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
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
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
For parents who work, are divorced or not the primary
caregiver, what are ways to keep the program
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
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
Sara Rontal Fisher is a Chicago mom, blogger and freelance
Sara Fisher is a mother of two living in Roscoe Village. She also blogs at selfmademom.net.
See more of Sara's stories here.
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