No punishments. No timeouts. No bribery. Inside ‘gentle parenting’ – Financial Times
June 16, 2022
In 2019, not long after giving birth to her first son, Marissa Vahlsing began hearing from friends anxious to pass on the name of someone they promised would change her experience of motherhood. These friends were people she knew from different jobs, schools and social circles, and they were scattered across the US. But they were united in two ways: they were all highly educated parents living in coastal cities, and they shared the belief they had uniquely discovered this person themselves.
The person they were nuts about was a former actress turned parenting expert named Janet Lansbury, a disciple of a Hungarian-born early childhood educator named Magda Gerber. In the 1970s, Gerber had founded Resources for Infant Educarers, a Los Angeles-based organisation promoting the simple belief that infants should be treated with respect.
Lansbury brought the idea to the mainstream through her popular Unruffled podcast and two books, No Bad Kids: Toddler Discipline Without Shame and Elevating Child Care: A Guide to Respectful Parenting, in which she applies the philosophy not just to babies but to toddlers and older children as well.
In some ways, Lansbury’s message was a natural evolution. Decades of research have confirmed what many of today’s parents believe intuitively, namely that physical punishment like spanking does little to change a child’s underlying bad behaviour and should be avoided. So should lengthy timeouts. Part of the reason toddlers struggle to control their impulses and have tantrums is that their prefrontal cortexes are not fully developed — one of the reasons children have meltdowns in the first place and why punishing them has little effect.
But in other ways, Lansbury’s “respectful parenting” — just one strand of what’s become known as the gentle parenting movement — represents a departure from previous trends, particularly the ones current parents were likely to have been raised under.
In gentle parenting, there is no bribery, no “good job”, no sticker charts and no punishment. Kids should be motivated to do things for the internal reward rather than external validation, just as they should not be motivated to do something because of the threat of some privilege being taken away. Empathy is a skill that is learnt, not enforced. Children should not be prompted to say “thank you” to relatives, nor should they be shamed for saying rude things to well-meaning adults.
Above all else, the parent’s primary job is to validate the child’s feelings. If a child hits or bites, the parent’s first responsibility is to physically put a stop to the behaviour, before pivoting to helping the child investigate what caused the outburst, acknowledging the validity of their emotion, without shaming them in the process.
Vahlsing, a Harvard-educated attorney specialising in environmental and human rights, was intrigued by Lansbury and began listening to her podcasts. But the more she followed Lansbury’s teachings, the more something gnawed at her. A breaking point came not long after her son was nine months old and eating solid foods. On one of her podcasts, Lansbury’s advice on how to get kids not to throw their spoons on the floor was for the parent to keep his or her eyes trained on the child the whole time the child was eating. Vahlsing was flummoxed: “Like, what conditions is this woman living in where she has the ability to make eye contact with her child all day? Does she have no other responsibilities?”
The level of hands-on parenting in Lansbury’s world and the degree to which a child’s feelings are prized above all else — not least the parents’ — started to irritate Vahlsing. “I just got kind of angry at how many expectations she and others who follow her philosophy put on parents, and particularly mums, when they’re doing it under different conditions and all the kids are different.”
While Lansbury’s parenting strategies were intended to make parents more relaxed, it did the opposite for Vahlsing. “It just made me feel bad about myself,” she says. Not to mention the long-term implications for a generation of children raised on an approach that puts so much emphasis on kids’ feelings and so little emphasis on everyone else’s.
“A lot of what she says is: You don’t want to burden your kids with how they make other people feel. You can’t be like: ‘You’re making me mad.’ Or, ‘You’re making me angry.’ And I agree that you don’t want to be manipulative. I understand you don’t want to generate codependence and all that. But they also need to understand how their actions affect people and be accountable for them.” Vahlsing then adds: “I’m concerned we’re going to raise a generation of narcissists.”
The cottage industry of modern-day parental advice in the US can be traced back at least as far as the 1920s and the birth of Parents, a magazine founded in the belief that American parents no longer understood how to raise their children. Then came Dr Spock, the child-rearing expert who wrote The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care, only to be followed by William Sears, a pioneer of “attachment parenting”. Each generation of parents seems to generate its own gospels, prophets and houses of worship — in many cases, breaking drastically with preceding doctrine. “Helicopter parenting” birthed “free-range parenting”. Latchkey Gen X-ers leaned into Amy Chua’s concept of the Tiger Mom.
My own collision with gentle parenting came early in the pandemic. My first daughter had just turned seven months old, giving my husband and me the ultimately rewarding, at times maddening privilege of being trapped in our house with her, first as a restless infant and then as a more restless and defiant toddler prone to meltdowns and tantrums. The forced isolation meant fewer parents and children to observe as comparative specimens. Was it normal for a one-year-old to wail bloody murder while being made to go upstairs to bed? What about screaming like a depraved football fan while her hair was being washed? Did a child who rummaged through other prams at the playground mean we had a future delinquent?
I ordered Lansbury’s books, diligently tried to implement her practices and failed miserably. Lansbury and other gentle parenting experts advise sitting next to a child during a tantrum, narrating the feelings they are experiencing. “You feel mad, because I won’t let you stay at the playground. You are really upset!” The theory goes that a child who hears their emotions reflected back feels seen and understood and, ideally, less ornery. When I tried it, the scripts came off as forced. My daughter just wailed louder.
Around this time, social media algorithms connected me — and soon, more than a million others — with Dr Becky Kennedy, a trained psychologist doling out parental advice on Instagram. If Lansbury, a blonde, breathy Californian, is the spiritual den mother of the movement, Kennedy is her more practical, tightly wound, east coast incarnation. She dominates a world of Instagram parenting influencers, many of whom, like Kennedy, got their start at the beginning of the pandemic — a fertile time for anyone offering anything akin to credible parental guidance.
As thousands of American parents were collapsing under the struggle to balance work, childcare, home-schooling, housekeeping and all the rest, Kennedy’s was a pleasant voice of reason. Despite a global crisis, widespread lockdowns and the US president advising us to mainline bleach, we were not fucking up our children quite as much as we feared, she promised. Or at least, any damage we might be inflicting was reversible.
The once fiercely independent three-year-old who was suddenly acting like a baby? “Normal, normal, normal! And healthy,” Kennedy assured on her Instagram account, which had become a real-time parenting triage service. The potty-trained toddler suddenly refusing to use the toilet? “Allow it,” Kennedy advised. “It’s OK. Care less about pooping in the potty and more about allowing your child decision-making power.” Most importantly, she reminded parents, nothing was permanent. “Who your child is right now is not a preview of who they are going to be in a few months . . . or even in a few days or weeks.”
Kennedy is an elfin and perpetually upbeat 39-year-old with a PhD in clinical psychology from Columbia University. She grew up in the leafy New York county of Westchester, the middle of three children. She recalls being “a really pensive, thoughtful kid”, which, she says, led to many anxieties at various points in childhood. “I remember anger being a little scary to feel, you know?” she tells me. “I have these great parents. How can I be angry?”
Four years ago, Kennedy was running a private therapy practice when she had an idea for a clock designed for children struggling with sleep issues, as she had herself. The gadget would include a button to record a parent’s voice to help ease night-time separation, a departure from some other toddler sleep techniques, such as cry-it-out, which as Kennedy puts it, can end up “invoking fear”.
As she and a friend explored producing the device, Kennedy was advised by her younger sister to put together parenting content to go with the product. When they abandoned the project as too costly, she was left with pages and pages of advice, methods and theory. Kennedy’s husband suggested she post some to Instagram. It was February 2020, just before the US went into lockdown. When she uploaded a post offering tips on how to “wire” kids for “resilience” during the pandemic a few weeks later, her account went viral.
By the end of that year, Kennedy had hundreds of thousands of followers (she now has 1.1 million) and a vision for more. She added a podcast, then 75-minute-workshops, all of which eventually rolled into Good Inside, the umbrella company for all the various “Dr Becky” verticals. She co-founded the company with Erica Belsky, a graduate school classmate and wife of tech investor Scott Belsky, an early investor in Warby Parker, Pinterest and Uber.
While Kennedy still doles out advice for free on her Instagram account and podcast, those looking for the full Good Inside experience of workshops, videos and community forums must pay a $28 monthly membership fee with three months due upfront. Kennedy’s first book Good Inside: A Guide to Becoming the Parent You Want To Be comes out in September.
Kennedy is not the only expert profiting from today’s desperate parents. Big Little Feelings, an Instagram account maintained by two self-described “parent coaches” in Denver, offers a $99 course “Winning the Toddler Stage” packaged with the kind of motivational, self-care messages that might be espoused in a SoulCycle class or the marketing pitch for a bottle of rosé. Harvey Karp, a paediatrician and sleep expert who rose to fame with the 2002 book Happiest Baby on the Block, now offers a $1,600 Bluetooth-enabled, rocking bassinet called the Snoo that is advertised as being “like a 24/7 babysitter”.
Kennedy takes issue with the term “gentle parenting”, which she thinks has been mischaracterised. “I actually think in the realm of gentle parenting, the part of it that’s missed is like extraordinarily firm boundaries, and this embodiment of an authority.” The advice she extols is often useful. But there is something off-putting about the confluence of social media and for-profit parenting advice. Emma Basch, a Washington DC-based therapist who frequently works with mothers of young children, says she has watched various parenting trends come and go, almost like fad diets.
She feels there’s something particularly pernicious about how the gentle parenting philosophy — which elevates the child’s emotions above all others’ — converges with various influencers’ capitalisation of it during the pandemic. In a given week, as many as one-third of her clients will independently bring up Dr Becky and a piece of advice she has extolled.
“What I see is parents with anxiety about whether they’re good enough or doing it correctly or whether they’re going to harm their children, exacerbated by not just the particulars of gentle parenting, but how it kind of presents itself in this commodified, Instagram-y way,” says Basch, who briefly overlapped with Kennedy during a training programme in graduate school. “It’s generated a tonne of anxiety.”
As one Instagram user commented underneath a recent Kennedy post, “It’s basically parenting Spanx,” referring to the undergarment designed to flatten women’s lumpy middles. “Manufacture an insecurity (you’re creating codependency), offer a quick fix, profit.”
Good Inside occupies a shared office space inside a gleaming building next to the newly renovated Penn Station in Manhattan. The office is an oasis of mid-century modern furniture, complimentary seltzer and bagels. A half-eaten one sits on Kennedy’s desk when I visit. In her videos, she often goes without make-up, sometimes filming with her hair still wet from the shower. In some, she’s started rolling without realising she had food in her teeth. It doesn’t bother her: “If a video is a minute and 11 seconds, it took me a minute and 12 seconds to make.”
At 11am, she and three Good Inside employees — one of them the former nanny of Kennedy’s sister — gather around a conference table. Most of the remaining staff — there are 15 in total — beam in via Zoom. Kennedy has written a list of all the milestones Good Inside has achieved in the past year, not least the company’s YouTube channel. “I think everyone knows that this was a much bigger lift, like everything else, than we initially thought,” she says, crediting a team member named Mary. “You do so much invisible labour,” Kennedy tells her.
The Good Inside team has recently been running surveys to assess the company’s Net Promoter Score, which tracks how likely a customer is to recommend a business and is a key metric for predicting a business’s future growth. Good Inside’s score is 74, meaning most users are positive about the brand. It’s very high, although not high enough to suggest users are so positive that they are convincing their friends to sign up too.
The team member running the survey notes that the average score for more than 150,000 US businesses is 32. Kennedy is less thrilled, questioning why a survey respondent whom she knows is active on the site has been so critical in her responses. “Two things are true,” she says, parroting the phrase she tells parents to employ. “I’m not completely satisfied. And by any other metric, we are doing very well.”
Kennedy did not come to the world of parenting advice as someone particularly interested in children, per se. She was interested in parents and in this specific generation of parents in particular. In her private practice, she had been seeing patients struggling with tendencies that had been adaptive in childhood — repressing emotions, for instance — but which had become problematic as adults. She attended a programme “affiliated with a very esteemed college” but found it lacking because of some of the maxims it was extolling, such as timeouts. And so she decided to work with clients using methods based on the approaches that tend to build resilience and healthy coping in adults.
“We don’t realise that when kids act out, something is wrong,” she says. Punishing behaviour without figuring out its source is akin to putting duct tape on a leak in the ceiling. She and other leaders in the gentle parenting movement think obedience in a child is overrated. “I don’t know one adult who’s like, you know what I want for my kid when they’re 30? I really want them to be obedient.”
But she also thinks it’s up to parents to preemptively stop dangerous or bad behaviour. Kennedy says critics misinterpret her. “No one is trying to optimise for the perfect parent,” least of all her. “My kids do not have Dr Becky as a parent. And I wouldn’t wish Dr Becky on them. Just like, viscerally it’d be so annoying. She’d be such an annoying mom.”
There is a lot to like about the advice Kennedy and similarly inclined parenting experts are dispensing. At their best, the movement has spread a helpful toolbox of maxims and strategies. Kids aren’t “bad”. They just have big feelings. Meltdowns don’t last for ever. More connection and one-on-one time with your child makes them more likely to comply with your wishes on other occasions.
The advice has proved priceless to some parents. Laura Doyle, a Brooklyn mother of two toddlers, equates the feeling of reading a Dr Becky Instagram post or listening to one of her podcasts to “having like a wave of euphoria crashing over me. It’s like I kind of just got a massage.” She says Kennedy helped her realise how normal her kids’ “crazy” behaviour was. Her mother, who had raised five kids herself, was more sceptical. “She would say, ‘I feel bad for you girls, because in my day, I didn’t know that I was doing all these things wrong. Whereas now you feel this burden and this pressure,’” Doyle says.
Among the parents who seem to have benefited the most from Kennedy’s infinite resources are those whose children are, as Kennedy calls them, “deeply feeling kids”. (Kennedy counts her seven-year-old daughter, the middle of her three children, as one.) I talked to one mother in the Boston suburbs who felt Kennedy — who had been recommended by their child psychologist — had been instrumental in helping her four-year-old daughter, who had been previously hurting herself physically with violent, hours-long tantrums.
“The biggest thing I’ve gotten out of it is stopping and listening,” she says. She and her husband moved away from punishing their daughter for bad behaviour and began validating her emotions instead, and the tantrums dramatically subsided. “We’ve completely altered how we parent.”
But even some Kennedy devotees have taken issue with some of her maxims, particularly the emphasis placed on the toddler’s feelings above all else, even when said toddler’s destructive actions may have caused some strong feelings for those around them, like a parent or a younger sibling.
One mum wrote on Kennedy’s Instagram page about her struggles with her son hitting her at bath time, an activity he despised. She had tried following Kennedy’s advice, each night calmly telling her son: “Keeping your body clean is one of the ways I need to take care of you and keep you safe.” Nevertheless, the smacking continued. “I am so defeated getting hit in the head every night,” she wrote.
One Kennedy claim in particular seems to have engendered the most resistance: that parents saying things to their child such as “That hurts Mummy’s feelings” or “That makes Daddy sad” would cause children to suffer from codependency, feeling personally responsible for a parent’s happiness and wellbeing, sacrificing his or her own sense of self in the process. Not being allowed to say things like “That makes me sad” or “That hurts my feelings” feels to some parents like having a gag order on their own emotions.
“I really struggle with convincing my kids that I am a human being who matters and not just their own emotional butler,” one wrote under another of Kennedy’s Instagram posts. “Yes, parents should respond to their children with empathy, and not use their emotions as a weapon, but kids need to learn that parents’ feelings matter too,” wrote another follower. “Parents shouldn’t have to be silent martyrs, or pretend to be emotionless robots. And when kids go to school and say something hurtful to a peer, a peer isn’t going to say, ‘Interesting perspective. Tell me more!’”
Eighty-five blocks uptown from Kennedy’s office is the Barnard College Center for Toddler Development, a nearly 50-year-old institution. The centre is part day care for 50 toddlers who attend play sessions twice a week and part lab for undergraduate psychology majors and visiting grad students who assist the teachers.
On a wall of the classroom is a one-way mirror with an observation room on the other side for students as well as toddlers’ parents, who are encouraged to stay and watch their children. “Basically, it’s a chance to see your child as a fly on the wall,” says Tovah Klein, the centre’s director. “Sometimes it’s shocking to parents.” The kid who throws tantrums at home is suddenly well-behaved; the mild-mannered kid is more aggressive.
Klein worries about current trends in parenting. “Are we helping parents and not actually making them feel bad?” Children, she notes, “don’t need big bells and whistles. What they need is actually very grounded.” Chief among them: a predictable routine and caregivers whom they know love them and whom they can rely upon to keep them safe. In many cases, that feeling of security comes from the confidence of the parent. Perhaps the method of parenting matters less than the degree to which it is inherent to the person performing it.
One of Klein’s best students at Barnard had come from a family of circus performers: her father was the circus master, her mother a horse trainer. “Her needs were not centred,” Klein recalls, but “she was loved”. Assisting in the toddler classroom, she’d excelled amid the two-year-old chaos. “She could handle anything.” The circus performers’ kids might not have had the typical upbringing, but “they obviously did OK”. (Her brother ended up at Harvard.) It seems a worthy endorsement of the “good enough” parenting espoused by British paediatrician DW Winnicott, who argued in the 1950s that most ordinary parents had sane-enough instincts and were doing just fine.
Two days after my first meeting with Klein, I file into the centre’s observation room to watch a play session, taking a seat next to the children’s parents. In the classroom, there are child-sized wooden chairs and tables, baby dolls, stuffed animals, trucks, blocks and a simple arts station. It looks no different from my pre-school classroom three decades ago. Same toys. Same furniture. From the observation room, the parents watch as their children flit from one activity to the next, occasionally peppering Klein, who is also with us, with questions about sleep, their children’s mood and screen time.
In the classroom, a small boy begins throwing objects on the floor. A teacher redirects him to throw them inside a clear plastic bin. He acquiesces. “It’s exactly what we’d expect to see this time of year,” Klein reassures the watching parents. “Pandemic-shmandemic.” Soon, the parents are shepherded out and told to return at pick-up. A few minutes later, a boy and a girl begin fighting over a stuffed animal. As the tugging becomes more urgent, two teachers separate them. The boy, left without the prized object, wails. A teacher gives him a hug, but the wailing continues. It feels as if it’ll never end. Interminable. Infinite. Until it does. No more than 45 seconds later, the boy has forgotten all about it and moves on, unfazed. As if the tantrum had been a brief tropical storm.
On my way home, I think about my daughter. Around the time she turned two-and-a-half, the tantrums suddenly subsided. There was still the odd one here or there, but they weren’t as frequent or as long. Maybe we had both absorbed the requisite amount of Janet Lansbury and Dr Becky. Maybe she had benefited from the year of family leave I took following the birth of our second child. Maybe she had just grown out of them.
When I spoke to Klein, she’d marvelled at the young families at the park next to her office. It was the same park she’d frequented when her sons were toddlers. “I think to myself: they think it’s their park. I thought it was mine,” she said. “It’s cyclical.” In the thick of it, the season seems endless. And then, just as quickly, it’s over.
Courtney Weaver is the FT’s US business and politics correspondent in Washington
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