The Happiest Toddler on the Block

In authors as in blind dates, arrogance is a major turn-off. But confidence? When bold claims turn out to be accurate, a legend is born. As I began “The Happiest Toddler on the Block,” Harvey Karp’s cocksure declarations left me itching to decry him as nothing more than a charlatan. But Karp is the real deal. While the next edition would benefit from more humility – as well as dropping the infomercial speak (e.g., “Now you’re ready to join the thousands of parents who have eliminated 50 to 90 percent of their young child’s tantrums in less than a week”!) – Karp puts together the best compilation of strategies for dealing with toddlers that I have yet read. Yes, he brazenly points for the center field bleachers; but he makes good. All hail Harvey Karp, the Babe Ruth of parenting writers.

Three primary successes make Karp a heavy hitter in his field: (1) he has a knack for putting words to things successful parents do without much thought; (2) he sets forth clear, achievable best practices while avoiding both absolutes and judgment (e.g., “think of TV like candy: [a] little is okay every so often, but not a steady diet of it”), and (3) he covers almost all the big parenting bases in one reasonably-sized book (combining brain science, disciplinary theory, and practical tips).

“The Happiest Toddler on the Block” presents Karp’s wisdom in four parts. The meat – and biggest value offered – comes in parts two and three wherein Karp describes various tips for preventing and dealing with tantrums by addressing green (desirable), yellow (annoying), and red (totally prohibited) behaviors in constructive and creative ways. If you’re short on time, skip to this middle chunk of the book.

Only if you have the bandwidth to do it, start with part one. The first thirty-five pages constitute a post-introduction introduction, explaining the reasoning behind Karp’s core recommendations: toddlers are different than grown-ups (“[l]ittle kids are a lot like cavemen”) in ways that lead to developmentally normal behaviors that are both undesirable and vanquishable with the right approach (parent as “an ambassador from the 21st century to the ‘uncivilized’ little munchkin” rather than “boss or buddy”). Otherwise, part one is pure fluff (albeit soothing fluff like “[n]o one was meant to parent a toddler . . . without a lot of help”).

Part two contains Karp’s game-winning “connect with respect” approach to calming toddlers: (1) “[w]hoever is most upset talks first; the other person listens, repeats back what they’re told, and only then do they take their turn to talk” (“the Fast-Food Rule”), and (2) speak to an emotional child with “short phrases, repetition, and mirroring a bit of your child’s feelings” (“Toddler-ese”). Karp explains, “Of course your child must respect you, and you’ll have many opportunities to teach her that. But when she’s upset, insisting that she wait for you to talk first will make her feel unloved.” Moreover, because the logical left side of your child’s brain shuts down when she’s upset, “instantly tr[ying] to distract” or otherwise engage her simply won’t work until after you acknowledge her feelings in a way the right brain can process (i.e., through your tone, expression, and gestures).

So you try this whole “ambassador” thing, translating your kid’s behavior into a Toddlerese expression of desire before saying your piece: “Stuey wants ice cream! Ice cream, NOW! Ice cream now, now, now!” (“[Y]ou should try to reflect about one-third of [his] emotional intensity.”) Though you feel like a complete ass doing it, he gives you this look – sort of amazed, a bit suspicious – and stops fussing or otherwise losing it. Then you can “gradually return to a more normal way of talking” and try reasoning with or redirecting your kid (on pages 53 and 154, Karp lists strategies: be physical, whisper, give options, explain your point of view, talk about emotions, grant your child’s wish in fantasy, etc.). Many good parents do this whole dance instinctively; I got about 80 percent of the way there on my own. But hot damn if that remaining 20 percent didn’t change our lives. (Caveat: The effect appears to wear off a little over time; a few months after first introducing it, my son no longer responds to Toddlerese with wonder, instead looking a tad betrayed like, “Let me get this straight: it turns out you always understand exactly what I want and still never give it to me?”).

Like the good doctor that he is, Karp doesn’t just focus on treating a tantrum; part three expands the focus to prevention, providing parents with guidance on how to respond to all aspects of a child’s behavior in a way that minimizes toddler frustration, deprivation, and other wellsprings of tantrums eternal. (I suppose the baseball analogy would be Ruth’s pitching prowess as diminishing the need for offensive strength? A stretch, ReadyMommy, definitely a stretch.)

“The best way to help your toddler behave better is to flash a green light of encouragement every time you see him being good.” Before I became a parent, I never would’ve thought anyone needed to spell out the usefulness of positive reinforcement, but I’ve since witnessed caregivers failing miserably in this arena. Karp doesn’t just tell his readers to reinforce desirable behavior, he shows them how step-by-step:

  • “Time-ins” (“bits of attention, praise, and play”) can include a game of make believe, compliments (but “[p]raise the action you want to encourage . . . not the child”), reading a book, “gossip” (when you pretend your kid’s not in the room and praise her behavior to a third party, animate or inanimate), and a whole ton of other QT moments. I only identified one novel “time-in,” but it’s worth reading the whole danged book for this trick alone: “hand-checks.” Holy frack, hand-checks. All you do is write a check on the back of your kid’s hand with a pen when they do something praiseworthy. My kids EAT. IT. UP. Hand-checks have replaced the extra bedtime books I used to dole out for particularly impressive behavior, saving me time and providing continuous reinforcement throughout the day (every time my daughter looks at her anointed hand – and seriously, you’d think she’d been raised in Rome and the Pope had kissed it – she gets a nudge in the right direction).
  • Under the heading of “building confidence,” Karp suggests asking your children for help with tasks, giving them options, playing the boob (i.e., pretending to be clueless about something and letting your kid correct or instruct you), and letting them work through challenges on their own whenever possible.
  • In order to “teach patience,” Karp discusses “magic breathing” which is essentially his method for getting kids to take deep breaths. In a similarly over-proceduralized manner he introduces “patience-stretching.” (I mean, if you’re not a complete slave to your kid and/or have more than one child, this technique shouldn’t require purposeful effort. There’s no need to feign distraction or pretend to prioritize something else on the verge of giving your kid what they want when it happens naturally multiple times a day. Though I suppose Karp’s endorsement adds value even for naturals by rendering the whole process guilt-free.)
  • Like most parenting experts, Karp extols the benefits of predictable routines; he also suggests a few specific additions: “special time” (a short nugget of undivided attention doing something your kid finds fun) and “bedtime sweet talk” (a time to reflect on the day; we do it at the dinner table, but it’s the same idea).
  • Breaking down another parenting favorite, Karp recommends you “plant seeds of kindness” by telling fairy tales or engaging in role play modeling desirable behaviors. (Books are another great source of “side-door” socialization; I highly recommend “Cookies: Bite-Size Life Lessons”).
  • Straddling those five categories is the recommendation that parents give children “three types of play . . . every day: outside play, creative activity, and reading.” (I find myself relying on this list less as a series of action items and more as authorization to relax; if I’ve taken them outside, done some pretend play, and read to them, I’m good to sit on the couch for a few minutes.)

Wait! There’s more?!?! (Yes, I am now officially making fun of his shtick.) Part three circles back to treating (rather than preventing) misbehavior when Karp addresses “[y]ellow-light behaviors[, those] annoying things kids do, like whining, pestering, and dawdling” as well as totally unacceptable “red-light” behavior. In the hope of retaining the interest of the three readers who are still with me at this point, I won’t summarize the remainder of part three in exhaustive detail (trust me, the yellow and red sections are as densely packed with helpful strategies as the green). But I can’t resist including a few excerpts:

  • “Here are four tips for effective limit setting: 1. Be reasonable. . . . Remember, toddlers have limited impulse control, so . . . make your home fit for your child, rather than vice versa. 2. Set limits with a KISS (Keep it short and simple!) . . . 3. Be consistent. . . . [Mushy limits often backfire and make kids defy us even more. W]hen you do break your own rules you should clearly state that you’re making a temporary exception. . . . 4. Avoid mixed messages. Speaking too sweetly or smiling while you set a limit confuses kids. . . . If you want your child to know you mean business, crouch down (staying just a bit above your child’s eye level) and give your message with a deep voice and a serious face.”
  • “You can often avoid power struggles with one simple trick: Tell your child what to do, rather than what not to do.”
  • “In truth, a bit of defiance is not so bad! Most parents want their kids to learn that being tenacious in their beliefs and skilled in their ability to persuade others is a good thing.” (I’ve repeated this idea like my personal mantra since my daughter turned two in 2011.)
  • “Reverse psychology doesn’t teach kids to be disobedient. It’s really just another way of playing the boob. Toddlers know it’s a game, that’s why they love it.”
  • “Giving a fine penalizes your tot by removing a valued privilege or toy.” (“Sometimes the ‘prized possession’ you remove is . . . you. This is using kind ignoring [i.e., “a teensy cold shoulder”] as a fine . . . .”)
  • “After your child misbehaves, ask for an apology, but don’t insist on one.” (Agreed. Producing kids who apologize and mean it is all about parental modeling, not coercion.)

As for the single most important lesson from part three: treat the cause, not the symptoms. “When your child is acting up . . . [perhaps y]ou’re giving too little play and attention.” (This theory dovetails nicely with Maren Schmidt’s reminder to parents that “human behavior is . . . need-driven.”) In other words, one approach to dealing with yellow- and red-light behavior is “feeding the meter” with time-ins and other green-light strategies. I love Karp’s parking meter analogy and the idea of my undivided attention as a currency in which my kids trade. My impulse is often to say “oh she’s done such a great job entertaining herself, let’s try to push it for another ten minutes” – which isn’t how meters work. If I want more time out of her, I need to buy it by giving her more attention when she’s good, not less. Karp’s “feeding the meter” technique is also helpful because it leads parents to be more deliberate in the way they mete out attention. I’ve always given my kids special time, but I didn’t label it as such. Now I declare my intention to give it to them, and somehow the purposefulness of it makes them appreciate the same amount of focused time much more.

After any high – especially the type that features a massive injection of energy and creativity, like, say, cocaine or parts two and three of “The Happiest Toddler on the Block” – comes a low. And so it is with part four, an almost totally superfluous tutorial on how to use Karp’s basic strategies in specific circumstances (which really ought to be chopped down to a brief FAQ). (It does, however, include one piece of advice that I wish I could tattoo on my forehead when we go to the playground: “You don’t necessarily have to intervene in every slugfest your kids have. Small struggles help kids learn to stand up for themselves and be courageous. Besides sooner or later, you will want your kids to learn to settle their differences on their own. So as long as the fight is a yellow-light situation, not a red-light one (that is, it involves bickering and bellowing, but not bleeding), let the kids struggle a bit before you intervene.” If only my forehead were a skosh bigger.)

 Part four isn’t the only bad news. We all know Babe Ruth was not without his flaws – he was no GQ model, for starters. In addition to the infomercial tone and padded parts one and four, Karp leaves a few opportunities untapped and makes one small error.

Let’s start with the room for improvement. First, the flip-side of Karp’s accessible writing is that it’s often plodding and rarely quick-witted; it’s hard to see this as a true opportunity missed considering any change would alienate a big chunk of his audience, but still. Second, though Karp encourages parental modeling in various spots (e.g., “finding reasonable compromises teaches kids to be more fair and flexible”), he doesn’t explicitly emphasize the import of monkey-see-monkey-do in the parenting context as much as I’d like. Third, in pursuit of the elusive one-book-teaches-all recommendation, I wish Karp had (a) done more with emotion-coaching (like teaching empathy a la John Gottman), (b) referenced the concept of consequence-distinction in combating helicopter parenting (from “Parenting with Love & Logic”), and (c) placed more emphasis on the power of giving kids a means of expression – like words or signs – in eliminating frustration (John Medina does a good job with that one).

Then there’s the strikeout. Karp swings and misses when it comes to food because he suggests tit-tit-for-tat routines; offering juice, soda, and ice cream as behavioral rewards or pick-me-ups; and other culinary negotiations (“win-win compromises”). Everything I’ve read suggests that healthy eaters are raised by parents who give their children space to figure out consumption on their own and don’t attach emotions to food whereas both eating disorders and obesity have been linked to power struggles at the childhood dinner table. As one of my daughter’s feeding therapists put it, “Your job as a parent is to decide when and what your child eats; their job is to decide how much.” Since following this laissez faire strategy has produced two exceptionally adventurous and happy eaters in our household, I’m surprised that Karp endorses micromanaging kids’ eating. That said, the book certainly is not about food; yes, Karp fails to hit a homer on this issue, but his batting average still leads the league.

In fact, each one of these critiques just explains why “The Happiest Toddler on the Block” isn’t perfect; none of them takes away from its five-star rating and supremacy over the rest. For me, the golden geese are aggressive Toddlerese, hand-checks, and feeding the meter. I’m sure each reader will come away with her or his own pick of life-altering tricks. That – and the fact that Karp and I agree that “the best way to convert a wild child into a happy tot is not with threats and force, but with respect, encouragement, consistency, and play” – is why he gets the top slot. This book is so packed with sound approaches and useful tips that it wins the parenting advice World Series despite its off-putting swagger and other imperfections. Go Yankees!

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3 thoughts on “The Happiest Toddler on the Block

  1. Thanks for this well thought out review. I appreciate how you gave voice and clear meaning to the hesitation I experienced concerning Karp’s use of food.

    Gracia y paz,

    Aaron

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