Serve and Return Parenting

Serve and return is a term coined by Harvard researchers for the back and forth interactions between a parent and a child. To understand the concept of serve and return, imagine a game of ping pong or tennis. Someone hits the ball, sending it over or serving it to the second player. The second player hits the ball in turn, returning it to the first player. Now substitute a conversation, a smile, or a gesture for the ball, and you’ve got an idea of serve and return.

As parents, we know that when a newborn looks deep into our eyes, he is asking us for some kind of attention. Depending upon the look in his eyes, it could be the baby just wants a smile. Or maybe he wants us to talk to him or play with him. We may not even know exactly what he wants, but we know he wants something. Most of us, as parents, will try hard to figure it out and give him what he wants, even if it takes some trial and error.

That look the baby gives the parent is a “serve.” To respond to it is the “return.”

Serve and Return Builds Brain Architecture

Serve and return interactions like this one have been studied by researchers. Studies show such parent child interactions are critical to brain architecture, or the shaping of the infant’s developing brain. Serve and return parenting is so important that a baby who does not experience this sort of back and forth with caregivers is likely to have stunted development.  According to Harvard:

Because responsive relationships are both expected and essential, their absence is a serious threat to a child’s development and well-being. Healthy brain architecture depends on a sturdy foundation built by appropriate input from a child’s senses and stable, responsive relationships with caring adults. If an adult’s responses to a child are unreliable, inappropriate, or simply absent, the developing architecture of the brain may be disrupted, and subsequent physical, mental, and emotional health may be impaired. The persistent absence of serve and return interaction acts as a “double whammy” for healthy development: not only does the brain not receive the positive stimulation it needs, but the body’s stress response is activated, flooding the developing brain with potentially harmful stress hormones.

Erika Christakis, writing in The Atlantic, speaks about the high-pitched, grammar-simplified, over-enthusiastic baby talk a parent might use in response to a baby’s cooing. This sort of “conversational duet” is a type of serve and return parenting. According to Christakis, one study found that “Infants exposed to this interactive, emotionally responsive speech style at 11 months and 14 months knew twice as many words at age 2 as ones who weren’t exposed to it.”

In other words, if a child lacks serve and return parenting, the child may end up with developmental delays and worse. This would be a tragic outcome. The kind of outcome that happens to kids who are abandoned and end up in the foster care system. Not the kind of outcome we’d expect for our own children.

The only problem with this idea—that it can’t happen to our kids, we’re not those kinds of parents—is that increasingly, that’s not true. The thing that makes this a lie is our smartphones and screens. Our devices have turned us into distracted parents. The kind of parents who all too often miss a baby’s glance in favor of a Facebook PM or Whatsapp message.

Serve and return interaction between mother and baby girl
If your phone were to ping, what would happen to this moment?

Imagine your baby offers you that serve and return glance but at the same time, you hear a “ping” from your phone. How likely is that to happen? And how will that ping affect your serve and return interaction with your baby?

Let’s say you choose to ignore the ping and wait until the serve and return with your infant is complete before checking your phone. As you interact with your baby, the ping of your phone is still on your mind. It’s there in your head in reserve, reminding you it’s waiting for you to pay attention to it instead of to your baby. That’s got to affect the quality of your serve and return interaction with baby.

But what if you attend to the ping first, so you can then give your full attention to the baby? What happens to the serve and return interaction as a result of this delay? Is baby affected by being made to wait a bit longer?

The simple answer is that timing is everything. There’s a rhythm to serve and return interactions. As in tennis or ping pong, miss the moment, miss the serve, and the game could be lost. The baby’s glance or coo, unreturned, may mean baby gives up, acknowledges that a parent’s return just isn’t happening. The baby may look away, or space out, a kind of retreat from the perceived rejection of the parent.

Serve and Return Requires Full Attention

A father and baby serve and return interaction
This father is fully “present” for this serve and return interaction with his child.

There’s another possibility. You multitask! You ignore neither ping nor baby’s serve, dividing your attention between the two. No one gets your full attention. No one wins. Psychologist Kathy Hirsh-Pasek comments that, “Toddlers cannot learn when we break the flow of conversations by picking up our cellphones or looking at the text that whizzes by our screens.”

Baby feels the difference, feels you are distracted, as you switch back and forth between the screen of your smartphone and your baby. Perhaps baby doubles down, tries harder, becoming even more attractive to you by doing something extra cute. Or perhaps the serve and return remains a lackluster failure so that it just sort of peters out. FAIL.

What about children beyond babyhood? Do they still require your full attention? Christakis mentions two studies that illustrate what happens when parents are too distracted by technology to engage in serve and return parenting with their children. In one of these studies, 225 moms and their 6-year-olds were videotaped as the kids were given new foods to try. A quarter of the moms used their phones, which resulted in fewer interactions with their children.

Phone Use and Learning

A second study tested the impact of a parent’s phone use on a child’s ability to learn new words. Moms were told they had to teach their 2-year-olds two new words: blicking, which was supposed to mean “bouncing,” and frepping, which was supposed to mean “shaking.” The researchers rang some of the moms from another room.

When the learning sessions were interrupted by a researcher’s phone call, the children didn’t learn the two new words. When left undisturbed, however, the new words took root. As it turns out, seven mothers were excluded from the analysis of the data, because they didn’t answer the researchers’ phone calls. In other words, they failed to follow the protocol! Christakis says, “Good for them!”

Indeed.

More Time for Children

It’s interesting to note that parents have never been so free to spend so much time with their children. Technology has made chores like cleaning clothes and keeping food fresh so much easier. We can walk into a supermarket to buy food, and clothing is ready-made. No one needs to milk a cow or churn butter. There are no longer accidents of the sort that were commonplace when moms were too busy to give baby much attention.

Those moms had no choice but to leave their babies alone much of the time. But our smartphones make us distracted moms by choice, limiting serve and return interactions with our children, and affecting their brain development. And make no mistake, it is a choice. Because it would be the easiest thing in the world to turn our phones off.

Minimizing Phone Distractions

With this in mind, parents would be well advised to do exactly that: shut off those phones when spending time with children. It’s the only way to be there for those serve and return moments. Here are 3 tips on how to minimize phone distractions:

  1. Put your phone on silent and out of sight in your bag or pocket when spending time with your child
  2. Experiment with shutting your phone off for a fixed time, say two hours in the afternoon, and try to be really present with your child during this time
  3. Stay off your phone while nursing or bottle-feeding your baby and during mealtimes for older children since this is an important time for socialization

That doesn’t mean you have to turn your phone off for your child’s entire waking hours. Nor must parents martyr out and feel deprived. It’s okay to check your voice mail and notifications from time to time. And it’s certainly okay to take time for yourself. It makes you a better parent.

Christakis says it best: “Parents should give themselves permission to back off from the suffocating pressure to be all things to all people. Put your kid in a playpen, already! Ditch that soccer-game appearance if you feel like it. Your kid will be fine. But when you are with your child, put down your damned phone.”

Because the stuff on your phone? It’s just virtual smoke and mirrors. While in the real world, nothing could be more important than those serve and return moments with your child.

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Varda Meyers Epstein is a mother of 12, communications writer, and education blogger at the Kars4Kids blog.