The Happiest Mother on the Block

Last week, my foot got one of those awful cramps they say can come from not enough water (guilty) or potassium so I figured I’d give it a stretch, and I went two doors down to return some notecards I’d borrowed to my neighbor Jenn and to see if she wanted some leftover milk I had. We chatted a bit and as I headed out the door she said, “Oh, wait. I need to return this to you.” She handed me a book I must’ve lent her in 2008, Harvey Karp’s The Happiest Toddler on the Block.

I laughed. Hard. Seriously?! That’s definitely the longest anyone has taken to return a borrowed book. But beyond that, my son, with his arms hanging almost to his knees  and half an inch taller than I am at five foot five, well,  it just struck me as comical to get it back now. On the long walk back home, two houses down, I began to think–God, those toddler years were actually many years ago. Then again, twelve years old had come so quickly, too.  I remembered fondly that Harvey Karp book, and all of its tenets and those crazy “neanderthal years.” Man, if I could start all over again now, same kid, same me, knowing what I now know, it would be such a cake walk. I’d totally nail it this time around. And then as I rounded my flowering bush that I’d love to replace, but three separate gardeners tell me our shade makes it impossible to grow the kind of flowers I want there, and head back into my house, it hits me–I am doing it again. With the same kid!

My twelve-year-old is totally a neanderthal.

I have all this work to do, but I’m betting if I flip through the book it will all apply again, so I sit down and start to read it again instead. Hold on to your hats, and those old baby books, because it does!

“I know how challenging these years can be for parents. Your dream of having a peaceful, happy family, and then toddler-hood turns everything topsy-turvy!”

I substitute adolescents with toddler-hood. It works! I have a feeling this is going to work!

In his introduction, Karp promises he’ll turn your “tornadoes” into “rainbows” and that “wobbly, whining children blossom into the happiest toddlers on the block.”

O.M.G! Are you seeing what I’m seeing? I’m about to make my pain-in-the-ass-kid into a rainbow and the dishwasher isn’t getting emptied now because I’m reading on.

“You can’t change your toddler’s [easy, cautious, or spirited] temperament but you can work with it.”  Yeah. I knew that. Never stopped me from trying in the thick of the moment to bulldoze right over it, but go on. It’s the same reminder I needed then and now, for sure.

I flip the page again. I love this one. I’m using it soon. “Teach him the words to express his feelings. ‘You are acting the way that you sometimes do –like a fucking asswipe— when your body is telling you that your body is hungry. ‘Would you like a snack?'” Seriously. It’s so obvious. But he’s a fricking bear when he’s hungry. It comes on before I know it and then he’s rattling the beams of the house and growling at me and his father because we’ve said the stupidest thing humanly imaginable. Feed and water the budding adolescent frequently and offer him a snack when his tone of voice begins to punctuate the end of every sentence he speaks to you  with, dumb bitch. 

Part two is where he really tells us how to tame the savage beast that is toddler. All of this stuff is some vague recollection of days gone past. For your benefit and mine, I decide to try it out on my twelve-year-old, theorizing, as I suspected, that he fits the police sketch: “Toddlers are sweet and fun, but they’re also wild and disorganized.” And he says it’s especially true when your toddler gets angry and upset. So, I’m just thinking that the five pair of pajama bottoms on his bedroom floor, the three t-shirts, the hilarious and smart and funny kid who put them there, and who rudely scolded me this morning when I asked “which computer?” it was on and it was seemingly abundantly clear to all intelligent life on the planet other than the person who just spread peanut butter on his sourdough bread for him, it just kind of feels like that’s the same dude.

“The fast food rule.” Riiight. This was really the heart of Karp’s book. You gotta repeat back the order. “So, that’s one iced decaf soy latte with a shot of double espresso?”


You gotta show the empathy without trying to fix the problem.

And you do so along with the “Toddler-ese.”

“Short phrases, repetition, correct tone of voice, facial expression and body gestures . . . these . . . allow your toddler’s stressed-out brain to realize you ‘get’ his message.”

“You don’t want to empty the dishwasher. You don’t like it. You don’t like housework.”

Oh, and it only works when I give my full attention. You mean I can’t yell at him while I finish up my text to Joanna? Even if I glance up?

Ah, the “Special Times.” I used to do that. Fifteen minutes of floor time. It’s a lot harder than it sounds. I have no interest in doing it now because I have no interest in what he’s doing these days. Isn’t that awful?! I love to read with him, but that’s not what this is. This is engaging with him doing something that he cares about. I’d gladly bake with him, watch him play piano or flute. But I know it’s gonna be something more akin to  what used to be “Hold Sir Topham Hat and say something” and now it looks more like blowing someone’s brains out, and frankly, I’d rather just blow out my own.

Other Neanderthal Toddler issues resonate with my own little prehistoric fellow who’s as of last month my height.

“Why Do Toddlers Have Tantrums?” Well, according to Karp,

Life changes unexpectedly √ Um, middle school.

Internal stresses trip him up √ Um, too hot, too cold, too hungry, too in his own skin.

He’s been cooped up too long √ Stupid video games.

He’s painted himself into an emotional corner √ He needs help recovering “without feeling humiliated” which is really perfect here because the tween has evolved into a creature who skillfully humiliates you while he’s humiliated. So while this may just be when “he needs your diplomatic assistance,” it also, now coincides with when he just told you your nostrils are uneven.

They get him what he wants √  Talk to his father about this one.

They are tired but don’t want to go to sleep? Routines! Shoot. Right!  God, at least he’s not biting me!

Harvey! Harvey! Do a “REPLACE ALL’ toddlers for tweens, sell The Happiest Teenybopper on the Block and thank me in the acknowledgements.

For my part, and for yours, I try it out. I experimented. I Happy Teenyboppered my neanderthal for a week since Jenn gave me my book back. Oh my Gawrd! I’m not kidding. How can it all be so ridiculously simple and so absurdly challenging.

I watched him play a video game called “Destiny”–looked at his silly dudes dressed in their costumes and picked which color outfits (my word, not his) I liked. I watched him play matches of “Geometry Dash.” He’s actually really good at it. I still don’t give a shit but still, I guess it’s good to know. Later, when I asked him to empty the dishwasher, he didn’t complain commenting he was good at it, and I should just help with the weird pieces. Coincidence. Maybe. The next day he remained a nicer beast though and I’m not just saying it.

I tried telling him back in simple terms, “You hate math homework. You really hate it.”  Then I just sat there waiting for him to yell at me for mocking him. You think that Toddler-ese is scary as you talk like a cave-woman-idiot in the supermarket. I gave it my best empathetic shot and mentally fastened my neck tighter to my shoulders, so he couldn’t rip it off between his teeth. Silence. Onward then: “Okay. Should we do some. It’s not going away I guess any time soon, I guess.” Five minutes later he told me I was really good at helping?!

I swear. 

Now, he also said in the same breath that I’m terrible at organizing though, which, by the way is so not true. I’m the best at organizing. I think he may have me confused with someone whose dresser has so much old LEGO on it he can’t squeeze in a water glass.

I say nothing. I am taming a savage beast. Here, kitty, kitty, kitty.

Yesterday morning he lay on my bed and lavished love on our dog–“I just love him so much,” he spoke. I knew he experienced that profound feeling that you just might burst you’re so full of love. My heart ached for those days when the flip side of my toddler was the snuggle and that kind of love he had for me. I wanted to say you know, that’s how I feel about you. But I knew it wasn’t the right thing to say right now. So I said something better.

“Tomorrow is Mother’s Day! I think you should sing me a song!”

He doesn’t like to sing. It’s kind of a running joke, so it felt like a safe dance around the issue. You know the one where I wanted to not interrupt his expansive feelings of love he was having for the dog and not for me, but I was interrupting anyway.

With his long lanky body curled around our comma of a dog, he lifts up his face from the bed long enough to say to me, “I won’t be singing you a song for Mother’s Day, for your birthday, or on your deathbed.” He settles back down to cuddle the only one who is allowed to curl that close to him for more than ten seconds at a time. Wolfie.


I appreciate his irony. I laugh. I could do without the lack of lavishing love, but whatever.

Later, I talk to him about how it wasn’t okay to not take off his hat for the spring concert last night. He’d been pleased that he’d gotten away with leaving it on when his teacher had asked him to remove it.

“When an adult tells you to do something, you need to do it,” I begin.

Before he realizes the topic at hand is his hat and the concert he says to me, “You mean I should sing you a song tomorrow?”

The underbelly of the tween is tender. They aren’t as easy to flip as a toddler, but there’s the sweet spot. And it rubs raw so easily, I think, if we don’t tend to it these crazy years.

“No, you don’t have to sing to me! No forced demonstrations of love, my love! I’m just talking about removing your hat when asked.”

“Why are you talking about this?” growl, gnash, grumble, groan.

So, that’s one iced decaf soy latte with a double espresso and a shot of whiskey.

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