September 16, 2004
‘Toddler’ Guide for Tantrum-Free Kids
"The Happiest Toddler on the Block" by Harvey Karp and Paula Spencer ($22.95, Bantam).
Three-year-old Freya Wood wanted a Hershey's Kiss. And she wanted it now.
"Mommy, I want chocolate! I want chocolate! I want chocolate!" said Freya, hurling herself to the floor and shrieking at the top of her lungs. "I want it! I want it! I WANT IT!"
Her exasperated mother, Kimberly Hogan-Wood, knew just what to do with her daughter. She didn't yell. She didn't spank. She didn't argue. Instead, Hogan-Wood broke into "Toddler-ese," a primitive language developed by Santa Monica pediatrician Dr. Harvey Karp, best-selling author of the "The Happiest Toddler on the Block" and "The Happiest Baby on the Block."
Pulling a page from the Karp playbook, Hogan-Wood pounced on the ground and went eyeball-to-eyeball with her little girl. "I want chocolate! I want chocolate!" Hogan-Wood said in a baby voice, repeating the short sentences over and over to let Freya know that she understood her desires. Startled, Freya looked at her mom with utter surprise and stopped sobbing. The meltdown averted, Hogan-Wood calmly told Freya she could have chocolate after dinner.
To outsiders, Hogan-Wood's antics might seem as immature as her daughter's. But Karp's techniques -- mirroring a toddler's emotions by using exaggerated gestures, repeating what they say and employing short sentences -- have helped Hogan-Wood turn her former madhouse into a tantrum-free zone. Freya's outbursts have dwindled to nearly none from 30 a day, while her 2-year-old sister Erin's have dropped to three from 20.
"I've read lots of baby books, but his are the only ones that work," said Hogan-Wood, an environmental manager who recently read Karp's toddler book and heard him speak at the Fort Hood Military Base near Killeen, Texas. "The man's a genius."
A growing number of exhausted mommies and daddies are turning to Karp for relief from their temperamental toddlers. The bearded 52-year-old assistant professor of pediatrics at UCLA's School of Medicine has come up with a new approach to calming and communicating with infants and toddlers.
"There hasn't really been any new way to say this is how you make a happier baby or toddler until Harvey came along,"said Roni Cohen Leiderman, associate dean of early childhood studies at Nova Southeastern University in Ft. Lauderdale. "His approach is revolutionary."
A handful of critics say he simply repackages old ideas and offers little originality.
In the "Happiest Toddler" book, Karp said he builds on an idea enunciated by psychologist Carl Rogers in the 1950s. Rogers argued that the foundation of good communication was to parrot back what somebody said before introducing a new topic.
Such an approach might work with grown-ups, Karp said, but it utterly fails with illogical, shrieking 2-year-olds. Instead, parents, or "ambassadors" as he calls them, must cross a bridge built on Toddler-ese to reach their upset "Neanderthals." In other words, mommy and daddy have to put themselves in their "baby's booty," Karp said.
Dr. Morris Green, professor emeritus at Indiana University and director of behavioral pediatrics at the Riley Hospital for Children in Indianapolis, said Karp's work reflected a deep understanding of small children.
"I think he really understands what toddlers think, their development stages, what works with them and what they need," Green said.
"The Happiest Toddler on the Block," which, like "The Happiest Baby on the Block," made The New York Times best-seller list, goes beyond ways to prevent tantrums. The work also offers strategies for keeping 1- to 4-year-olds secure and content. For instance, Karp encourages parents to give toddlers lots of "time-ins" during the day -- quality time spent talking to them at meals, gently massaging them before bed and giving them undivided attention. A steady diet of time-ins will help put a smile on baby's face.
Karp's gentle approach to caring for young ones represents a refinement of the principals first enunciated by famed baby doctor Dr. Benjamin Spock. Spock, whose "Dr. Spock's Baby and Childcare" is the world's best-selling nonfiction work after the Bible, revolutionized parenting in the post World War II era by arguing that children needed to feel loved and develop an emotional bond to their parents. Prior to him, the prevailing wisdom on childrearing came from such stern figures as Dr. Emmett Holt. Holt, the Dr. Spock of the 1920s, thought parents should limit affection to handshakes or pecks on the top of the head, lest they spoil children and make them soft.
For all of Spock's emphasis on indulging loved ones, he still had some rough edges, at least early on, said Nova Southeastern's Cohen Leiderman. For example, Spock advised parents to rigidly schedule feedings no more than every four hours, she said. And he only came out strongly against corporal punishment in his later years. These days, Karp and others emphasize the importance of attachment parenting, including sharing the family bed with infants, if parents so desire.
Karp's theories have evidently struck a cord and are popping up everywhere: Switch on the TV and there he is on "Dr. Phil," "Good Morning America," "CNN" and the "CBS Evening News," comparing toddlers to cavemen and admonishing parents to speak to them in Toddler-ese -- or else.
Like any trendy Hollywood guru, Karp has a celebrity following: Madonna, Michelle Pfeiffer and Pierce Brosnan are among the thousands of parents with whom he has shared his secrets during his long career.
A Conservative Jew, the Queens-reared Karp said the Jewish values of social justice and helping the less fortunate have guided his career. He said that's why he spends 30 minutes with patients -- instead of 15 like most pediatricians -- and why he sometimes turns down speaker fees.
His easy-to-understand concepts work so well at calming infants and toddlers that they likely prevent child abuse, said Lori Flotow, a parenting specialist in LaPorte, Ind., who recommends the doctor's books and DVDs to her mostly low-income or unmarried clients. That's because shaken baby syndrome and toddler beatings often occur when overwhelmed mothers and fathers strike their screaming children out of frustration, she said.
With only a hint of arrogance, Karp said his success doesn't surprise him. He knew he was onto something when 10 publishers bid on his first book after previewing a short video of him calming a baby.
"You learn after the first two or three or four times you do something. After 20 times, you're quite comfortable with it. After 100 times you're an expert. And after 500 times you can do it in your sleep," Karp told The Journal. "I've been a pediatrician for 30 years. This is all so crystal clear for me."
Karp said he thought his books might no longer sell in a decade, because they would become the conventional wisdom. Certainly, he has made inroads among the general population and parenting instructors.
However, the academic community has proved less open to Toddler-ese and the 5 S's -- swaddling, placing an infant on its side or stomach, shushing, lightly swinging an infant and giving him a pacifier to suck -- techniques for calming an upset infant popularized by Karp's first book. For now, many medical schools refuse to teach Karp's parenting theories, said Jonna McRury, an assistant professor of pediatrics at the Medical College of Ohio and passionate supporter of his work. She believes part of the resistance is professional jealousy. But much of it comes from the lack controlled studies evaluating Karp's work, said McRury, who has undertaken her own inquiry to show the safety and effectiveness of the 5 S's.
A science wiz growing up, Karp decided he wanted to become a pediatrician in his second year of medical school at the Albert Einstein School of Medicine in New York City. He said he found working with young children rewarding because he could help nurse them back to health. Caring for the terminally ill left him dispirited.
"I'm very driven by the idea of making things right, making things better," he said.
His talent for translating abstruse concepts into easy-to-understand English emerged in the early 1980s during an internship at UCLA. Karp's responsibilities included turning child development "scientific jargon" into language the typical doctor could understand. Later, he opened his private practice.
Karp said he first thought of writing baby books more than a decade ago but never got around to it. The publication of "Secrets of the Baby Whisperer" by Tracy Hogg jolted him into action. Its strong sales showed him that there was an audience hungry for tips on calming and connecting with babies. He also worried some other author might come along and preempt him before he ever got to print.
In the two years since "The Happiest Baby on the Block" appeared, Karp has become one of the country's most recognized pediatricians. The kudos and cash are nice, he said, but what he said he really wants is to start a family of his own with his Yugoslavian-born wife Nina, who has a grown daughter from an earlier marriage. Karp also plans to concentrate more on teaching and writing. He hopes to pen the definitive baby guidebook for his next project.
When he does, Miriam Bookey will snap up a copy. A stay-at-home mother of two young children, the Santa Monica resident said learning to speak Toddler-ese has improved her relationship with 4-year-old Jack and 2-year-old Leo.
"I'm one of his glassy-eyed adoring fans," said Bookey, whose sons are Karp's patients. "He's got a pulse on kids."
On Sept. 19, Karp will talk about his new toddler book at 11 a.m. at the Los Angeles Jewish Community Library.