Toddler Man

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.

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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.

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 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.”