A second after the plastic shovel hit my son’s arm, the other boy’s mom was rushing toward the sandbox, a look of Can’t I relax for five seconds? on her face. I made my way over too — probably with the same expression — trying to signal that it was fine (my son was busy playing with some other germy, sandy toy and barely seemed to notice), but she was already on her knees, eye level with her son, speaking in language that many millennial parents would recognize.
“I see that you’re frustrated,” she said, looking exhausted. “You wanted to play with that bucket, and somebody else is taking a turn, and that is hard.” I joked, “Ah, naming the feeling,” and added a comment about how my boys are basically feral by the end of the weekend. I felt bad that she thought such a normal thing — toddlers throw! Toddlers are maniacs! — required so much effort in response.
But that’s the earnest vibe in parenting circles these days. Parents seem to be reading from a script they saw on Instagram, trying their best to be empathetic in moments when they might want to simply say “Stop it” or “Because I said so.”
There’s not a lot of irony on the playground. Snark — the reigning tone of Gen X parenting blogs (and the internet more widely) in the aughts and early 2010s — is distinctly out. Millennial parents, guided by influencers, are proudly try-hard, embracing the notion that a kinder, more respectful parenting style can also be a form of self-healing.
The Hardest Job in the World
“Gentle parenting,” an approach that steers away from punishment and focuses instead on helping children become more self-aware, is the term that has caught on, but it’s sometimes used as a catchall for a set of emotionally-focused parenting styles. The prevailing ethos is that it’s important to acknowledge and understand a child’s feelings while maintaining boundaries, and that parents, in turn, benefit from recognizing their own feelings.
“It’s a generation that takes learning and self-growth seriously,” said Becky Kennedy, 40, a clinical psychologist known as Dr. Becky to her nearly two million Instagram followers, and who Time magazine called the “millennial parenting whisperer.”
“Things like feelings not being soft, feelings being the core of who you are — there’s more acceptance of that,” she said. “I think it’s a generation that feels like, I have one life. I want to understand myself. I want to feel good.”
She was once approached after giving a TED Talk by someone who told her that parenting was the only job people cared about on their deathbeds. “I was like, Whoa, that was dark, but also yeah, I think it is,” she said. “And so, for a generation that takes learning and self-growth seriously, now they have the hardest job in the world, the one they care about the most.”
On her Instagram account, Ms. Kennedy shares videos about topics such as what to do when your children lie or say no and how to get them to brush their teeth. Some posts are specifically about parents, including a recent video explaining that parents taking time away from their children is self-sustaining, not selfish. Earlier this week, she posted a video called “Say This to Your Child Today,” in which she walks down a New York City block talking into her phone like a hurried friend on FaceTime, discussing how to deal with a child who is in a difficult phase:
“Find that child tonight and whisper something like this,” she says in the video. “‘Hey, I just want to tell you something. There is nothing that you could ever say or do that would make me love you less. Do you hear me?’”
“Is this giving your child permission for their bad behavior?” she asks, her voice getting louder, more emphatic. “No! We have to get out of that mind-set. We all, adults and kids, have to feel good inside before we act good on the outside.” (“Good Inside” is also the title of her best-selling book and the name of her online platform.)
Another popular account is Big Little Feelings, created by two longtime friends, Kristin Gallant, 36, and Deena Margolin, 33, a licensed psychotherapist. (Ms. Gallant has three children and Ms. Margolin has two.) Started just before the pandemic began, Big Little Feelings now has more than three million followers on Instagram, and the mood is more moms-in-survival-mode. Practical advice (“How to stop your toddler from hitting,” “Did you lose your sh*t with your spouse in front of your kid? Here’s how you repair”) is mixed in with glimpses of the women’s own struggles as working parents trying to keep it all together.
The New Dr. Spocks
Every generation of parents has its gurus. Boomers flocked to Dr. Benjamin Spock, for instance; Gen X found the less-is-more parenting style of the French through “Bringing Up Bébé,” and from the pediatrician Harvey Karp’s guides “Happiest Baby on the Block” and “Happiest Toddler on the Block.” (Millennial parents might recognize Dr. Karp as the creator of the Snoo, an automated bassinet.) But today’s parents have Instagram and TikTok, where they can curate a panel of influencers from a sea of options and keep them quite literally in their pockets, checking in multiple times a day.
It’s a realm largely led by women who are parents of young children themselves. In addition to the women behind Big Little Feelings and Dr. Becky, who sometimes overhears parents using her techniques in the wild, there’s Jazmine McCoy, a clinical psychologist who goes by “The Mom Psychologist,” Emily Oster, an author and economist who has a popular newsletter, and a slew of others.
Among the millennial Instagrammers, there’s also a set focused on specific challenges: sleeping, potty training, playing, eating. Solid Starts, which helps parents safely introduce new foods and avoid picky eating, has 2.6 million followers on Instagram. Taking Cara Babies, a sleep training guide for exhausted parents, has 2.4 million followers. Busy Toddler, an account dedicated to thoughtful play, has two million followers.
The tone on many of these popular parenting accounts is often not only instructive but also soothing and supportive, not so different from the way parents are encouraged to talk to their children. You’re doing great. You’re not a bad parent. It’s OK to make mistakes. This is difficult.
“I do think we put so much pressure on ourselves that our identity almost becomes consumed with, Is my baby sleeping the best way that my baby could be sleeping? Is my toddler doing this thing they should be doing?” Ms. Gallant said.
“When we have two hours after bedtime, we are still researching the best things for them,” she said, adding, “You’ll never do it perfectly, so then you’re chasing more.” The most common question Big Little Feelings followers ask is some version of, “Am I messing up my kid?”
Social media has some answers, but it’s also part of the problem. More than ever, parents can watch one another (or at least a filtered version of one another) which creates community — and anxiety.
“The circles of comparison are bigger, deeper and more accessible than they’ve ever been,” said Matthew Zakreski, 39, a child psychologist in Roxbury, N.J., and a father of two young children. “The way our brains are wired, it’s, What is everybody else doing? Why am I not doing it? What do they know that I don’t know? That sets us off on an anxiety spiral and we seek information to fill that anxious hole.”
Nicole Pappas Ferrin, director of Barrow Street Nursery School in Manhattan and a 39-year-old mom of three, agrees. “There is a millennial culture around information,” she said. “We research the tape we’re buying, we look at the reviews, even if we are buying tape. Parenting — these are the big decisions. You want to get it right.”
When she started at Barrow Street fifteen years ago, the parents “were sort of like, ‘Take my kid, have a good day, let them play,’” she said. Now, “they want to know why we do what we do, how we do it. It’s a positive.”
Who Cares About Being Cringe?
The effect of all this information is felt everywhere from drop-off to play dates, with millennials taking parenting seriously in a way that might elicit eye rolls from older generations. Bridget Shirvell, 37, of Mystic, Conn., was at a birthday party with her daughter when another child was having a meltdown about leaving. “The mom was trying to talk about the feelings, and one of the grandparents who was there was like, ‘How’s that gentle parenting thing going for you?’” she said. “He just wanted her to put the kid in the car and go. But I’m like, You just have to brush it off. We are in it for the long haul,” she said.
“We are in it for the relationship we are going to have with this child 20 years from now,” she added.
Newer parents have always been preoccupied with parenting, and often find themselves talking only about their children, especially to other parents. But for this generation, it can feel like studying for a Ph.D. at some imaginary parenting university, with an endless stream of homework and classes. “We are circling the same books, the same podcasts, the same Instagram people,” said Heidi Fichtner, 40, from Rochester, N.Y.
When parents make snarky remarks online these days, they do so in secret. Rather than posting in the comments, where they might face a wave of backlash, a small subset of people share their pettiest thoughts about other parents and parenting influencers in Reddit forums where they can remain anonymous. (“I understand if you don’t personally want to use timeouts but please stop acting like its ruining my kid because influencers told you so,” one user wrote.)
Joyce Szuflita, a 63-year-old school admissions consultant who has been helping New York parents for a decade and a half, said that in the past six years or so, her clients feel like they’re “floating out on an iceberg out to sea,” more anxious and unsure than previous generations of parents.
There’s a lot to be worried about — the climate crisis, debt, war, aging parents, a divided country, the effects of the pandemic. The same generation of people who watched the horrors of the Columbine High School shootings in Colorado unfold live on TV, the victims roughly their age, are now forced to process school shootings on repeat while their children practice hiding under their desks. “There’s something to be said about this shift of raising these kids in a gentle way in this world,” Ms. Fichtner said, using an expletive.
And so, the tone is earnest. Millennial parents are more than OK with trying. As Alissa Floyd, 39, a friend of mine and a mother of three in Winston-Salem, N.C., recently said: “I think there’s been a complete misunderstanding of millennial parents. We are making the decision not to care if we’re cool. What is cooler than that?”
Or as Ms. Margolin of Big Little Feelings put it, “I like being cringe.” Ms. Gallant added, “I’m in there, too.” The three of us laughed. We didn’t name the feeling, but I think we understood it.
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