How to tame a toddler? Act like one!
Caitriona Palmer reports from Washington on the latest parenting craze that has American moms and dads acting like visitors from the Stone AgePaediatrician to the stars: Child-rearing guru Harvey Karp
They lurk in living rooms across America; peeing on the carpet, painting on the walls, hammering chinks into the surface of your favourite mahogany coffee table.
They are uncivilised beings. Grunting, farting, picking their noses and biting and screaming when they don't get their way.
They are toddlers. Or, as America's most influential paediatrician and child-rearing guru, Harvey Karp, controversially likes to think – little Neanderthals – mini-cavepeople.
"Toddlers aren't big babies, or little adults," says Karp, author of The Happiest Toddler on the Block. "They're much more like . . . well . . . visitors from the Stone Age."
"And when you understand that they are uncivilised – that they are cavemen – that gives you the proper point of view in terms of what your job is, what your expectation should be," he told the Irish Independent.
I have a personal interest in what this good-humoured 61-year-old native New Yorker is telling me.
Having shepherded two children through the wilderness years of toddlerdom, I am about to experience it for the very last time with my third child, 11-month-old Neasa.
Neasa is sweet-natured and cheerful but – with two older siblings to scamper after – scarily nimble and switched-on. I have a funny feeling that this foray into toddlerdom will be my most exciting yet. An intuition that Karp rightly stumbles upon after I send him a photo of my three kids before our interview.
"Wow! Neasa! That smile! She looks like such a sweet baby," Karp says enthusiastically over the phone. "But boy, underneath that beautiful smile, she looks like a force to be reckoned with!"
Eight years ago when my first child, Liam, was born, a friend gave me The Happiest Baby on the Block, with a handwritten inscription on the inlay, "You'll need this."
Karp's novel techniques for calming babies, known as the five Ss – swaddling, swinging, sucking, 'shushing' sounds, and side or stomach placements – have made the book and accompanying DVDs massive bestsellers.
Endorsed by Hollywood royalty – as a Los Angeles county paediatrician for the last 30 years Karp has administered to the children of Madonna, Pierce Brosnan and Michelle Pfeiffer – the energetic stepfather of one is something of a celebrity himself.
Recently, he was anointed "America's pre-eminent baby shaman" by The Atlantic magazine and voted the second most influential person "in family life today" by Scholastic Parent & Child magazine – second only to the winning category, "moms".
So why then is he wailing at me over the phone in a high-pitched voice about wanting a cookie?
"Cookie! Cookie! You want cookie!," Karp tells me sounding ever so slightly deranged. "You want cookie now! You want cookie now!"
Karp is talking to me in 'Toddler-ese' – a primitive form of communication that he believes makes it easy for an adult to communicate with a toddler who is in the midst of an epic meltdown – or a "little tsunami".
When human beings get upset, says Karp, their brains become off balance. The left part of their brain, the civilised, rational part becomes dialled down. The primitive right-half takes over.
"In the US, and I think in Ireland as well, we have a term for that," Karp tells me. "We call it going ape."
"Toddlers are like that on a good day and when they get upset they turn off the little bit of the left brain that they have and they literally go Jurassic on you," he says.
"They'll spit and scratch and throw things at your head and break things and have a full-on fit."
Well-intentioned parents – myself included – tend to deal with a raging toddler in this primitive state by using calm, low measured tones (Karp calls this the "give me the gun" voice) – talking to them as though they're mini-adults.
But to a prehistoric toddler, whose emotional right brain is on fire, a parent's calm, soothing response barely registers. What works, says Karp, is Toddler-ese: short sentences, lots of repetition, and mimicking or 'mirroring' the mannerisms of your 'tantruming' toddler. "They're brilliant at understanding your tone of voice and gestures," he says.
That's not to say that you get to throw an epic wobbler too. Karp cautions parents engaged in Toddler-ese to mirror back one-third of the emotion of their little tots – using a high-pitched voice and a little arm flapping if necessary. And he encourages the use of what he calls the "fast-food rule" – the repetition of short phrases (You want cookie!!).
Not a strategy, I venture to this enthusiastic Californian, that is likely to go over well with reserved Irish parents. "When people see these demonstrations, oftentimes their first reaction is, 'You must be kidding,'" says Karp. "They say, 'It's not dignified. It's baby talk. It's talking down to them. It's not natural,'" he said.
But it is remarkably successful. 'Tantruming' toddlers on Karp's Happiest Toddler DVD are magically silenced by Karp's high-pitched mirroring. Even little Neasa, irritated recently at her older brother for picking her up when she was happily playing with a toy, quickly calmed down when her somewhat mortified Irish mother flapped her arms wildly and said, "Neasa says no! Neasa says no! Neasa wants to play with toy. Play with toy!"
According to Karp, as Neasa approaches her first birthday this is the perfect time to begin speaking Toddler-ese and using the fast-food rule – and not just when she's frustrated or mad.
"Don't start when your child is having a temper tantrum," he says. "Start when things are a little happy."
And how do you know if it's working? By the looks on your kids' faces, he says. "The only normal family is the one that you don't know very well," Karp says. "Your divining rod should really be your personal happiness and the smiles you see on your kids' faces.
"And if you're seeing that on an everyday basis then you're probably on the right track."