Me want it! How to talk toddler-ese

A new method for talking to toddlers is taking off in California

A renowned child-development expert, Dr Harvey Karp, is talking in a petulant and high-pitched voice in front of a group of bemused parents in a classroom in California. He is demonstrating how to stop toddlers’ tantrums in seconds by speaking in toddler-ese, the “native tongue” of small children. “You want the ball! You want the ball! You want! You waaaaant!” he says to an imaginary toddler who is in meltdown.

As the 60-year-old paediatrician flails his arms, some of the fathers can’t help sniggering while the mothers look worried. Dr Karp is the creator of the popular The Happiest Baby series of books and DVDs, which have been translated into 20 languages. His sleep-boosting advice has been followed by celebrity mothers such as Madonna and Michelle Pfeiffer. However, persuading parents to use toddler-ese, along with a tool called the Fast Food Rule, has been a harder sell.

“It helps if you think of your toddler as a little caveman,” he says. The essence of Dr Karp’s theory is that children aged 1 to 4 are no more than little Neanderthals in highchairs. “Their brains are immature, they pee and poo when they want. They smear food over themselves. They’re unsophisticated little people and it’s our job as parents to civilise them.”

He describes a toddler’s brain as like a buzzing beehive with millions of signals whizzing around. The left half of the brain — he calls it the “nerd” of the nervous system — loves details: picking the right word, counting toys and solving problems step by step. The right half is the “Speedy Gonzales”: great at making quick decisions, recognising faces, reading emotions.

When we, as adults, get upset, the influence of the left side of our brains reduces and we become less logical, less patient and less eloquent. “Toddlers are already like that, even on a good day,” Dr Karp explains. “So when they get upset they act even more Neanderthal than usual.”

Traditionally, parents are taught to respond to their toddler’s hysterics in calm and measured tones. “It sounds reasonable but the trouble is, it doesn’t usually work. It’s the number one mistake that most parents make,” he says.

The paediatrician explains that when toddlers experience strong emotions they can’t “hear” because the brain’s language centre shuts down temporarily. “They don’t understand long phrases so there’s no use saying ‘sweetheart, calm down, this is not the kind of behaviour we expect from a big girl like you’. In the middle of a temper tantrum, young children also feel misunderstood. “Calmly refusing your toddler the thing that she is begging for makes her think you don’t understand how much she wants it,” Dr Karp says. “So she just screams louder and harder.”

According to Dr Karp, at this point children are lost in the jungle of their emotions and it’s up to parents to lead them back to “civilisation”. The way to do this is to speak to toddlers in their own primitive and almost prehistoric language, and to appeal to the right side of their brain, which does work well under stress. Toddler-ese involves using short phrases or even single words, repeating them five to ten times and employing a passionate tone of voice and lots of exaggerated facial expressions and body language. Parents should mirror 30 to 50 per cent of the child’s intensity in tone and gestures so that the child can see that he is being listened to. Once the child registers that fact, the parent can begin helping their offspring to calm down.

Parents may also bring into play the Fast Food Rule. “When you ask a waitress at a fast-food joint for a burger, the first thing she does is repeat what you just said before she goes on to her own agenda, which is getting you to pay. Parents need to do the same when their toddler is upset, and take a minute to describe what he’s doing and how you think he feels. Then you can move on and try to get him to do what you want,” Dr Karp explains. As an example, he tells the parents in the group about a two-year-old who wants a biscuit five minutes before dinner time. “There’s no point trying to reason with a two-year-old,” he says. “What you do is say: ‘Cookie. You want cookie. Cookie. You want cookie. You want cookie.’ ” You say it multiple times till he looks at you and then you say: ‘No. No cookies. No cookies. Dinner first. We eat dinner first.’ ”

In 50 to 60 per cent of cases, the technique will calm a child in seconds, he says, because the child’s feelings have been acknowledged even if they are not getting what they want. The trick, Dr Karp warns, is to tailor the response to the temperament of an individual child. Children with strong personalities may need up to 50 per cent of their emotions mirrored, while shy children will need less. Parents should not ham it up too much or mock their child. “The goal of toddler-ese is to calm children through understanding and respect,” he says.

Parents are reluctant to use toddler-ese, he admits, and the reaction of the parents’ group in California is common. “They say to me, ‘Oh, it’s baby talk’ or ‘I can’t possibly act like a two-year-old’. But the thing is that parents use toddler-ese naturally when their children are happy. They say, ‘Yeaay! You did it! You did it!’ when their child ties their shoelaces or finishes their meal. They put on a sing-song voice when their kids are a little bit unhappy. They already talk baby talk to them in lots of situations. It’s only when their kids are in the middle of a toddler explosion that they think they have to behave differently and morph into mini psychiatrists.”

Dr Karp’s brilliant marketing of his baby-calming techniques have made him a rich man, but he says his motivation is helping parents and children to navigate the important early years. “The years between eight months and four or five years become the foundation for who you are,” he says. “If you set up a pattern that is screaming and yelling, or shutting down your emotions, then that becomes the pattern they follow for the rest of their lives. The early years are a crucial time.”

The Happiest Baby DVDs will be available to download from Dr Karp’s website thehappiest from next month

How to stop the tantrums, by Dr Harvey Karp

Using toddler-ese will help you to build a loving and respectful relationship with your child that will last a lifetime. You are trying to achieve a reasonable win-win situation that won’t shame the child and that helps you to get what you want. Always address a child in a caring and sympathetic manner and acknowledge what they are feeling, mirroring their tones and gestures. For children aged from 18 months to 3 years old, speak in very short sentences. You can speak to older children aged 3 years and up in slightly longer sentences. You may have to repeat words or phrases many times before your child begins to listen.

Problem A child who won’t share a toy with his sibling.
Response The parent points to the toy and says: “Toy! Toy! You want it! You want that toy! You don’t want to give it to your brother!” Repeat until you have the child’s attention. When the child looks at you and begins to calm down, give him some options in a normal voice. “We have to share the toy but do you want it for one more minute or for two more minutes before giving it to your brother?” Or : “Toys are so much fun but let’s go and play outside instead.”

Problem A child is tired, and is whining that she wants to be carried.
Response Say: “You don’t want to walk any more! You’re tired! Tired! You say you want Daddy to carry you because your legs are too tired to walk!” Repeat until you have the child’s attention. This is when you employ what Dr Karp calls the “parental but . . .” and, here again, you have to give an upset child some options such as: “But Daddy’s shoulder hurts and that’s why he can’t carry you.” Or: “OK, I can carry you but only for ten steps.” Or: “I can’t carry you now but I can carry you the next time.”

Problem A child doesn’t want to brush his teeth to start the bedtime routine.
Response In a loving and sympathetic way, say: “You don’t want to brush your teeth! No. No. No! You don’t want to brush your teeth! You don’t even want to get ready for bed!” Repeat until you have the child’s attention. Again, give a child some options while ensuring that he does what you want him to do. Say: “But we have to brush our teeth. We have to brush them lots. Can you brush your teeth for one whole minute?” Or you could suggest: “Let’s brush your teeth and then we can read a book before bedtime.”