At a small café in Brentwood, California, the peace of a fine weekend afternoon is interrupted by the sound of a tabletop menu stand clattering to the ground. A childish, high-pitched wail of protest follows: “No, no! Don’t faw-awl!” Patrons turn their heads to find not an unhinged toddler, but a gaunt, bearded, hiply dressed, 60-year-old L.A. Westsider, wringing his hands at the cruel workings of a universe he can’t yet fathom. He picks up the stand. “You keep faw-ling all the time,” he says angrily. With feigned carelessness, he knocks it to the floor again. “No, no! You cannot keep fawling!”
Why is Dr. Harvey Karp, America’s preeminent baby shaman and an assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Southern California, screeching like a 2-year-old? He’s demonstrating a technique he calls “playing the boob,” one of several he has devised for communicating with toddlers. Other entries in the Karp playbook include “the fast-food rule” and “toddler-ese”—the latter, a mode of communication heavy on fist-clenching and sputtered sentence fragments, is designed to ease the upset of a young child who, as Karp puts it, has “gone ape.” Actually, according to Karp’s theory of toddlerhood, toddlers essentially are little apes—or, at best, little cavemen—and ought to be approached using tactics that treat them as such.
VIDEO: Dr. Harvey Karp demonstrates "toddler-ese," the caveman-like language of small children, in these scenes from his Happiest Toddler DVD.
In an earlier incarnation as pediatrician to the stars (he tended to Madonna’s offspring, and Larry David’s), Karp developed his boob routine as a way to connect with young patients who were cringing in fear. “Ninety-five percent of these kids will go from this,” he says, averting his eyes in childlike dread, “to looking at the mother: ‘Did you mean to bring me to this guy?’ Suddenly, I’m not a threat to them anymore. I’m a boob.”
Two things to know about Harvey Karp: First, he is not a boob; he is a genius when it comes to marketing his ideas to new parents. Ten years on, his first book, The Happiest Baby on the Block, is the best-selling parenting book on Amazon, outpacing Drs. Sears, Brazelton, and Spock. Upon its release this summer, his new book, The Happiest Baby Guide to Great Sleep, shot to No. 2 on Amazon. Any pregnant woman circa 2012 can expect to receive at least one copy of The Happiest Baby as a gift, as well as Karp DVDs and a Karp-branded white-noise CD. The Happiest Baby has been translated into more than 20 languages, and some 2,600 Karp-certified educators now teach its signature “five S’s” technique. (The method, which was recently deemed effective by a study in the journal Pediatrics, involves calming infants through a combination of swaddling, swinging, sucking, “shushing” sounds, and side or stomach placement.) Karp’s ministrations have done much to change the popular understanding of colic (it’s not about gas) and to revive the practice of swaddling. Scholastic Parent & Child recently put him second in its roundup of “The 10 Most Influential People in Family Life Today,” right after “Moms,” and well ahead of Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and first lady Michelle Obama.
The second thing to know about Karp is this: while his work with babies has made him rich, when it comes to toddlers—the ape-like proto-people who are his greatest professional love—he is something of a frustrated artist. The Happiest Toddler on the Block, his 2004 sequel to Happiest Baby, sold a respectable 500,000 copies in the United States, but Karp feels that his writing about toddlerhood has not penetrated the popular consciousness. “With the babies, it’s very rote stuff,” he says. “It actually takes much less talent and expertise than you would imagine.” Get Karp talking about 3-year-olds, however, and he is clearly besotted. “They’re much more complex,” he says. “They’re so pure and transparent. Even in their guile.”
The toddler years are, according to Karp, much more consequential than life’s first few months. “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.” A newborn subjected to inexpert soothing may yet become a functional member of the 21st century. A misunderstood toddler may not.