And so Karp has decided that this year, he will redouble his efforts to teach grown-ups how to manage the Terrible Twos and Threes and Fours. A key element of the approach is the fast-food rule: Repeat what your irate toddler is telling you, just as the guy at the Taco Bell drive-through repeats your order to confirm that he’s got it right. And do so in the kind of primitive language your toddler speaks, so that she will be sure you understand her feelings. As Karp demonstrates in his Happiest Toddler DVD, this can mean resorting to the most adult-inappropriate behavior imaginable—getting in your toddler’s face, flailing your arms, scrunching your nose, acknowledging her distress in a pitch that echoes her own: “You want it. You want it. You say no! No! No!” In other words, he advises American parents to make themselves look like total whackadoodles.
Karp would say that what is truly crazy is trying to defuse a tantrum with a patronizingly soft voice and an appeal to reason. “The more toddlers get upset, the more we tend to get more calm and logical,” Karp says. “We say ‘Sweetheart, calm down, it’s okay, it’s okay,’ and we’re making stop signals with our hands … The message that we’re giving—especially the nonverbal message—is ‘Shove it inside. Don’t express your feelings. Mommy wants you to be happy and calm.’ ”
Toddler-ese is based on a Karpian construct that seems to hark back to the discredited theory of recapitulation (sometimes described as “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny”)—the idea that an organism’s developmental stages resemble the evolution of its ancestors. From ages 1 to 4, as Karp sees it, children reenact the ascent of mankind. “An 18-month-old is like 2 million years ago,” he explains, “when they were starting to make pretty decent hammers, which meant they had to have pretty good ballistic skills. That’s why [toddlers] love to whack those toy cobbler pegs. Then, at 2 years old, they start getting better with words, which is 150,000 years ago. Three-year-olds are about 50,000 years ago, when we were doing cave paintings. At 4 years, they’ve reached the biblical period: they’re learning writing, and a lot of this haggling they get into with parents is the kind you’d practice in a souk.”
It is not entirely surprising that the Happiest Toddler philosophy has been a tough sell. While the Happiest Baby promised to restore peace and quiet to parents’ lives, toddler-ese calls upon those same parents to now imitate a deranged caveman while standing in the supermarket checkout line. Karp is apparently impervious to embarrassment: The man freely admits that he once wore a bib for an appearance on Dr. Phil (he says he thought it would enhance his performance as a defiant child). But the average parent may not be so bold.
Readers’ early complaints about The Happiest Toddler went beyond its threat to parental dignity, however. They also concerned its purported assault on creationism. “His references to monkeys/apes and the human race [are] not for this Christian family,” wrote one BarnesandNoble.com reviewer. Karp caved. The “charming chimp-child” and “knee-high Neanderthal” have been purged from later editions of the book, as have all references to Homo habilis, the “missing link,” and, in short, the entire Karpian ontological toddler schema. “I ended up totally rewriting that book,” Karp says, “because I got so much blowback from fundamentalist religious groups.” His rationale for what may be the most substantive act of self-censorship ever to hit the genre of modern parenting advice? “I’m not here to try to convince anybody to believe in evolution,” Karp says, his voice all grown up now. “I just want them to learn how to do better handling their kids.”