To liken your 2-year-old to a caveman seems rude, crude and even insulting. But to Dr. Harvey Karp, the country's leading expert on toddler behavior and creator of the best-selling book and DVD, The Happiest Toddler on the Block, toddlers are indeed, as he calls them, "little primitives."
A toddler's temper tantrums, irrational outbursts and lack of manners are not rude or crude at all. They're perfectly normal for a rapidly developing brain.
"Toddlers don't know how to take turns or have manners," Karp says. "They are uncivilized human beings, and it's your job to civilize them so that by the time they are 3 or 4 years old, they know the niceties of culture."
It may seem impossible to "civilize" a 1-year-old, but Karp swears by his toddler-taming techniques. Recently, Chicago Parent had the opportunity to chat with Karp one-on-one about how to raise a happy toddler.
I never knew that a toddler's brain was so complex. Can you discuss how a toddler's brain develops and why that makes him or her behave immaturely?
The left part of a toddler's brain is immature as compared to the right because it develops slower. It's the critical concept of my toddler program. Since toddlers are right brain dominant, they are not good with logic and problem-solving, but are great with emotional responses, tone and gestures. Unfortunately, when we get upset, we get less eloquent and logical. We even have a term for it-"going ape"-and toddlers especially, because their left brains are immature, have primitive left-brain function and go all Jurassic on you when they get upset. As a result, you can't use a lot of reasoning with an upset toddler; you have to save that for when the child calms down.
So you're saying it's not going to work when I try to reason with my screaming 3-year-old?
The weird thing is all parents do this. When your toddler is enjoying something, you have emotion and you reflect the child's feelings in the tone of your voice by using sing-song short words. When we're all happy, we gesture, show excitement and share it with them. But our tone changes when kids get frustrated, angry, frightened or irritated. We either go ballistic or become emotional zombies. We lose that empathetic communication with our kids. For the most part, what we need to do when our toddlers get upset is acknowledge them just as we do when they are happy. You need to go back to those short phrases, repetition, mirroring of some of their feelings. In the book and DVD I call it the "Fast Food Rule." When we're out of sync with their emotional level, it makes them feel worse, not better.
In your book, you outline several different types of temperaments for toddlers. When can parents pick up clues of their toddler's temperament?
Occasionally, you can see signs in the first days of life, but that's not always reliable. Sometimes those babies who get so frantic and can't self-soothe turn out to be very passionate or sensitive to the world. It's important to pay attention to your toddler's behavior because when you recognize his or her temperament, you can help adapt him to his environment so it doesn't overwhelm him. Sensitive babies don't go easily to other people around 6 months old, so when grandma comes over for a visit, you may have to hold him for a while to ensure your child can get used to a new person.
This seems almost intuitive, but does it really work?
Yes. The number one way to prevent temper tantrums and emotional outbursts is by avoiding problem situations. If your child gets overwhelmed at the store, go early in the morning when it's not so loud and then do a quiet activity afterward. Some kids get upset when they get too hungry, so if that's the case, carry a snack with you. Some get upset when there are too many choices, so you need to give them fewer. You learn these things about your child as they grow up.
For parents who work, are divorced or not the primary caregiver, what are ways to keep the program consistent?
Well, no two parents are absolutely consistent in how they handle things. It's OK if one parent does more or less or if grandma doesn't do it at all. A child will learn who does it and who does not. For those caregivers who may speak another language, it's pretty easy to have them watch the DVD because it's in Spanish and English. A 30-minute video is reasonable to ask your caregiver to watch.
You also are the creator of the best-selling book and DVD, The Happiest Baby on the Block. Have you seen equal success in both of your programs? Do you have the same resources available for toddler classes as you do for your "Happiest Baby" program?
It is easier to deal with babies and a simple five-step approach. Toddlers are more complex and parents have more issues of what they would and would not do with their children. Or parents react emotionally and can't think of what they might do because their buttons are pushed so much. Toddler stuff is more challenging. But it's more important in a way. Your psycho-social, emotional and physical health is built in the first three years of life. If you do well the first three to five years, you and your child will get gigantic benefits from it later on during the teenage struggles.
Sara Rontal Fisher is a Chicago mom, blogger and freelance writer.
Sara Fisher is a mother of two living in Roscoe Village. She also blogs at selfmademom.net.
See more of Sara's stories here.