Happiest Toddler on the Block: What works and what doesn’t

20 Mar

This a PP, folks (PP=parenting post). If you there’s no one in your life whose toilet habits you could discuss with knowledge and interest, come back tomorrow for a non-baby book review. 

I was a devotee of the 5 S’s in The Happiest Baby on the Block by Harvey Karp, so as soon as T started having tantrums at the precocious age of 11 months, I went out and bought the sequel, but I’ve only just gotten around to finishing. The second half of the book basically repeats the first half of the book more concisely and with more examples, which is kind of perfect when it’s been eight months since you read the first half.

But who really gives a crap about how advice books are written, amirite?

So without further ado, here’s my take on the important stuff: does this really work? Keeping in mind that with any method, there will be some things that don’t work due to a unique situation, I tried to keep my perspective general.

What works:

The Toddler Brain Concept

Over and over in the book, Karp compares toddlers to cavemen, in that they haven’t been socialized. I get that, but even more useful were his briefer mentions of how toddlers lose all the time. Practically everyone is faster, bigger, stronger, braver, and usually gets their way.  There’s much they don’t understand, and they are incapable of planning and reasoning, especially when emotional. Being a toddler kind of blows goats, really. They have almost zero control over their own lives, and the people they love most in the world (mom and dad) are always telling them “no, no!” This paradigm has helped me wrap my brain around otherwise inexplicable blow ups—like when I give him milk in the “wrong” cup.

Playing the boob

In keeping with the first idea, it helps to let toddlers feel like winners from time to time if you ever want them to cooperate with your ideas. This phrase itself is kind of ridiculous, but call it whatever you want, it totally works. Essentially, you just act incompetent or weak. Prime example that Tenny loves: when he gives me a high-five, I fall over and shake my hand saying “ow ow owie! You’re too strong for mommy!” There are other ways of letting your kid win that Karp details in the book, and I have found that keeping the idea back of mind all day (how many times has T “won” today?) is amazingly effective.

Feed the meter

The easiest way to stem tantrums is to spend a lot of time and [undivided] attention with your toddler. Kind of a theoretical duh, but putting it into practice is easier said than done. For proof, just look at the near-maniacal way most toddlers love their grandparents. That’s because whenever a grandparent spends time with them, they are totally devoted. They aren’t trying to open mail or do laundry or fix dinner. Obviously, you don’t have the luxury of not doing those things—just don’t assume that having your toddler being next to you while you do them counts as quality time.

Gossip and fairy tales

Gossip is when you fake whisper to someone, like your partner or even your kids’ stuffed animals, about your kid’s behavior. Fairy Tales are a very short story that you tell to your kid that illustrates the behavior change you want. Not going to lie, you’re going to feel like a total wack job using these tricks. But before you poo-poo it, let me tell you about last night. T’s been having a lot of trouble settling down for sleep lately. So while I was nursing him, I talked over his head to P, sotto voce but in a babyish voice that attracts T’s attention. I said, “I really loved how Tenny was so good at dinner tonight. He sat in his seat the whole time and ate all his apples! And have you noticed, he’s the best at getting in and out of the car seat: super quick and never makes a fuss like so many other kids do! But the thing I really like the most is when he goes to bed after book time all peaceful.  It makes me happy when he lays right down with his animals and goes to sleep.” And no lie, for the first time in five nights that is EXACTLY what he did.

What didn’t work

Magic Breathing

Essentially, take deep breaths and count to 10, toddler-style. Maybe T is just a little too young to get the concept, but then again, I know plenty of adults who can’t even do this.

Small Choices

Giving your toddler a choice of two options. In both choices, he ends up doing what you want, it just gives the slight illusion that he has control over the situation. I’ve read this advice in several places besides this book, by the way. Example: We have to leave the park. Do you want to leave in one minute and play trucks at home, or leave in two minutes and no time to play with trucks at home? Very occasionally, this works for us, but most of the time, it goes something like this:

Me: Ok, time to go.

T: WAAAAAAAAH (throws head backward toward the floor)

two minutes later…

Me: We have to go, but you can pick—the blue shoes or the red shoes?

T (still sniffling):  [stares at me like] are you serious right now, woman?

Maybe this doesn’t work because it’s a little too reliant on appealing to the toddler’s non-existent sense of reason.  But I like to think my kid’s just too smart for that shiz.

The Fast Food Rule

This is Karp’s term for acknowledging the child’s feelings about something (regardless of whether you agree) by repeating it back. This is what you are supposed to do whenever you feel the urge to use logical reasoning with your child (see LOL in the dictionary).

Basically you mirror their feelings in short, repetitive phrasing. Like if T was crying to be picked up, instead of saying “mommy can’t pick you up because her hands are covered in turtle slime and I don’t want you to get salmonella and die,” I would say: “Tenny sad! Tenny wants up now now now!” The more upset they are, the smaller the phrase you use. Eventually they are supposed to calm down enough for you to get in your own argument.

I have found this general concept to be pretty successful with adults. But babies are having none of it. I’ve tried it not only on T, but on his little classmates, so I know. T just sees this as more justification for his point of view. (Like: yeah, exactly mom! Now give it to me).

You supposed to hit the “sweet spot” of emotional intensity with your words– the point where they feel understood, but not like you’re making fun of them. Every toddler’s sweet spot is different, so maybe that’s my problem. This is one of the main tenets of Karp’s method, and it really just hasn’t been that useful.

But the news is more good than bad. I find that when I have “fed the meter” adequately and am in an understanding frame of mind, his tantrums are very brief, and more importantly, I don’t escalate the situation by blowing up at him. In fact, tantrums are rare overall as long as I have paid attention to him and let him win several times* that day.

*like, 47.

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2 Responses to “Happiest Toddler on the Block: What works and what doesn’t”

  1. adoptionista March 20, 2013 at 6:01 pm #

    Ooooh, I loved this review! I used the 5 S’s like a devoted lunatic (and they worked, so I’d say that paid off). We have Happiest Toddler but I haven’t read it yet. Looks like I need to start!

    • janielyoung March 21, 2013 at 12:15 pm #

      And there’s lots more in the book that I didn’t have room to review–like the section on clap-growls and time outs. I still haven’t ventured very far into discipline territory and am not sure how I want to go about it generally, but we’ll see. I’m glad you found the review helpful!

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