Can Harvey Karp's Toddler Tantrum Techniques Save Me?
I have two toddlers, and yet I understand little about their kind. When they leave babyhood at eight months or so, they are a tiny form dazzled by crinkle paper, and not to be trusted with a single bed-toy; by the time they graduate from toddlerdom at 5, they sleep with 45 animals arranged according to a complex pecking order; they have acquired mysterious nicknames that never figured into your BabyCenter searches; they know all the words to “Paparazzi.” How does it happen? How do you help them through that phase? How do you help yourself? Many of us really don’t know. “When you’re having a baby, people today will buy 5-10 books,” says Dr. Harvey Karp, leading pediatrician and author of Happiest Toddler On The Block, “and never buy another book the rest of their child's life, as if there's nothing else to learn.”
Dr. Karp is best known for the Happiest Baby On The Block book and video, which gave the world the “5 S's,” but says that the toddler phase is harder to muddle through, and arguably more important: “Between eight months and [age] 5 or 6, you've created a person,” he tells me while visiting the Romper office. He knows you have no time for more books, he knows your partner won’t read the one you bought, and he is working on a better way to get you the information (ideally a video), but for now, he really, really wants you to know about Happiest Toddler. He offers to help me through the main takeaways of the book, which is largely focused on prevention and management of tantrums.
I am listening, doctor.
Here is what I know: toddlers are Larry David in miniature, in overalls. They are petty, they laugh at the wrong things, they’re egotistical, their food preferences are more important than conflicts that have been simmering since the beginning of time, their desires are naked to everyone in the room. They aren’t sorry! Not really. When my 2-year-old son is made to apologize, it even sounds sarcastic in his toddler voice. “SO-RRY.” They are deeply lovable and irrational and changing every day. They are their own paradigm.
And yet it’s the most studious among us who often have the greatest difficulty managing the toddler phase, says Dr. Karp. Because studying your lecture notes and activating your core won’t get you through situations where you have a naked child rattling the standing lamp at bath time like a coconut tree. When the tantrum bubbles up out of the living room floor, he argues, agility and creativity are what will save your butt, not rationality and SWOT analyses.
To that end, he has devised a number of quick steps for preventing and managing tantrums that I put to the test over a months-long period. These techniques are, in case you care, Ashton Kutcher-approved and Dax Shepard-approved.
If half a million women got tuberculosis, you would treat them, but then you would say what the hell is going on, how are they getting tuberculosis, and how are we gonna stop it?
But before I delve into them, it's medically necessary to note the cloud of charisma that floats around Dr. Karp. He is the CEO of Happiest Baby, maker of the SNOO smart bassinet, but he made his bread and butter going into the homes of frazzled moms in the 1990s, getting down on the floor with their confounding children, and rescuing them by proxy. He was concerned about moms well before the government took terribly serious notice of the stress that parenthood placed on them. Happiest Baby On The Block and the SNOO that came after it are really about getting baby to sleep... so that moms can get some sleep (sleep deprivation has been linked to perinatal mood and anxiety disorders). His work in its entirety can be viewed as a covert message of love from a pediatrician to the exhausted parents bringing in Silas for his shots.
"If you know half a million women are gonna get depressed, why are you waiting for them to get depressed?" Dr. Karp asks me. "If half a million women got tuberculosis, you would treat them, but then you would say what the hell is going on, how are they getting tuberculosis, and how are we gonna stop it?"
This man — Harvey — feels to me like Robert Redford in The Horse Whisperer (I am the flighty Kristen Scott Thomas character in this imagining). Everything about him, from the eyebrows on his expressive face down to his animated hands, is there telling you "I get it. I care." I am jostling in my stirrups at the demands of motherhood, but on sitting there with him, feel suddenly calm.
Here is what he taught me.
Tantrum Step One: Show Your Toddler That You Hear Them
Dr. Karp calls this the “fast food rule,” in that you repeat back to your child what they’re telling you (“No bath! No bath! No baaaath!”), as would a worker at the McDonalds drive-thru taking your order. Toddlers are so accustomed to feeling misunderstood and bossed around that simply showing true empathy can shake them out of their tanty spiral.
I tried it on my 2-year-old, an easy-tempered kid who can often keep it together until bathtime, when he’ll break down and yell “Want milk want milk want milkkkk” with the passion of Jerry Maguire at a breaking point. Simply telling him “you want milk” with a sympathetic voice, at 30 percent of his intensity, had him stop to blink back his tears and listen. (Getting him into the bath after that was another challenge, see below.)
It becomes really apparent how important it is to be able to see the behaviors he describes modeled, as in a series of file videos dating back to the early ‘90s: Harvey Karp giggling back and forth with a baby, Harvey Karp sitting on the floor trying and failing to thread a block onto a dowel and then letting a toddler friend help him, Harvey Karp negotiating with a wary toddler: 'Mine, mine! OK you win, you keep it.'
I also tried this on adult humans — as obvious as it is, my instinct if someone is going through something hard is more often to try and rationalize with them, rather than just sit with them and say “nooooooooo. Ugh, that sucks.”
I cannot believe I didn’t understand the simple give and take of conversation until now.
Tantrum Step Two: Speaking In “Toddlerese”
The most Harvey Karp thing about Harvey Karp is the way he will impersonate and speak to babies and toddlers. Here, it becomes really apparent how important it is to be able to see the behaviors he describes modeled, as in a series of file videos dating back to the early ‘90s: Harvey Karp giggling back and forth with a baby, Harvey Karp sitting on the floor trying and failing to thread a block onto a dowel and then letting a toddler friend help him, Harvey Karp negotiating with a wary toddler: “Mine, mine! OK you win, you keep it.” It reminds me — and not in a bad way — of Sean Penn's performance in I Am Sam, which, okay, didn't age that well but here your performance isn't aimed at the Academy.
What Dr. Karp calls “toddlerese” is perhaps the most objectionable part of his toddler approach for many parents. They feel stupid impersonating a child’s beginner English, they feel silly getting animated in Target when their toddler sets off the tantrum early warning system (it's possible it feels less ridiculous to do toddlerese in Los Angeles, where Dr. Karp practices). I tried toddlerese with my 2-year-old as well as my 3-year-old, who should have grown out of baby talk but, like many of her peers, regresses to it when she is feeling scrunchy.
Truthfully, I felt like a knob using toddlerese in front of my husband, but I have to say it is effective: looking and sounding like a tool is a powerful way of communicating to your child that you are on their level, you respect them, you’ll speak their language.
Having headed off the monster tantrum, you then put a number of other tricks into play.
Encouraging Good Behaviors
There can be no greater challenge for me right now than getting a 3-year-old (potty-trained, with exceptions) and a 2-year-old (not potty-trained, not interested in my agenda) into the bath. The 3-year-old can undress herself, but also loves nothing better than to do a little runaway dance as soon as she’s naked. The 2-year-old believes himself to hate baths, until he is in the tub and happily bailing water onto the bathmat with a whale-shaped cup. The trick that was most handy for my month of yelling SERENITY NOW at bath time was what Dr. Karp calls “playing the boob.”
I saw many examples of Harvey acting like a clown with little kids in a password-protected video he Dropboxed me. In the videos, which featured young Harvey working with the children of parents who answered a classified ad, he is Dad 1.0. He is the goofy uncle, the funny grandpa. It's a skill I always wished I had.
One of Dr. Karp’s other tricks is to stretch your kid’s patience, and I’ll explain how it works but — wait! Hang on… Just a moment — OK you see how this works.
Essentially, you want to let your kids win some of the time, to feel like they are in charge or having fun. To get my kids into the bath after they have torn off down the hallway, one game I came up with involved asking their feet “where do you want to go next?” Then lifting the child up, holding their legs out like a dowsing stick, and announcing, “they want to go to the bath!” I would then run through the house led by the feet, which would try and dive into the bath while fully dressed (so silly! “No, feet! You’re still wearing socks!”). The TL;DR is I imagined I was Harvey Karp in these moments, begging the question do I want him, or do I want to be him?
Playing the boob also came in handy every time I had to get my son dressed, or change his nappy, both of which he hates. For an entire month, I allowed him to tell me where to put on his nappy. That is, for an entire month, I had to place his nappy on his arms like a t-shirt, and then on his head like a hat, or on his chin like a beard, until he corrected me: “On my feet!”
It was the long way around to getting a child into a nappy, but it worked, right?
One of Dr. Karp’s other tricks is to stretch your kid’s patience, and I’ll explain how it works but — wait! Hang on… Just a moment — OK you see how this works. And then to use “gossip” to reinforce behaviors you want to encourage. Kids are used to heapings of praise, and this is somehow much more potent, like seeing yourself tagged on Twitter. For absolute no-nos, Dr. Karp recommends time outs (blame “Mr. Clock” for the time out, not your own parenting authority) and sharp warnings.
My overall rating for these techniques? 10 Out Of 10 Harvey Karps. The biggest point of friction I see in parenting today is that we have no time at all, but want to be present, involved, are constantly propping our kids up and feeling guilty if we so much as open up Wookiepedia while on the clock. What many of these tricks did, somewhat inadvertently, is allow me to feel that after five or 10 involved minutes, where my kids were giggling uncontrollably thanks to whatever stupid game it was we made up, I could chill out for a bit.
Using bedtime sweet talk to reinforce the good things we did that day, and allow my older child to feel like she was seen and respected as she talked about whatever is on her 3-and-a-half-year-old mind, really felt like it baked in the stuff I was doing right.
But back to ME. Me the mom, me the person looking for a fluency in concepts that feel like they should come naturally, but actually require repeated visits to the book and multiple emails to Harvey.
"My work, as a pediatrician, and with my books and DVDs and stuff, it's really all about technique and creating skills, because you look at baby care around the world," he tells me, "[and] we've been doing it for tens of thousands of years. It's not rocket science, but it's counterintuitive."
I go through bursts of confidence when I think: I have solved tantrums! And then I email Harvey one night in semi-despair after a new tantrum pattern has emerged. "Sounds like we should have a little chat…" he replies, with that exact ellipsis.
So we talk it through on the phone, not as reporter and expert, but as frazzled mom and, well, expert. I'm doing the toddlerese a little incorrectly, it seems. I'm not selling it enough to my daughter. Doing it wrong in fact widens the disconnect, convinces her I really don't understand how she feels, am actually opening up a ditch for her to throw herself into dramatically as she wonders how to better explain the upset.
Getting to this point requires me to replicate over the phone to Harvey exactly how I responded to her crescendoing behavior, and let me tell you engaging in that kind of playacting is like taking a naked walk through Union Square while playing an oboe. There is real vulnerability in discussing your parenting techniques, even when the person you are talking to doesn't have that Horse Whisperer charm attached. With Harvey, I feel like a scruffy cat being pulled from a drain by a burly fire fighter. I feel like Meryl Streep finding herself again under the scrunchy gaze of Clint Eastwood in Bridges of Madison County (pre chair debacle). I feel like I've been saved, seen — I don't even know the difference between the two at this point.
Pediatricians have long been on the frontlines of maternal wellbeing because, well, they're the ones dealing with us in our unwashed Outdoor Voices gear in between our yearly "wellness" checkups. There we are in the pediatrician's office wringing every last drop of love out, dabbing it in our kid's eyes, and wondering who in hell is there to look after us. The answer is: our partners — ideally, if not actually — and also, it turns out, Harvey Karp — the author, the doctor, but also the idea, dressed in jeans and a button up, asking with kind eyes how are you doing, Janet?
The ultimate parental fantasy in 2019 is not to take your perm out for a night of beef tartare and Veuve while a babysitter watches your kids, but to deeply understand your children, and in turn feel deeply understood ourselves. Dr. Karp's work show us that when a child is born, and as it grows, there is much more to learn. Entire books could be written about it. The strange crushiness of Harvey makes sense when you look at the psychic 16-car pileup that is motherhood. More is being demanded of us by ever-more complex and inscrutable little people, and it's only natural that we begin to fantasize about someone offering the intellectual equivalent of a "u up?" text in the form of baby books, DVDs, videos, speeches.
And, in my case, emails.
A few nights later, a note from Harvey appears in my inbox, as if on cue.
"How's it going?"