Dr. Becky Kennedy Wants to Help Parents Land the Plane

Every morning, as parents across the country struggle to get their kids out of bed and out the door to school or sports, they may feel a reassuring voice in their ear. Perhaps it says, “Resistance is part of the pathway to separation”; perhaps it says, “If we want kids to tolerate frustration, we have to tolerate their frustration.” That voice—the calm, firm, and empathetic tones of the fully actualized contemporary parent—belongs to Becky Kennedy, a.k.a. Dr. Becky, the Manhattan-based clinical psychologist whose punchy scripts and practical advice have earned her more than two million followers on Instagram, a Times No. 1 best-seller (“Good Inside: A Guide to Becoming the Parent You Want to Be”), and a blockbuster podcast (“Good Inside with Dr. Becky”).

Like many of her peers, Kennedy rejects what is often called the behaviorist approach to parenting, in which caregivers attempt to condition children’s behavior by wielding rewards and punishments—sticker charts, time-outs, and the like. “Behaviorism privileges shaping behavior rather than understanding behavior,” Kennedy, a mother of three, writes in “Good Inside.” “It sees behavior as the whole picture rather than as an expression of underlying unmet needs.” Kennedy encourages parents to privilege making connections over meting out consequences, and she demonstrates how in snappy posts and videos such as “Try This Instead of ‘Go to your room!,’ ” “4 Ways To Say No To Your Child,” “When It Feels Like You Might Explode,” and—a personal favorite—“Ever wonder . . . Is my child a sociopath?”

A big part of Kennedy’s appeal is that she has carefully cultivated a down-to-earth, I’m-in-this-with-you persona—her videos often seem captured on the fly, filmed while she walks down a New York City sidewalk or sits in a quiet corner of her apartment with her kids in the next room. “There’s just so much shame potential in receiving parenting advice,” Kennedy told me when I spoke with her on Zoom recently. “As soon as you learn something new, and think, Oh, I never thought about it that way before—simultaneously, you might think, Oh, how did I not know that? Learning something new is brave, and learning from someone who also is a fallible human being is the only way I’ve ever learned anything. I always want to be off the pedestal.” Our conversation has been condensed and edited.

“None of us is perfect,” Dr. Becky says. “I have my reactive moments as well.”Photograph by Tonje Thilesen

You advocate for a parenting style that moves the conversation away from “good” versus “bad” behavior, and instead sees a child who is acting out as “a good kid having a hard time.” It’s a thread that runs through all of your work. How did you land on that?

It probably was a way of encapsulating the difference between how I was trained versus what I felt at my core was true and helpful. There’s a fork in the road in how we intervene with our kids: Am I looking at my kid like they’re a bad kid doing bad things, or like they’re a good kid having a hard time? All of the different parenting strategies and interventions are in one of those two buckets. Nobody ever says, “Hey, what I recommend you do comes from the belief that you have a bad kid doing bad things.” But punishments and control and time-outs, even sticker charts and using praise to shape behavior—in all of that, there’s inherently a lack of trust.

I’m drawn to the gap in kids—and, frankly, in adults—that we can be good inside and we can behave very badly on the outside. Why is this good person doing these bad things? Why is my good kid hitting their sibling? Why is my good kid lying to my face? When you can allow yourself to be curious about that gap between good identity and bad behavior—all the productive interventions flow from there.

To what extent do you test-drive your scripts with your own kids? Do you always do a soft launch at home?

Yeah, definitely. And certainly some parents have asked me about situations that I’ve never faced in that exact same way with my kids. But there’s actually a very small range of core principles that every situation can come back to. The biggest one is that your good kid is having a hard time, and that framework allows you to stay connected to your kid. You see your kid as being on the same team, like, it’s me and my kid against a problem, not me against my kid. That’s where the scripts come in handy. People can understand that a child needs help, not punishment, but taking the leap from a framework to specific words is hard.

In one of your recent videos, you had just left your daughter at home to go to dinner with friends, and she was crying because she didn’t want you to leave. It felt a little raw and vulnerable, like you were processing your own emotions in real time. I think that that kind of vulnerability is part of why so many parents engage with your work, but I wondered if it ever takes a toll on you. Do you have to put down certain boundaries between the public Dr. Becky persona, on the one hand, and your private life as a parent, on the other?

Yes, and that’s a boundary I take very seriously. I’ve never used my kids’ names; I don’t show pictures of them. It’s tricky, because I want to be very open and specific, and I want people to know that Dr. Becky is not my kids’ mom—that would be very, very weird for everyone and not a good situation. Nobody needs Dr. Becky as their real-life mom.

None of us is perfect. I have my reactive moments as well. I’m always trying to figure out what the line is between letting people know that I’m in this, too, and really fierce protection of my kids’ right to write their own online story. I never want my kids to feel like they’re pawns in my career game.

In your book, “Good Inside,” you write about how good parenting can often feel kind of bad. That’s a central dissonance of the job, like, “I think I handled that situation O.K., so why do I feel like garbage?”

A hundred per cent. Take a moment where you’re in the grocery store with your kid and he wants a candy bar. I can say, “Look at me, I’m not even on my cell phone—I’m so present as a 2023 parent.” And I say to my kid, “Hey, I know you really want that candy bar. So yummy. Here’s the thing—you’re not gonna get it. I can take a picture of it so I remember it. And I know we’ll get through this together.” If I press pause in that brief second, I’d say to myself, “Becky, I crushed that moment. I set a boundary; I embodied my authority, not in a scary way; I was clear; I validated my kids’ reality. I did all the things.” There is an unconscious belief that my child will look at me and say, “You are such a sturdy leader. That feels so good. I can deal with this. So I will walk with you calmly to the checkout register.”

And that is just not what happens. It’s just not what happens! My child might still have a meltdown. But what I am hearing from parents is that they are now finding wins in the moments that used to send them spiralling, like, “Oh, my goodness, my kid had a tantrum, everyone thought I was such a bad parent, and I saw this other parent I know from school, and why are all the other kids in the grocery store so calm, and is my kid gonna end up in jail?” The shift happens when you move your gaze from your kids’ reaction to the way you show up for your kid. It remains hard. But there is a new perspective of, Wow, you know, sturdy pilots don’t always avoid turbulence on a flight, but they make their way through, and when they land safely they actually build confidence because of how they managed that turbulent flight.