Joining the clan of the cave-kids

Times Staff Writer

It’s a beautiful spring morning, and Dr. Harvey Karp, dressed in a vest and a blue polka-dot tie, steps into a park in Santa Monica like a stealthy urban anthropologist.

“Come into my time machine,” he says, as he crosses from a world of cars and coffee into a world of seesaws, slides and sandboxes. “Dial back 20,000 years.”

Here in Douglas Park, Karp is taking a curious adult on a tour of an ancient jungle world, speaking a primitive tongue with its playground natives. He points to a 13-month-old boy standing uncertainly in the sand by a slide. “There’s one, in the red pants,” he says. “His cerebellum is not fully developed. He has a wide stance; his hands are up. He is more chimpanzee. Chimps walk for 15 feet, then get back down on all fours.” Which the boy does.

Then Karp zooms in on a 3-year-old girl by the picnic table in a pink sun hat, who fills her small backpack with toys. “She’s a villager,” he says. “She is very methodical. She understands sequencing.” She is also willing to share and barter, he says. She is cooperative and aware of social hierarchies. And over there, look, in the sandbox, Karp spots a “Neanderthal,” who’s able to whack with precision and use primitive tools (such as a plastic shovel).


Karp became something of a cult figure with new parents two years ago when he wrote “The Happiest Baby on the Block.” Now the Santa Monica pediatrician and professor of pediatrics at UCLA School of Medicine is back with a new book, “The Happiest Toddler on the Block,” released this month by Bantam Books. Rather than a cerebral or psychological approach to child rearing, both books emphasize a physical, behavioral approach. The first, which sold 200,000 copies, detailed five techniques for calming colicky babies and introduced phrases like “the fourth trimester” into the parenting lexicon.

The new book counsels parents on how to get through the terrible twos and also deals much more broadly with toddlers and how to communicate with them. Karp posits that toddlers are cavemen. For the first four years, he suggests, it would be better to think of your child as a “chimpanzee” (12 to 18 months), a “Neanderthal” (18 to 24 months), a “cave-kid” (24 to 36 months) or a “villager” (36 to 48 months). So if you really want to communicate with toddlers, forget talking to your child as if he or she is a small adult. Instead, squat down to the child’s level like a monkey and start grunting and shouting. (Yes! That loudly!)

It’s as if you are an ambassador from the 21st century and you have to travel back to a prehistoric time, learning the inhabitants’ language. (Karp calls it “toddlerese.”) If you do, your chimp child will turn cooperative, tantrums will cease, and a new connection between you and your child will be forged. Indeed, Karp claims toddlerese can cut tantrums by 50% to 90%. Toddlers in mid-meltdown, he says, are incapable of hearing reasoning, reassurance or warnings until they are sure you understand what they are saying.

The best way to talk to an out-of-control toddler, he says, is to repeat back what he wants before you tell him what you want. (He calls this the Fast Food Rule: When you order fast food, the clerk repeats back your order.) This requires short phrases and repetition, as well as exaggerated facial expressions and a passionate tone of voice.

Dr. Kyle D. Pruett, professor of child psychiatry and nursing at the Yale University School of Medicine and author of “Fatherneed,” says Karp has broken new ground with his ideas on how to handle toddlers.

“It is an idea that a lot of us have used in teaching medical students how to understand young children,” says Pruett. “But it has not been used this way with parents. I think that is creative and original. When you try to use the toddlers’ language to legitimize what they are feeling, they feel very reassured. They think, ‘My God. I’m not in a foreign country. They understand me.’ ”

Karp, 52, has a beard and intense, lively blue eyes. He excels at coining catchy phrases and isn’t afraid to use the media (“Good Morning America,” “Dr. Phil”) to spread his message. But beneath his salesmanship lies a true passion for revolutionizing the way we view small children.

He’s already brought his toddler techniques to the Westside, tutoring some parents in toddlerese. Miriam Bookey has two boys, Leo, 1 1/2, and Jack, 3 1/2. They were throwing tantrums, beating each other, pulling hair and biting. Sometimes Leo would arch his back and bang his head against the floor in out-of-control anger.


“His claims are so outrageous,” Bookey says of Karp. “The man is on a mission. He wants to change the way parents interact with their toddlers. He wants to change the world.”

Karp spent several weeks coaching Bookey. Once she incorporated toddlerese, she says, there was an immediate change.

“At first my son was in shock,” she says. “I was in his face on my knees, talking like a Neanderthal. You could tell he thought, ‘What is Mommy doing?’ Then he stared, and there was this understanding that I was connecting.”

Villagers and grownlings


Back in the park, Karp spots two boys, maybe 2 and 4, playing on a drawbridge suspended above the sand. Suddenly he sheds his doctor persona, grabs a rope and starts climbing up the slide toward them like a wild animal. He yells short, repetitive phrases in a strange, loud, childlike voice: “How did you do it? How did you do it?” It gets the boys’ attention instantly. They stare but don’t respond.

Karp shrugs, jumps back down and turns back into a “grownling” (as in grown-up, another Karpism). “It’s a tribal thing,” he says. “Don’t talk to strangers.”

Karp picks out a 3-year-old “villager.” He jumps off the sidewalk (which is beginning to feel like the adult zone), hunkers down in the sand and picks up a tiny pebble. “Is this a car?” he asks in the same strange voice. He gives it to the boy. “Give me! Give me!” He starts shouting, making weird facial expressions, clenching his fists. The boy gives it to him. “Uh-oh! Uh-oh!” Karp squeals, like some crazy clown.

To an adult, Karp sounds like a madman. But the boy is delighted. “Mine! Mine! Mine!” Karp yells. Then he puts his hands to his mouth like paws and laughs like a wild animal, yelping, “Yow! Yow! Yow!” The boy does not want this to end. Karp is clearly the Jane Goodall of toddlers, moving through this jungle of primitives with ease.


Karp steps out of the sand, shakes out his shoes and straightens his tie.

“It’s hard being a toddler,” he explains. “You are smaller than everybody, weaker than everybody. I am speaking in a more primitive language because he doesn’t speak my language. “

But can toddlerese be taught? Karp insists it can. He is making a DVD to demonstrate his techniques, and he plans to develop a training program to go out into the community and teach toddlerese. Parents who have learned it say it works -- and yes, it is embarrassing.

“You look really silly,” said Bookey. “You have to have no shame. I do this everywhere. I do this in Santa Monica Seafood. You can’t be self-conscious when you are speaking toddlerese.”


Chrissy Blumenthal’s 23-month-old son, Jaxson, threw a tantrum almost every time she walked out the door to go to work. It got to the point where she would sneak out to avoid the drama; otherwise Jaxson tried to run out with her, screaming. Karp paid her several home visits and did phone consultations. She was reluctant to try the method, it seemed so ridiculous. “For a while I didn’t want to do it [toddlerese] in public,” she said. “But it is like a new language. It is hard in the beginning, and once you get it, the better you get.”

Of course, there are limits. Blumenthal said her husband still refuses to learn toddlerese, and it remains difficult to take Jaxson to a restaurant. She called Karp to ask his advice.

“You just can’t do it,” Karp told her. “It would be kind of like taking a caveman to Spago.”