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Raising A Happy Toddler: Catching Up with Dr. Harvey Karp

Published on: September 28, 2011

Raising a happy toddler: talking to Dr. Harvey KarpWhat does it take to raise The Happiest Toddler on the Block? We caught up with Dr. Harvey Karp — often called this generation’s Dr. Spock — author of The Happiest Baby on the Block and The Happiest Toddler on the Block. He told us that even if you haven’t used his “Happiest Baby” method, it’s not too late to raise a happy toddler.

Toddlerhood starts at 8 months of age, says Karp. So do tantrums. “There’s a misconception that this child that’s screaming is still a baby. My method can stop 50 percent of tantrums in seconds,” he says.

His method is meant to teach toddlers to be more patient, and improve their confidence, self-esteem and communication with others.

“Toddlers are like little cavemen,” he says, “They’re primitive and uncivilized.” To communicate effectively with our toddlers — especially during tantrums — we should use a three-part system, he says. First, we must speak “Toddler-ese,” using short words and phrases; second, employ the “Fast Food Rule,” repeating their needs back to them like a drive-through drone; and finally, mirror their dramatic, tantrum-induced body language.

For example, say your 1-year-old is playing with your keys and you take them out of his hand. He begins to protest, crying and flailing his arms. Using Karp’s Toddler-ese and the Fast Food Rule, you would respond with a simple phrase describing his objection: “Want keys!” Then you would physically get down to his level, saying, “Want keys! Want keys!” over and over, mimicking his dramatic tone and gestures.

After several repetitions, Karp says, your child, feeling he’s been understood, will calm down and respond to direction. As he calms down and begins to listen, you would use another primitive phrase, such as “Go bye-bye,” to redirect him.

Bye-bye, Binky

Once you’ve got tantrums under control, you might want to focus on pacifiers. How, we asked Karp, can parents get a toddler to give them up? Karp recommends using an incentive program. He directs parents to reduce Binky use to special times, like bedtime. To begin the process, he suggests starting small by restricting use of the pacifier one hour at a time. At the end of the hour, the child earns a gold star. Increase Binky-free time gradually, he says, using rewards and “gossiping” about your child’s progress.

“Gossiping” works like this: When the toddler goes two hours without his pacifier, you say to another adult (within your child’s earshot), “Aidan is so grown up. He went two hours without his Binky and got two gold stars!”

Karp says “gossiping” is more effective than direct praise, since hearing someone talk about us makes a big impact. But don’t forget one-on-one praise, says Karp. “It’s still an important part of any incentive program.”

As the child progresses, offer him a choice of substitute comfort objects. If the child needs the pacifier to sleep, Karp suggests using white noise to help him sleep (he recommends his white noise CD).

Karp addresses additional stress-inducing behaviors as well. For “Yellow Light Behaviors” — behaviors that don’t require a time-out but annoy parents — he suggests parents invent original, personalized bedtime stories for their kids. For example, one story could describe a character who once dawdled in the morning, but learned to get out the door quickly and now has more play time at school.

Telling your child a story when he’s not misbehaving can reinforce the proper behavior in his memory, Karp says. Offering rewards for good behavior works in these situations, too, but for toddlers, opt for poker chips instead of stickers. Your children can hold onto a poker chip, but once a sticker is stuck, it’s essentially forgotten. And toddlers, says Karp, respond better to more tangible rewards.

Karp’s next book, due out in May 2012, will focus on sleep.

Maria Bellos Fisher is the mom of two soon-to-be-happy toddlers, a freelance writer and the voice behind the family relationships blog, Hereditary Insanity.

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