A talk with the 'Happiest Baby' doc
He’s been dubbed the new millennium’s Dr. Spock — and sure enough, Dr. Harvey Karp’s best-selling books, The Happiest Baby on the Block and The Happiest Toddler on the Block, line the bookshelves of thousands of today’s parents.
Karp, a nationally renowned pediatrician, child development specialist and assistant professor of pediatrics at the UCLA School of Medicine, has offered his insights on such shows as “Good Morning America,” “Dr. Phil,” “The View” and on CNN. We spoke to him recently to get his insights on a variety of topics that matter to Northwest parents.
What kinds of things do new parents worry about most?
First, they worry about the health of their child; they want to make sure there are 10 toes and 10 fingers. Then they worry about adjusting to parenthood, about how they are going to do when they’re dealing with things like no sleep and with meeting the baby’s needs.
What should parents be worrying about?
They should worry about helping their baby learn to have confidence and to trust. That’s the goal for the first six to nine months of a baby’s life. It’s the basis of all human relationships. And they should not think about “spoiling” — that’s not a concern in the first six months.
Why are confidence and trust so essential?
When arms come and pick you up or a breast comes to feed you, you develop confidence and optimism. And that’s important for learning. High levels of stress hormones can interfere with learning. They can interrupt and interfere with the laying down of memories.
When you’re confident and at ease, you are able to pay attention and learn better. The set points for stress levels later in life have a lot to do with those first few months of life. You are actually helping wire your baby’s brain during these months.
How important is emotional and social intelligence? How do these relate to cognitive intelligence?
You can’t really separate emotional from cognitive intelligence. We all know brilliant people we wouldn’t want to have lunch with. Ultimately, your emotional intelligence gets you farther than your cognitive intelligence.
Happy people are not necessarily the most brilliant people; they are the ones with the best personal and social skills. If you pay attention to those skills, the cognitive stuff will just come along.
How important is emotional well-being?
Psychological health is intimately tied to physical health. That’s why it’s so important to help kids establish a good emotional foundation. When you’re unhappy, it affects your immune system. Those first three years of life allow you to help build your child’s cognitive and physical health.
What are some ways to do that?
Parents should know that there’s a difference between emotions and actions. All emotions are acceptable, because that’s how you feel. So parents can acknowledge their child’s feelings, but at the same time be able to stop their child’s actions when they feel they are inappropriate.
Children must feel like their feelings are acknowledged. Otherwise, they’ll shut down and think, “No one cares about my feelings.”
What happens when parents aren’t on the same parenting page?
Parents are a team. And like a team of horses, if they go off in different directions, it will make it difficult for the wagon to roll.
I don’t think it’s important that parents be in lockstep with each other. But we grow better when we have certainty and clear limits. If parents constantly contradict each other, that creates insecurity and undermines the child’s confidence in both parents.
How are today’s parents different from parents of previous generations?
These parents — the most educated parents in history — may be the least experienced. Most of them haven’t spent a lot of time around young children. They didn’t spend a lot of time baby-sitting, didn’t have as many siblings as other generations did and often didn’t hang out with the neighbors. So instead of relying on their instincts, they are relying on the skill sets they learned at school and use at their jobs. They approach parenting as if it were a task at work.
In our culture, we’re losing that skill set that in other cultures is kind of organically cultivated. Parents today have to rely more on the experts — that’s what I see all the time.
The training most of these parents had — to do well in school and in the workplace — is counterproductive. It hurts their interaction with small children. When we treat our kids with this reasonable, logical, verbal approach, it’s way over their heads.
Linda Morgan’s book, Beyond Smart: Boosting Your Child’s Social, Emotional, and Academic Potential, will be released in February 2010 by ParentMap Books.