Serve and Return

By John Hoffman

Serve and return, a term coined by Harvard researchers 15 or so years ago, has become a pretty influential way to help parents understand the importance and how-to of sensitive/responsive parenting. Serve and return is essentially about growth-promoting back and forth of parent-baby interaction—parents noticing and responding to babies’ gestures, vocalizations, signs of interest and bids for connection, shared interest and comfort etc.


Potential Pitfall


Materials that promote Serve and Return often put a big focus on how this kind of interaction builds children’s “brain architecture,” sometimes with an implication that it’s about helping kids do better in school. Indeed one of the movement’s catchphrases refers to helping every child “thrive by five.” Hard to argue with that. However from a Self-Reg standpoint, the potential pitfall would be over focusing on using serve and return, to “teach” babies so they will be smarter, rather than on building their sense of connectedness, belonging and safety. Which are actually the foundation of kids’ well-being, including their capacity to learn, and, yes, do well in school. I doubt that any serve and return proponents would disagree. But still I get concerned about any advice that, even inadvertently:


a) appears to put intelligence building ahead of connection and helping babies feel safe in the world.


b) may cause parents, who are already mostly doing the right things, to worry that they aren’t doing enough. The pressure to make your baby smart is nothing new, but it has really ramped up in the past 25 years or so, and has become a source of stress for many parents.


How Self-Reg Helps


Babies and preschoolers learn all sorts of important stuff in interactions with parents and caregivers. But, in early childhood, parents don’t need to “stuff the duck,” (concentrate on filling kids heads with info), as Dr. Jean Clinton likes to say. More important is helping little ones feel safe and connected. That is what actually creates the conditions that help babies and little kids find the calm, alert energy they need to follow their curiosity and interests to play, socially engage with people and learn from experience. Moreover, what parents learn about their little ones through serve and return is every bit as important as what serve and return does to set kids up for more structured learning.


Self-Reg’s focus on relationships, stress detecting and understanding behaviour should help in two ways. If parents are supported to focus on the relationship and how serve and return interaction helps them know and understand their babies, they are more likely to simply enjoy serve and return for it’s own sake. Parents are also more likely to become engrossed and fascinated in their child’s developments interests and responses, as opposed to hyper-focusing on their baby’s cognitive learning. Show me a fascinated parent who is tuned in and enjoys interacting with their kids and I’ll show you a child who is likely to get all the serve and return they need.


Further, if parents become stress detectives, they are more likely to read the signs that serve and return interactions are becoming stressful and that the baby needs to restore. Just because serve and return is good, doesn’t mean more and more and more and more and more of it is better. Being able to see and respond to the signs that a baby needs to restore is absolutely foundational in early co-regulation and self-regulation. And both of those are core aspects of children’s mental and emotional health, and ultimately their cognitive learning.

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