Review: The Happiest Toddler on the Block

Harvey Karp, M.D. (2004)

No sooner had I checked out The Happiest Toddler from the library when Wee-J (my “coworker” three days a week) started exhibiting the behavior author Harvey Karp addresses in his wildly popular parenting book: hair-trigger mini-tantrums, minor meltdowns, and envelope-pushing tactics.

Have I mentioned my new middle name is “no touch.”

I’ve been interested in child psychology since I was a psych major in college and one of my favorite guilty-pleasure TV shows is Supernanny (long before I had any concept that I might be putting any of her techniques into practice.) I’m fascinated by the often hellacious behavior exhibited by some kids and how Jo (the Nanny) can transform behavior, in the parents as much as their children.

A recent article in The Wall Street Journal about Dr. Karp’s take on child behavior and the claim that he can calm a pint-sized tantrum in mere minutes piqued my interest. By Karp’s developmental reckoning, the “terrible twos” begin around the 18-month mark, and with 14-month-old Wee-J progressing on the leading edge so far, I give her an iffy two months before the big battle of the wills begins. As a naturally impatient person, I predict I’m about to encounter one of the most challenging things I’ve ever had to do. Ever. So, any guidance, insight, or tricks of the trade I can gather are most welcome.

Karp’s shtick is that a toddler’s development roughly follows that of our prehistoric ancestors, from “charming chimp child” (12-18 months) to “versatile villager” (36-48 months). The key to his technique is learning to communicate with toddlers on their level using a language he calls “Toddlerese”, which basically involves mirroring the child’s emotion and speaking in short, emphatic sentences.

Karp emphasizes that tone, facial expression, and body language are important signifiers; makes sense since these are the primary ways a tyke of this age communicates. While the cave-kid analogy gets tedious after a while, Karp’s presentation on the stages of development is concise and interesting, illuminating the way toddlers interpret and communicate with the world around them. The book is peppered with examples taken from his own and his patients’ experiences; it helps to enforce the techniques using real-life situations. He also has advice on discipline tactics, some of which I found helpful, like the always popular “time out” (and its positive inverse, the “time in”) and others I found kind of creepy, like “gossiping” about a child’s positive behavior with their favorite teddy bear.

Whether or not his methods work, I have yet to see. The first hurdle to overcome is feeling like an idiot when speaking Toddlerese. (“You want. You want. You want it now. Now! Noooowww! You say, ‘I want cookie now!'”) But that’s only a few theatrical steps away from “No touch. No touch. No touch. No no no no.” (By the way, Wee-J does a very good imitation of me shaking my finger no.) And anyone who’s seen me around kids knows, I have no trouble being theatrical.

The few times I’ve tried to break through a near-hysterical crying jag — Wee-J has just starting to exhibit some separation anxiety from her parents — it seemed to work, but it’s hard to know if it wasn’t just the novelty of me talking strangely to her. Time will tell.

Until then, the jury’s still out. It’s out. Out! Ooooouuut!

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