, talking about death, and breaking bad news. She rarely seems to wear makeup or blow out her hair, but she goes heavy on the eye rolls, hand gestures, and dramatic delivery. Remember when your older sister lectured you about your relationships, even though you never asked her advice? Dr. Becky’s like that. And it would be easy to hate Dr. Becky—as more than a few people do—if her advice weren’t so damn useful.
Or as one mom told me, “She teaches the framework and tools for successful parenting, but I’m barely managing survival parenting. I think that’s why she inadvertently makes us feel like losers. But on the rare days where shit’s not hitting the fan and I had a good night’s sleep, and I pull out her techniques and actually do it well, I can see that it helps.”
Between the slides, such as “8 Ideas and Scripts for a Successful Halloween,” and videos, like “Saying No to In-Laws: Three Steps,” and workshops and captions, it’s a staggering amount of output—at least one written post each day, and a half-dozen or so Instagram stories that often tackle, in great detail, specific questions from followers. In other words, it’s so much content that part of you feels like you’re failing because you’re not raising three kids, running a private practice, and posting sanity-saving advice—all at the same time.
Kennedy credits her husband and parents, who live nearby and assist with childcare, for picking up the slack on the home front while she creates content and continues to see patients virtually. She works on her writing between five and seven a.m.; last month, she finished her first book proposal. “Someone reached out and said, ‘I think that you’re tricking us all,’” she recalls. “‘You’re actually helping adults heal so they can be more present for everyone in their lives, and you happen to get our attention through parenting.’”
The pandemic is Dr. Becky’s big moment. By helping parents achieve an emotionally steady home, she aims to mitigate some of lockdown’s effects—and build her brand. “How do you change the world?” she muses. “By changing how kids are raised. Because that’s how you change the people of the world.” And with hundreds of thousands of parents following her every slide, we might just end up being led by a “Dr. Becky” generation of emotionally attuned, functional adults. Imagine that.
Ashley Baker is the Style Editor for air mail