Maintaining Family Relationships  |  Supporting Children

Serve-And-Return

BY PARENTWISE

5 October 2022  |   5 min read

Two players on a tennis court. One player serves and the other returns the volley. “Serve-and-return” is the fundamental rule of how games such as tennis, badminton and ping-pong are played. It is also how children’s brains are wired to develop.

A healthy and responsive relationship between a child and caregiver helps the child build neural connections in the brain, which creates the foundation for all development, learning and wellbeing.

These back-and-forth exchanges are the building blocks of early brain development in children.

CORE FINDING SE-TRU-C03 Extensive neuroscience research carried out by the Harvard Center on the Developing Child has also found that sensitive and responsive care involving “serve-and-return” interactions between the child and caregiver help shape as well as build a child’s brain architecture.
Similar to how ball games are played, the child “serves” by reaching out to you for interaction with eye contact, facial expressions, gestures or words. A responsive caregiver will “return the serve” by talking, cuddling, comforting, playing games and sharing a laugh.

Through consistent and loving interaction with you, your child learns how to control their emotions, cope with stress, build secure attachments, develop resilience and learn skills that serve as a foundation for future development.

A caregiver who is sensitive and responsive to the child provides an interactive environment that is rich in serve-and-return experiences.

When a child knows that their caregiver is attuned to their needs and will respond positively, they develop trust and attachment to the caregiver. Building this attachment and security in your child begins at birth, from the moment you respond to their cries and pay attention to the things which interest them.

Within such a predictable and loving environment, your child finds a secure base from which they can confidently explore and interact with the world.

All photos courtesy of Ang Wei Ming

On the other hand, what happens when a child serves and there is no one to return the ball?

Over time, failing to respond when a child reaches out will weaken brain architecture and impair the development of skills and abilities, behaviour and health.

A lack of consistent, loving responsiveness can result in important neural pathways never forming, or fading away from lack of stimulation.

The Harvard Center research also showed that babies feel distressed when their attempts to connect with a parent or caregiver are persistently ignored.

The report states, “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.”

Through consistent and loving interaction with you, your child learns how to control their emotions, cope with stress, build secure attachments, develop resilience and learn skills that serve as a foundation for future development.

Serve-and-return interactions are not only important when your child is young. Like every aspect of development, “serve-and-return” progresses in stages with each stage building on the one before.

Some of the first things your baby will “serve” you are eye-contact, smiles, and cries. Your “return” may be a smile, baby talk and cuddles.

When they start asking questions, you respond with answers and you ask them questions. When your toddler learns new skills, you encourage them with praise. Before you know it, your child grows up and the “serve and return” between both of you has become more complex (think communication with teenagers!).

However, this parent-child exchange continues to be fundamental to the relationship you share and will positively affect the development of your child’s brain well into their later growing years.

This article was first published on ParentWise. Developed by Temasek Foundation in partnership with SEED Institute (subsidiary of NTUC First Campus), ParentWise is a programme that offers curated evidence-based learning programmes and resources that parents and caregivers need to support their children. For more parenting tips and resources, please visit ParentWise at https://parentwise.sg/.This article was first published on ParentWise. Developed by Temasek Foundation in partnership with SEED Institute (subsidiary of NTUC First Campus), ParentWise is a programme that offers curated evidence-based learning programmes and resources that parents and caregivers need to support their children. For more parenting tips and resources, please visit ParentWise at https://parentwise.sg/.