Dr Karp’s methods for calming tantrums have made him America’s most influential child guru
In the space of an hour my two daughters, Evelyn (three-and-a-half years old) and Isabel (nearly 2), have run the gamut of toddler emotion. There have been shy giggles, ominously overexcited yelps of laughter, a tears-inducing accident and an unsolicited cuddle from Izzy for the Times photographer, who was trying, unsuccessfully, to lurk in a corner.
It’s been an odd morning (a large part of our small house has been transformed into a photo studio, and there are lots of strange, new people to show off in front of) and, as fatigue sets in, the inevitable occurs: a pair of explosive tantrums. As is the way with toddler meltdowns, the frustration builds exponentially. Within seconds, it has blossomed into an unfettered rage at a cruel and unjust universe. The cause? A row between the girls over a stuffed felt leek that languished forgotten at the bottom of the toy box only now to become their Most Prized Possession Ever.
Dr Harvey Karp, paediatrician to the stars and America’s most influential child-raising guru, looks up amid the tumult. “So, the big message to take from this,” he says, as Evelyn screams, banshee-like, in his ear, “is that it’s impossible for an individual to take care of two toddlers by themselves. It’s something we were never meant to do.”
Indeed, Karp believes that the raising of children inside nuclear families, without the help of an army of relatives, is perhaps the biggest experiment in human history. Modern childhood is essentially synthetic, he contends.
He’s made his name by contriving a collection of techniques to help negotiate it, and it’s one of these – a skill he calls talking “toddler-ese” – that he’s about to demonstrate. He turns to face Isabel, scrunches up his face and begins waving his hands around. “Izzy says: ‘Mine, mine, mine…’ You want it; you want it now!” he declares in a high-pitched voice, sounding just a mite less grumpy than she does.
To those who believe that parents must lead by example, this verges on wildly inappropriate behaviour. It would seem to run contrary to the tantrum policy adopted by my wife, Helen, and me: that we ignore them; we do not negotiate with terrorists. But something spectacular happens. Isabel, bless her, stops screaming.
This kind of magic is all in a day’s work for the avuncular Karp. Over the past decade, he’s become Hollywood’s go-to authority on child-rearing. The Atlantic magazine recently dubbed him “America’s pre-eminent baby shaman”, and although he says he dislikes the focus often placed on his celebrity clients, it hasn’t stopped him from publicising how Madonna, Pierce Brosnan and Michelle Pfeiffer trusted him to care for their offspring. He touts his relationships with the stars, he says, to further his “mission”, which is to make all the world’s children better adjusted. In marketing terms, at least, it appears to be going stunningly well.
His first book – The Happiest Baby on the Block – was published a decade ago but remains a bestseller, and has been translated into 20 languages. After its release this summer, his new book, The Happiest Baby Guide to Great Sleep, shot to No 2 on Amazon. Today, Karp-branded DVDs and white-noise CDs abound in American homes. He suggests he’s enjoyed less success in Britain because we’re not so open to taking baby advice from men. Around the world, however, thousands of Karp-certified “Happiest Baby educators” teach his “five S’s” technique. The method, which was recently deemed effective by a study in the journal Pediatrics, involves calming infants through swaddling, swinging, sucking, “shushing” sounds, and side or stomach placement.
He’s been credited with making swaddling fashionable, for popularising the use of ambient noise to help children sleep, and transforming the American public’s understanding of colic. Organisations such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have embraced his ministrations (the university gives Karp products to staff who become new parents). Scholastic Parent & Child magazine judged him to be the second most influential person “in family life today”, only beaten by “moms”.
In short, then, Karp’s credentials are impressive. And that’s handy, because at first glance his techniques for dealing with toddlers can seem a bit bananas.
At the heart of his method is an idea that will make sense to many parents, but risks offence, too: that toddlers are basically Neanderthals. Personally, I think he’s on to something: who else poos in the lounge and paints on the walls? “Think of your fussy friend as a pint-sized caveman… Living with a toddler is like taking a trip into our prehistoric past,” says Karp. “They’re unsophisticated little people and it’s our job as parents to civilise them.”
As he says this, Isabel is sticking a piece of cucumber up her nose. That’s my girl, I think.
According to Karp, the caveman qualities of the under-fives are linked to the development of their brains. The left half of the brain likes detail: picking just the right word; solving problems step by step. By contrast, the right is in charge of “dancing and fighting”; it responds to emotive gestures, to hand-waving and facial expressions. It is irrational and excitable. And guess what: it rules toddler behaviour. When adults get upset, the influence of the left side of our brains diminishes and we become less logical and less eloquent. “Toddlers are like that on a good day,” says Karp. “When they get upset, they really get prehistoric.”
This is where the toddler-ese comes in. When toddlers experience strong emotions, they lose the ability to “hear” as the brain’s language centre grinds to a halt. The instinct of parents is to adopt what Karp calls a “give me the gun” voice – the kind of calm tone that one might use to try to talk a desperate man from a ledge, but which will not connect with a toddler in thrall to his hyperactive right brain.
This leads, Karp believes, to a communication impasse. The parents’ job, according to another of his analogies (he is big on analogies), is to become a kind of “diplomat” to break the deadlock. You must learn to speak the language of the foreign land with which you are trying to communicate: toddler-ese. Become fluent, and you will penetrate the “jungle of emotions” in which your toddler is lost, and lead them back to “civilisation”.
In practice, this means you speak in short sentences, use lots of repetition, and mimic the mannerisms of your little caveperson. Toddler-ese is a kind of supercharged but controlled baby talk. You must flap your arms to mirror your child’s frustration and raise the pitch of your voice to reflect your understanding of their agitated state. In short, if your daughters are throwing a wobbly in public, you’re going to get some odd looks.
This is something that I would discover on the bustling thoroughfare that is Hollywood Boulevard. To cut a long story short: Evelyn wanted chocolate milk; Isabel wanted to make friends with a kitten she’d spotted in a shop window; I felt we should head home, to get out of the midday heat. I should say that neither of our girls is overly prone to tantrums, but that we were late for lunch and blood-sugar levels were low. Result: a double-headed humdinger of a meltdown. “Aha!” I thought smugly, as the screaming began. “Time to roll out the toddler-ese.” Five long minutes of “Evelyn want milk! Isabel want meow!” and both daughters were still behaving like lunatics. Admitting defeat, I scooped them up and carried them, kicking and screaming, to the car. Blakely sisters 1, Harvey Karp 0. But at least we provided entertainment to several hundred passers-by.
To be fair to Karp, this failure probably had more to do with my inability to execute his technique correctly. As the days go on, I like to think I become more adept at two other tactics that go with toddler-ese. First, what Karp calls the “fast-food rule”. When you ask for a burger at a fast-food joint, the first thing your server will do is repeat your order. Parents need to act in a similar fashion: you repeat your toddler’s words to them, to show your little proto-person that they’ve been understood.
Karp re-enacts a model scenario in one of his DVDs, where he describes a two-year-old who wants a biscuit five minutes before dinner. “There’s no point trying to reason with a two-year-old,” he says. “What you do is say: ‘Cookie. You want cookie. Cookie. You want cookie. You want cookie.’ You say it multiple times till he looks at you and then you say: ‘No. No cookies. No cookies. Dinner first. We eat dinner first.’ ”
The success-rate claims for such techniques are striking. In a majority of cases, his methods will calm a child in seconds, he says. This is partly because the toddler is receiving what he or she craves the most: not the toy or whatever else they happen to be demanding, but their parents’ attention and understanding.
There is a catch. You must tailor your toddler-ese to the temperament of the child. Children with strong personalities need more of their emotions mirrored back to them; shy children need less. Beware of hamming it up too much. “The goal of toddler-ese is to calm children through understanding and respect,” Karp says. Bounce too much of their emotion back and your toddler will think you’re mocking him. (Instructions on how to speak toddler-ese are included in his book The Happiest Toddler on the Block. There’s a DVD with the same title, with an endorsement from comedian Larry David on the cover: “Dr Karp’s not a paediatrician, he’s a magician.”)
Covered in the same book is another of Karp’s tricks, something he calls “playing the boob”, which involves bolstering your kids’ confidence by making them feel superior, which you achieve by acting in a silly fashion yourself. You might do this by mixing up items of clothing – by, say, trying to wear a sock like a hat and letting your little caveperson point out your mistake. Or you could pretend to be knocked off your feet when they blow at you. (Isabel and Evelyn think that this is hilarious.) When you think about it, Karp says, toddlers don’t get to win a lot of battles. So why not let them get the upper hand every so often?
Of course, the one thing that Karp is not is a “boob”. These tricks and many more like them have made him a wealthy man. It was in a children’s ward in an inner-city hospital in the Bronx in New York that he decided he wanted to specialise in paediatrics. He was making his rounds one day and Soul Train, the Seventies music show, was playing on television. “You had these kids, and some of them were really sick, but they were dancing away to the music.”
Later, he and his wife found that they could not have children. He has a stepdaughter, who is now 29 and who came into his life when she was 8. He used his communication techniques with her, although she was far past toddlerdom when they met. In fact, he says that the fundamentals that underpin toddler-ese apply equally well to adults. But he stresses, perhaps a little defensively, that his theories are the result of thousands of interactions with small patients.
Today, he has sold more than three million books and DVDs. (He says the DVDs are more useful, because it helps to see toddler-ese acted out.) But when he says he’s motivated by the “mission”, not the cash, it’s easy to believe him. He arrives looking shiny and Californian (his car numberplate reads “KARPE DIEM”). His teeth are very white; his tank top lends him an academic air (he is an assistant professor of paediatrics at the University of Southern California School of Medicine). He’s shod in a slick pair of loafers. But he’s much more interested in building a rapport with the kids than in blowing his own trumpet.
Indeed, for all his eccentricity, his success appears to owe much to his pragmatism. One of my enduring memories of early parenthood will be the attempts my wife and I made to stick to the rigid regime prescribed by one bestselling child-rearing guru. We found her minute-by-minute timetable impossible; we became despondent. By contrast, Karp emphasises that it is only natural for parents to struggle. Young children should be brought up by their slightly older siblings and cousins and neighbours, he argues. Your four-year-old should be under the watch of the eight-year-old from next door. And they should be spending all day running around outside – so that when they come home, the parents’ job is to shovel food in them and lead them to bed, exhausted.
Now, of course, this nearly never happens. Our homes, Karp says, are both too boring (blank walls, enclosed spaces) and too stimulating (television) for toddlers. If you’re looking after a small child, chances are you’re overstretched. His advice? Get help if you can; failing that, cut yourself some slack.
This isn’t to say he won’t point out mistakes. Just about the first thing that happens when he arrives at our home is that Isabel falls off the arm of a sofa. She lands, headfirst, with a sickening smack on a wood floor. I scramble to pick her up. She’s crying hard. I use what’s become my standard tactic in such situations – to try to reassure her that she’s going to be fine.
Karp, it emerges, doesn’t approve. It is a big bang on the head – “a trauma” – and not to acknowledge it as such risks teaching Isabel to bottle up her feelings in the future. Later, he cites studies that suggest that repressed feelings can contribute to a range of ailments, from heart disease to damaged immune systems.
There’s also the issue of character: “This is about how you raise a child to be more patient, cooperative and respectful,” he says. “By the time they’re 3 or 4, you’ve created the person.” But he admits that one technique is not going to work for everyone, and our experiences bear this out. Isabel responds pretty well to toddler-ese, while Evelyn remains impervious. (I have a kind of perverse pride in her ability to resist.)
My wife, who is British, has become a partial Karp convert. But for her, toddler-ese is just a step too far – a technique she’s happy to leave to what she calls “Californian hippy-dippy parenting”. She admits she may not have given it a fair crack, but remains adamant. “After childbirth and breast pumps, I’m now expected to lose every last shred of dignity and behave like a toddler?”
Karp would counter that heading off a wobbly in the supermarket using toddler-ese is less embarrassing than a tantrum. Helen disagrees. “I’m all for acknowledging their feelings, but I am not about to act coco-bananas in the cereal aisle,” she says. After trying the technique for a couple of weeks, she doesn’t think it’s effective enough to persevere with. I’m more open to it, with Isabel, at least. More important, I think, is the underlying idea: it’s healthy to acknowledge your kids’ feelings.
What Helen does recommend are Karp’s suggestions for improving the girls’ sleep patterns: particularly the use of white-noise CDs during the night, and a technique he calls “twinkle interruptus”. The idea is gradually to build up your toddler’s capacity to be patient. You wait until they ask for, say, a banana. Then, as you’re about to give it to them, you ask them to wait for a moment and turn to do another very quick task – perhaps shutting a drawer. Once that task is done, you turn back, give them the banana and praise them for waiting.
Gradually, you build up the time you make them wait, from 10 seconds to 15 to 30. Next, you might leave the room and come back, giving them what they asked for at the end and heaping on the praise. Then keep practising. The technique has transformed bedtimes with Isabel, who was becoming a bit of a diva, wanting to have her back stroked until she dropped off. Now, she gets a few strokes and then we tell her we’re just going to the kitchen for a few minutes. Her newly learnt patience means she doesn’t protest when we leave. And when we return, she’s almost always asleep.
This I read as a sign that our little cavegirls are slowly approaching civilisation. The thing is, for all the tears and tantrums, I’m already certain I’m going to miss the Neanderthals when they’re gone.