5 Things I Learned in 5 Minutes with Dr. Harvey Karp

Image Source: Getty
Image Source: Getty

If you’ve had a child in the last decade, you’ve heard of Dr. Harvey Karp. And, chances are, you’ve used his techniques to calm and soothe your baby or toddler. Like many parents, I was a devotee the first time I read his book. My second son is such a joyful guy that we call him “The Happiest Baby on the Block” in tribute to the book and the man who helped us learn the art of soothing. So, when I found out I would have the chance to interview him, I was thrilled!

I met Dr. Karp at an event to promote Twigtale, a company that allows parents to create customizable books to help children through difficult transitions. As their Editor-in-Chief, he helps guide a team of experts in creating templates that parents can use to write personalized stories on everything from moving to a new home, to potty training, to the death of a loved one, to (their newest) on understanding and celebrating being in a LGBTQ family. 

“My work for the last 15 years has been to use simple tools that work quickly to help support parents to do the job parents need to do,” Dr. Karp explained. Twigtale does this “because the best way to explain change is through storytelling.”

So what groundbreaking advice and words of wisdom did I gain in just 5 minutes with the legendary doctor? Read on to find out.

1. Children love praise, but even more so when it’s not given to them directly.

Most people, children especially, will resist learning if they know they’re being taught. The best way to teach them is not directly, but through a “side door” approach. He’s not talking about tricking them into eating their veggies by hiding spinach in brownies, but remembering that children don’t need to be taught specific lessons in order to learn them.

When kids are little, your praise is direct to them. But as they get older, it can be much more valuable for them to overhear you praising them to someone else (like when you’re on the phone with grandma boasting about Little Bobby’s straight-A’s). Let them hear. “We all value what we overhear more than what we’re told directly. You literally boost the value of your praise,” Dr. Karp told me. Sometimes they learn the greatest lessons indirectly because they didn’t know they were learning.

2. Never underestimate the power of a good story.

There’s a reason we’ve told stories to our children for generations and generations. For almost every situation or feeling we or our children experience, there’s a correlating story in which a character goes through something similar. We learn by observing characters — watching as they make mistakes and thinking of ways to avoid them the next time we’re in a similar situation. We learn sympathy, empathy and appropriate reactions. We learn to be good friends and good people. With Twigtale books, we can learn in a personalized way since the story includes pictures and specific details about your child.

As Dr. Karp explained, “[Twigtale] is lovely because it is a very directive tool. You just do it, practice it, children love it. It’s planting seeds that will grow into healthy emotional development.”

3. It is easier for a child to process change when they are the subject.

While teaching is often accomplished through storytelling, personalizing that story makes it much more gratifying, memorable, and important. Children can identify with a character, but making them the character in their own story eliminates that step. With a Twigtale book, they don’t need to identify with someone going through something similar; they can read about and watch themselves go through the exact transition they’re actually going through. 

“All books are wonderful,” says Dr. Karp, “But what you see over and over again, is that if you give a child a cell phone, they’ll flip past 50 people but when they find a picture of themselves they’re so excited. It aligns you to what’s on the page. Children get very excited when [books are] personalized to their family; they recognize it.”

4. Toddlers want to have affect in the world.

This is something that really resonated with me: “Toddlers are non-stop losers. They’re weaker, they’re slower, they can’t speak as well, they can’t run as fast, they can’t reach as high. So they love when they can win. They want to stop in puddles and make a big splash; they want to yell boo and scare you. They want to have affect in the world. When they see a pictures of themselves, they have affect in the world. They feel like they’re important, they feel like they matter and they register.”

Well, I’d never thought of my toddler as a loser before. As a wild monkey, yes, but not a loser. But Dr. Karp makes a lot of sense, especially with my younger son — his older brother beats him handily in anything he’s trying to do. And my younger son absolutely loves seeing pictures of himself and our family. When he wakes up, the first thing he says is “Mama, Dada, Nonoah (for his older brother, Noah), Mimi, and Zaza (for my parents) before running to the photo album I made for him when he was a baby. He especially loves to point to the pictures of himself. I feel like it’s a way for him to recognize that we’re all part of the same family, the same group.

5. It really does take a village.

“Parents today don’t appreciate what a tough job they’re doing,” Dr. Karp reassured me. “It’s only the last 70 years we’ve had this nuclear family concept. Before that it was always extended family. It’s very hard raising a child.”

I knew there was a reason this parenting gig was so hard. Like many people, I don’t live anywhere near my parents. My in-laws are at least within driving distance, but at nearly two hours away, they can’t help with the day-to-day work of childcare, running errands, or tidying the house. I’ve had to build a family out of a network of friends and babysitters in order to help me. While I have incredible people around me, I wish my family was closer so my kids could grow up with their cousins and my parents didn’t watch their grandchildren grow up on Facetime. But now that I know I can make personalized books for my kids featuring pictures and details about their grandparents, cousins, aunts and uncles, they’ll be seeing their faces a lot more often.

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